How to Accept Yourself

947908_92637448Have you ever heard one of those near-death stories where someone recounts an out-of-body experience? I just love them, especially when they include details I didn’t expect. For instance, I’ve heard several previously nearly dead women say that when they were ostensibly peering down at their bodies from a distance, those bodies looked unexpectedly pretty. The physical form they’d seen as less than lovely when it was “me” proved quite appealing when they saw it as “that lady down there on the floor.” 

Why is it that most of us, like these women, obsess about our own appearance? Even my most gorgeous friends feel depressingly imperfect, while the rest of us sit around contemplating either a makeover or suicide, depending on how far we stray from our physical ideal. 

These self-judgments can’t be mere aesthetics, or we’d evaluate ourselves and others on the same objective criteria. More likely, it’s a social impulse, born of every person’s longing for acceptance and fear of rejection. Something in the human psyche confuses beauty with the right to be loved. The briefest glance at human folly reveals that good looks and worthiness operate independently. Yet countless socializing forces, from Aunt Clara to the latest perfume ad, reinforce beliefs like “If I were pretty enough, I would be loved.” Or the converse: “If I feel unlovable, I must not be pretty enough.” 

Such thoughts are seductive because they relieve us of the responsibility of developing self-worth (turning it over to some longed-for or long-suffering lover). Inevitably, though, that someone—parent, friend, partner—doesn’t love us enough, or we somehow fail to sense their love. We feel rejected, abandoned, alone. It’s unbearable. Realizing that we’ve surrendered our self-esteem to others and choosing to be accountable for our own self-worth would mean absorbing the terrifying fact that we’re always vulnerable to pain and loss. As long as we think the problem is our bodies’ failure to meet a certain physical standard, we have something concrete that we (or our local plastic surgeon, who does a fabulous tummy tuck) can work on. 

And so we dive headfirst into the endless project of improving our physical selves. No cosmetic strategy ever fulfills our hopes, since what we hope for—the knowledge that we’re acceptable—is almost completely unrelated to physical appearance. We begin to think thoughts like If only someone loved me, I could accept myself. It’s a Catch-22: Before we can feel loved, we must feel beautiful, but before we can feel beautiful, we must feel loved. You can swim down that spiral for decades, maybe all the way to your grave (from which you can brood about your sudden realization that your looks were actually okay all along). There’s another way to go, and I suggest you use it.

You may have noticed that all the “defects” I’ve been discussing are located not in the body but in the mind. It’s the mind that mixes up beauty and acceptability, that misperceives the cause of emotional pain, and that sends us down the class IV rapids of self-loathing. Your mind creates a lot of your supposed appearance problems, and it can resolve them, almost instantaneously, if you’ll let it. 

The Big “If”

Our ideas about love and attractiveness are so primal, our need for belonging so intense, that most of us are loath to abandon our favorite beliefs on these issues. If you’ve ever let yourself feel lovable and lovely, only to be deeply hurt, you may see accepting your own body as a setup for severe emotional wounding. After all, you let down your guard before and look what happened! You’ll never go there again. I understand your resistance. That’s why the first step in changing your self-evaluation is careful, logical risk assessment. 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 
The strategy of feeling physically unattractive actually does preclude the pain of (a) naively trusting that we’re good enough, (b) being horribly wounded, and (c) feeling alone, unacceptable, and hideous. Believing we’re ugly cuts straight to the chase, making sure we feel alone, unacceptable, and hideous right from the get-go, and without reprieve. If you don’t believe me, you have only to look back at your own history. How many times have you told yourself you’re unacceptable? How many times did this lead to happiness, freedom, and perfect relationships? All right, then. 

Here’s a new hypothesis: There’s no risk-free way to love. The possibility of being devastated is always there, but the possibility of joy exists only when you put your battered heart right on the table by trusting that you’re lovable. I’m not asking you to do this all the time, or even in large doses—at first, anyway. I’d just like you to experiment with a new mind-set, a few minutes at a time. 

