By Linda Adams, President of GTI
Recently, a friend said to me that his mother wanted to appear less “flawed” than she really was–she was “nice” and that meant not being honest with people who were close to her about things that irritated her or bothered her. She let people see only those aspects of herself that she perceived as okay, as “good”, only her strengths, and not her weaknesses. His regret was that she missed out on having a more authentic life and deeper and more meaningful relationships. In his words, “Mom’s funeral was tough for me because the person represented in that service had so little to do with who my mom really was. I wish more people could have known her, warts and all, but she didn’t let that happen.”
I knew this struck a chord because his words kept occurring to me over the next few weeks. I started thinking more about how often I and so many of us do the same thing–deny ourselves opportunities to be our real, authentic, true self both in the everyday, seemingly routine and mundane choices we make about our plans and goals and the way we are in relationships with others. Life doesn’t “happen” in big events–it takes place in all the hundreds of little things that make up each day. How to the spend the minutes of our day, the way we talk to people, the people we choose to spend time with, what we think about, what we work on–it’s in all these seemingly insignificant ways that we are living out our lives. So the decisions and choices we make all day everyday really matter.
When we are “nice” or “say the right thing” or shy away from a stressful interaction or decide not to pursue a thought or an idea or a goal we feel passionate about, we betray ourselves. We deny who we are at that moment. We stunt our own growth and by extension the growth of others. We miss the opportunity to live life to its fullest.
What’s in the Way?
Fear–fear that blocks us, that stands in the way of our meeting our important needs or perhaps of even discovering what they are, fear that prevents us from fully functioning.
Because we often fear the unknown, we fear change–we choose to be cautious and stay with what we know. We stop ourselves from taking on certain challenges, actions, jobs, and relationships. We adapt to unpleasant or bad or unhealthy situations because that’s more comfortable than facing the unknown. We could call this “fear of living”. As psychologist, Dr. Rochelle Myers, put it, “Most people tiptoe through life trying to reach death safely.”
The Key is Self-Acceptance
Real self-acceptance occurs when we can accept every aspect of our self– “warts and all.” What leads to such self-acceptance? How can we come to accept the full range of our feelings and thoughts and needs? It begins when we are open to looking at the unacknowledged aspects of ourselves and can come to terms with them, integrate them, embrace them even. Here is another powerful and important use of active listening–which is the language of acceptance–just as we do it with others when they need empathy and understanding and acceptance, we can be a counselor to ourselves. Just as we help a co-worker, a child or a friend talk through their anger or frustration and get to their deeper feeling, problem or insight. When we lose the need to sit in constant judgment of ourselves, and can learn to accept ourselves, we open up the possibility of becoming more and more of what we are capable of being because accepting ourselves as we are actually allows us the freedom to change. We begin to discover the full extent of our own uniqueness and to feel free to express it and act on it.
We can also develop deeper self-acceptance by establishing, nurturing and maintaining therapeutic relationships with other people–people who accept us as we are. These are relationships in which each of us is free and willing to be ourselves, i.e. our words and behavior match our feelings–and in which we both can listen with empathy to each other. When both of us have the courage, the skill and the intention to relate to each other this way, our interactions make it possible for the unique persons we are to continue to emerge.