It’s an enduring feature of humanity that every person has aspects of themselves that they struggle with. Even the greatest amongst us are not immune: the Apostle Paul once wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that, “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” He didn’t mean a literal thorn, of course - he meant one of those internal stumbling blocks that bring us low. One of those “This aspect of me is a problem, and I wrestle with it on a regular basis” type of thorns.
The fact that we struggle with ourselves at all is a feature of our mammalian biology: our bodies are wired to connect with a community of other mammals. You see this in the way we develop over time - our physical bodies literally grow through physical contact with our primary care-givers, and our psychological self develops via the relationships we engage in over the course of our lives. It is in the context of relationship that we receive feedback about how we are, and how we are not, acceptable, and it is also in the context of relationships that we, as pack animals, originally managed to stay alive. So, when we receive feedback about how we are not acceptable, our instinctive fear of being exiled from the tribe is activated, and we start relating to certain aspects of ourselves as ‘good’ and certain aspects of ourselves as ‘bad’.
The content of our struggles are directly referable to our societal context. For example, our current western society celebrates the thin bit, the smart bit, the productive bit, the beautiful bit, the coupled status. When these aspects of ourselves are celebrated, our brain says “I’m connected! I’m safe! Hurrah!”. Our society doesn’t routinely celebrate the average bit, the tired bit, the pudgy bit, the al naturale bit, or the singled status. We may receive censure and mocking (implied or overt) for those aspects of ourselves, which our brain is liable to interpret as “Argh! I’m about to be exiled from the tribe! Death is imminent!”
We need to understand that what society is currently celebrating is not available to all of us. We can’t all be super-model thin. We all have differing levels of, and types of, intelligences - and one of them is not more valuable that the others, despite what the majority opinion may appear to be on this front. We can’t be productive all the time. What if you don’t want to be in a relationship? Or, even if you did, finding the right partner is often a harrowing undertaking. So, we can’t win, here: we can’t be all of the things that society celebrates, unless it was at great cost to our authentic self. That doesn’t mean that we can’t experience profound acceptance, though. Our options are to:
- continue to struggle with the ‘less than’ aspects of ourselves, perpetually feeling like being our authentic self is a danger to our ongoing wellbeing while we strive for acceptance from others; or
- realise that self-acceptance is the only form of acceptance that we can reliably obtain on an ongoing basis, and decide to give that to ourselves.
When we surrender on the belief that we can be more than what we are, and we accept what actually is, then, paradoxically, that’s when everything starts to change. That's when we change. I used to be terrified that accepting those ‘less than’ parts of myself meant that I was embracing mediocrity. But the truth was that I was just ending the life-long war I had going with myself by saying, “Actually, you’re okay. You’re human. Struggle, shame and vulnerability are all a part of being.” As Carl Jung noted, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”
Self-acceptance is the lubricant that enables your inwardly stuck situations to start moving. Learn to find your struggles cute and amusing, extending the grace toward yourself that you would normally extend to a two year old who was trying to do something that they hadn’t learnt how to do before. When we remove the instinctive Life And Death fear we have about our struggle, a lightness of being arrives that enables us to think more creatively and kindly about what’s really happening for us.
I like to think of the things that I struggle with as ‘the cracks where the light gets in’. Because these cracks hurt, they make me stop and reflect, and, thus, grow. They’re also the cracks that let other people in, too, because they show up where, precisely, I need something - that is, they open the door to collaboration and care and comfort. “The truth is: belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.” (Brene Brown). That’s not to say that it’s comfortable - it very often isn’t. But it’s real. And I think that's what really matters.