Find a Way to Change Your Mind 
Even though believing in your own adequacy is actually less risky than feeling unacceptable (haven’t we just proved this with the mighty power of logic?), this thought can still be terrifying—or, if you’re the cynical sort, impossible to get your head around, logic be damned. That’s okay. You just need to set clear, safe-feeling time boundaries within which to demo this idea. Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for ten minutes. During this brief time, push your mind to attack its own protective strategy of self-denigration. Write down several examples of:

  • Occasions when someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t look perfect.
  • People you’ve loved even though they didn’t look perfect.
  • Stunning people who act so awful they begin to appear ugly.
  • Famous people who are dazzling despite physical imperfections.
  • Artists’ work that reveals charm and grace in places many people see ugliness.
  • Women who are so perfectly at ease with themselves that they set a new cultural standard of goddessness.

If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, it might take you a while to come up with examples for a given topic. Stick with it. You’re pushing yourself to make new associations, to jump the tracks of your habitual protective self-condemnation. You’re not just thinking new thoughts but actively unthinking the illogical, painful, imprisoning thoughts you’re used to. This is difficult. So what. Do it anyway—for ten lousy minutes. Tomorrow, do it again. 

Experiment with Dope (As In Dopamine) 
If you attack your preconceptions for just ten minutes at a time, you’ll eventually feel a subtle loosening, a little wiggle room as your mind begins relaxing its grip on the idea that you’re not so hot and not so lovable. Before moving on, it helps to add some psychoactive chemicals. Some people achieve social confidence only when they use alcohol or drugs. I can never remember to buy these things, but I always have a few mood-altering substances on hand—or rather, in my head—and so do you. 

For example, dopamine increases when we face something unfamiliar and difficult: working a crossword puzzle, knitting a complicated sweater. Epinephrine is released when we sustain moderate exercise. When we take a chance (for example, by expressing an unpopular opinion or displaying something we’ve created), we produce more epinephrine. All of these hormones can increase our confidence enough to help us release our old, supposedly protective thoughts and behaviors. 

So once you’re used to unthinking your physical self-image, give yourself a little chemical boost to compensate for the emotional shields you’ll be dropping. Complete a challenging task, work out until you sweat a bit, take a risk that makes your heart speed up, or all three. You’ll feel more confident for several hours. Use that time for real-world experimentation. 

Test-Drive a New Self-Concept 
With a head full of crumbling misperceptions and happy hormones, go out in public and pretend for, say, half an hour that you’re lovely enough to be loved. Now go to a coffee shop and have a tasty beverage. Notice how your body moves when you trust that you’re good enough. Not America’s Next Top Model good enough, just good enough. Feel the difference in your facial expression—or if you can’t get a handle on that, then try to gauge the energy you exchange with other customers or the barista. Most important, pay attention to how other people are reacting to you. 

If you’ve done the homework (steps 1 through 3), you’ll find something miraculous beginning, like the first tiny green crocus shoots emerging from snowy earth: Most people will accept you. They’ll be attracted to you in a variety of ways. The more you release your defensive, self-conscious inner critic, the more you’ll get smiles, courtesy, friendliness, all kinds of positive attention—not from everyone, but from most people. From enough people. 

Yet this connection between self-acceptance and attractiveness become an upward spiral, just as the conflation of rejection and ugliness has been a downward one. After some practice in coffee shops, try accepting yourself while chatting with a friend, then a colleague, then someone who intimidates you. One crucial caveat: Save your family of origin for last, possibly for never. Much protective self-criticism stems from growing up around people who wouldn’t or couldn’t love you, and it’s likely they still can’t or won’t. In general, however, the more you let go of the tedious delusion of your own unattractiveness, the easier it will be for others to connect with you, and the more accepted you’ll feel. 

Understanding and dismantling defensive beliefs about your own ugliness is a process that frees you to unreservedly accept yourself, your body, and other people. The resulting open heart is the one perfect feature that really will protect you emotionally by giving you a sustained sense of belonging. While not everyone will always love you, you will see abundant, observable evidence that you’re always lovable. That means the skin you’re in has always been, and will always be, beautiful enough.

Receive with an Open Heart: Giving and Accepting Gifts of Real Love

You’d be wholeheartedly thrilled with that gift, that compliment, that declaration of affection—if it weren’t for the wary little voice in the back of your mind wondering how you’ll ever be able to reciprocate…or did the giver really mean it…or what’s the catch?

In the long run, we can’t stay emotionally healthy without accepting gifts, both concrete and intangible. Refusing to receive leaves us chronically empty, prone to addiction, obsession, codependency, or an eternal psychological hunger that’s never quite satisfied. The healthy alternative is to stop merely closing down and learn to receive wisely, fully accepting good gifts without being damaged by bad ones.

Unconditional Giving

The secret is this: No matter what happens, keep your heart open. Here’s a way to practice: Take a bill from your wallet that’s large enough that you’d be upset if you lost it—maybe $1, maybe $100. Go to a public place, like a park or mall, and find a spot with sporadic foot traffic. Wait until no one’s looking. Place your money on the ground and retreat to a spot nearby, where you can see whoever finds it. The money is your gift to this person.

Observe your own mind as you wait. You’ll probably find that you’re running an inner monologue on subjects like worthiness, appropriateness, justice. You may hope a poor child finds the money, while your heart clenches at the thought of an addict buying drugs with it, or a lawyer sliding it into an Armani pocket. But no matter who discovers the cash, just watch them pick it up, then silently wish them well. If your giving capacity is out of whack, your receiving capability is likely jammed, too, which means this won’t be easy. What it will be is highly educational. It’s none of your business who finds it, or what they do with it. The goal is to reach a place where you could watch happily as an Enron executive pounced on your ten bucks.

Why should you want this to happen? Because the judgments that constrain your giving are the very demons that are keeping you from receiving. “You don’t deserve that.” “You’d better put it to good use.” “Now you’re obligated.” “You’d better earn it, buddy….” As you teach your own charity to outlast such opinions while giving to other people, you’ll release yourself from having to meet certain criteria (repayment, neediness, poverty) when you are given something.

Receiving What’s Already Yours

Once you’ve learned to give with an open heart, it’s time to receive something. Start with something easy: a gift that’s an accident of birth. Perhaps you’ve accepted your own gifts from time to time, but only in covert moments. If you happen to have gorgeous feet, you may occasionally find yourself gazing at them appreciatively. When you think your way through difficult problems, you might think, “Wow, cool!” Then you clamp down, attack your own ego, search the environs for any witnesses you may have to kill, lest they report to the world that you’re full of yourself.

This isn’t humility; it’s denial. You know darn well what you’ve got, but you’re refusing to receive it, because you believe this protects you from judgment—your own and that of others. It’s time to thank yourself for having this fabulous quality. Say it, out loud or in your head: “Thank you for being so talented!” “Thank you for having great hair!” Don’t be surprised if, once again, you find yourself plowing through the stages of grieving on the way to full acceptance. You may get angry at yourself for your arrogance. You’ll bargain—yeah, you won the Pulitzer, but you didn’t deserve it (this isn’t a hypothetical example; I heard it from a real Pulitzer Prize winner). You’ll get depressed about the fact that your parents don’t really see this gift in you, or that they do but someday they’re going to die. No matter what judgments fly at you, keep repeating, “Thank you for this gift.”

Receiving Objects

Once you’ve begun accepting your own inherent gifts, you’re ready to receive a present from someone else. Find a physical object someone has already given you: a flower, a card, a ring. Stunted receivers have a lot of mixed feelings about such items. You may not feel worthy of the gift, or you may be haunted by fear that you now owe the giver something enormous.

You know the drill by now. Sit with the gift, physically touch it, and say, “Thank you; I accept.” Here it will come again, the emotional whirlwind: denial (“I’m not good enough to deserve this”); anger (“He probably expects me to sleep with him now”); bargaining (“I’ll give her a pie; then I won’t feel so guilty”); depression (“I bet he hates me for not writing a thank-you note”). Touch the object. Say “Thank you; I accept.” Until you really do.

Receiving the Big Kahuna

On the heels of accepting a physical present comes the real prize: accepting the love that motivated the gift. Few givers are perfect, so few gifts come from absolutely pure affection. But if you’ve practiced receiving with an open heart, you’ll be a better judge of which gifts are genuine and which are Trojan horses. When a gift comes with manipulative strings attached—if it’s not really a gift but a disguised bribe—it will feel unpleasant. You can either politely refuse or accept it without becoming vulnerable to exploitation.

The process should be familiar by now. Look back on a time someone gave you a gift of love—even imperfect love. Whatever the gift was (a compliment, companionship, confidence in your basic worth), hold it in your mind and say to the person who gave it, “Thank you; I accept.” Sit still. Hold the gift in your heart. Say “Thank you.”

The worst-case scenario here is that what you thought was love actually wasn’t, that the person to whom you opened your heart was offering no real love at all. In that case, receiving openheartedly will leave you with hope: the shape of love not yet experienced, the DNA-deep knowledge of what you’re meant to have. Once that channel is opened, you’ll be amazed how many gifts are waiting for you to receive them.

The Body Whisperer

By the time I was 7 years old, Monty Roberts already suspected there was a better way to train horses. Roberts spent his childhood watching cowboys break animals in the traditional way, using restriction, force, and punishment. But he also watched the horses themselves, noticing that they communicated with one another in a language of postures and movements. Roberts suspected that if trainers learned to understand and use this language, the horses would cooperate much more willingly. He was right. Roberts’s now famous method, termed horse whispering, can accomplish in 30 gentle minutes what might take traditional trainers three brutal weeks.

I don’t have a horse, but I’ve found Monty Roberts’s philosophy very effective in training an animal I do own: me. My body, to be exact. For the first half of my life, I set about “breaking” my body by controlling it with various forms of discipline, and it worked: My body broke. I was chronically ill by the time it occurred to me that anyone caught treating a beast of burden the way I treated myself would be arrested for cruelty to animals. I began to speculate that my body would cooperate better if I learned to “whisper” to it, to interpret its signals and treat it with respect.

If you haven’t yet learned this lesson, age will teach it to you. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are wonderfully persuasive instructors, and they increase with time unless we learn to heed them. Great! Aging prompts us to learn our body’s language, and this can be downright redemptive. In fact, the more we learn to communicate with our bodies, the more we may feel as though we’re aging backward, like Merlin the Magician, becoming healthier and more comfortable in our skin with the passage of time.

Why Body Whisper?

“As we get older,” my doctors used to say, “symptoms like yours just start to happen.” This is not a comforting thing to hear at the age of 18. Maniacal dieting, intense exercise, persistent sleep deprivation, and self-imposed stress had turned me into a teenage cornucopia of illnesses that usually plague much older people. My muscles and joints hurt constantly. My organs were deteriorating. I contracted every infectious illness the breeze could carry. After more than a decade of this, physicians guessed that I had some unnamed autoimmune syndrome. They had no idea what to do about it. My own approach was to resist, ignore, or rage at my body, but after a couple of near-lethal health crises, I realized this wasn’t good enough. I had to force myself to treat my physical being more considerately.

It helped me to stop thinking of my body as me and to begin thinking of it as a useful, valuable workhorse. From this perspective, my lifestyle appeared not as righteous self-discipline but as sheer brutality. When I stopped praising myself for self-torture and began listening to my body, I found that there was wisdom in my cells to exceed anything my bewildered doctors could offer. Like a horse that knows the way home, my body naturally gravitated toward the things that were good for it—for all of me. Listening to its “language” improved every aspect of my life: social, emotional, spiritual, and professional, as well as physical. The same thing can happen to you, if you’re willing to take up body whispering.
Want to be young at heart and at home in your skin? Your physical self can tell you how (if you’d only stop raging about cellulite, bumpy elbows, and disappointing knees).

How to Body Whisper

The first step toward learning your body’s language is to recognize and challenge the attitudes you’ve inherited from your culture. Western religious and philosophical traditions conceptualize each person as a “ghost in the machine,” a rational or divine mind unfortunately trapped in plodding, carnal flesh. This is reinforced whenever we ogle “beautiful people” who have starved, drugged, or tortured their bodies into submission. Many of us end up directing a steady stream of cruel, condemnatory thoughts toward our body. This is no way to train an animal. Behavioral scientists have found that creatures respond much more enthusiastically to praise and reward than to insult and punishment. To learn body whispering, discipline your mind, not your body. Turn yourself into a kinder, gentler trainer of the most valuable animal you’ll ever own. You might want to try the following tactics.

Level One: Make Your Mind Be Kind

For a day, consciously observe the stream of thoughts you direct toward your body (I need Botox. Why am I so dense? I hate, hate, hate my nose). Once you’ve noticed your own abusive mantras, begin countering each one with some sort of genuine praise, no matter how lame it may seem. If you loathe your upper-arm flab, make yourself think about the fact that your arm, flab and all, can participate in procedures as delicate as threading a needle or as powerful as shifting a car into gear. Praise it for its abilities, as you would praise a horse you wanted to train: Good arm! You’re so coordinated! Wow, look at you go!

This may feel absurd at first, but if you pay attention, you’ll find that countering abuse with praise has a powerful effect on your body. I learned this at a seminar for chronic-pain management. The instructor asked us to focus on a part of our body that was continuously in pain (I chose my back) and then offer those body parts the affection we would give the person we loved most. To my embarrassment, I found I couldn’t do this without crying—but as I did, the muscle spasms in my back loosened perceptibly. My body had been hurting because of illness, but also because I hated it. Offering it affection tangibly changed the momentum that was taking me further into disease, and began the process of healing.

The same strategy can take you from decent health to splendiferous well-being, make you so satisfied you forget to smoke, drink, or binge, and allow your birthright of self-confidence to replace any body shame that may darken your life. If praising your body feels awkward and artificial, too bad. Do it anyway. Gradually, as you feel the beneficial effects, this exercise will come naturally and automatically.

Level Two: Treasure Your Body

When we approach our body compassionately, the interplay between thoughts and physical condition becomes more noticeable. A mind and body in harmony are like a horse and rider who really trust each other, communicating subtly and constantly, both benefiting from the relationship. The main obstacle to achieving this harmony is that we, like horses, evolved to be wary creatures, living on the raw edge of physical danger. As a result, we have a natural tendency to focus on fear—fear of abandonment, of being hurt, of never having enough money, etc. These fears are functional in a wild environment, where hoarding food and avoiding predators ensure survival. But we now live in civilization, where constant dread ruins relationships and creates degenerative disease. Succumbing to these inborn tendencies makes aging miserable (on the bright side, although living this way will shorten your life, it will feel like forever).

A horse whisperer’s primary task is to make the horse feel safe. By the same token, we train our body most effectively by calming it down. One way to do this is a process I call treasuring. It’s simple: Just make a list of experiences that made you feel peace, satisfaction, or bliss, then recall these experiences whenever you feel wiped out, weak, or old.

Writing down the memories concretizes them into language, the brain’s great treasure chest. You can pull out a memory whenever you feel harried and ancient. Your body will literally re-experience the good feelings (and biochemical responses) you had while the events were happening. This is why focusing on positive thoughts improves immune function, and why blood flow to a muscle may increase in people who only imagine flexing that muscle, without actually moving. Treasuring helps your body stay young by releasing its fears and creating an internal environment that keeps it thriving.

Level Three: Join Up

When Monty Roberts “speaks” to a horse, the animal eventually walks up and places its head inches from his shoulder—a behavior called joining up. If you learn to value and calm your body, you will eventually experience what it’s like to “join up” with your physical self. Psychologists who study human happiness have found that unity of mind and body occurs when we not only love our bodies but also challenge them. You wouldn’t buy a racehorse and make it stand in its stall forever; it needs to run. Likewise, your body wants adventure, effort, striving. You can join up with it by pushing yourself to do physical things that intrigue and challenge you: learning martial arts, practicing the piano, making furniture, whatever. Find something your body loves to do, and coax yourself to the edge of your physical abilities. Somewhere between Too Easy and Way Too Hard, you’ll find that your mind and your body unite, that the dancer becomes the dance. It’s so enjoyable that you may forget to age.

The Payoff

These exercises will help you recognize that your body has been talking to you all along, in its vocabulary of pain and pleasure, anxiety and relaxation. You’ll learn to stop when your body says no, and embrace new experiences that make it say yes, yes, yes! As your physical and mental selves begin to understand each other more completely, you may find (as I did) that the symptoms of chronic disease go into remission. Your body—no matter its age—will begin to feel the childlike exuberance that goes with being heard and loved. The body I ride through this life is mortal, changeable, and far from perfect. But when I stopped breaking it and learned to whisper, we became a team. Whatever the path we travel, I know in my bones that together, we’ll get where we need to go.

Editor’s Note: Interested in learning more about the non-verbal language of horses? As a student of Monty Roberts, Master Martha Beck Life Coach Koelle Simpson is well-versed in the language of Equus. Find on more about her on her site.