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Accepting yourself to change yourself: a contradiction?

Rhoda-Mary Health
  • Accepting yourself to change yourself: a contradiction?

It can be hard to change. I have often felt torn between a desire to change something about myself and a contrary inner voice insisting that I am fine the way I am. It can lead to lots of internal conflict, not to mention inertia! Take my relationship with my mirror, for example. It is fashioned from recycled wood and glass. It is edgy, rococo, and I have no problem admiring its beauty. I have a lot of problems, however, admiring the reflection therein. How things look has always mattered to me a lot more than I have ever cared to admit.

I've always felt torn between my natural aesthetic bent, which delights in all things beautiful, and an infectious puritanical strain in the culture to which I was exposed in my teens that equated beauty with vanity and a desire to look good with superficiality. What has any of this got to do with change? For me, quite a lot. In my teens, every capillary that broke in the mirror and every pound I put on caused me to look and feel awful. But I wanted to look and feel good. So I found out exactly how to change things, only to discover that I was unable to convert my ton of theory into an ounce of practice because I felt I should accept myself the way I was, otherwise I was being vain and superficial and that was baaaad! (Perhaps the sheep allusion is intentional here...? I'm a sheep in two major zodiacs.) I simply failed to listen to my inner voice, which increasingly understood that physical beauty is the handmaiden of good health, and gave in to the opinions of others, believing that they knew better than I did about the nature of goodness in the world. And what inner conflicts ensued... I really believe contemporary Western culture churns out contradictory messages about the nature of change, especially when it comes to changing oneself. 'You're not good enough the way you are,' whisper elements of society and the media. 'Just do this and change that and you will be perfect in body, mind and spirit.' Meanwhile, the  spiritual lobby exhorts the opposite: 'The desire to change is simply greed for more.

You can bust a gut to have the best body and the most charming personality but it will not bring you happiness and you know it [so there!]. You are fine. Just accept yourself the way you are and don't try to change anything. Trying to change is a form of violence against your being.' Arrrrgh! I think, however, that there is a Third Way. There is a way to change oneself and one's life without (a) going the route of self-rejection or (b) pretending, in the name of acceptance that things are fine and don't need to be changed (at times when the exact opposite is true).

So how can the concept of self-acceptance actually help you change aspects of yourself or your lifestyle that you are uncomfortable with? In my view, accepting yourself does not mean being static, or refusing to change in the name of acceptance. It means something broader and deeper. Firstly, it means broadening your definition of acceptance to include accepting the validity of your desire to change, being honest with yourself about what you want (as opposed to what you or others think you should want), going for your dreams should you desire to do so and accepting that it's all right to desire to do so! Whew...! Secondly, it means not confusing your inner being with your outer packaging. I have come to believe that you can accept yourself completely as you are, while at the same time changing as many things about yourself as you desire. Is that not a massive contradiction in terms? No. It simply depends on how you define who you are. If you believe that the body-mind-spirit staring back at you from the mirror is the core of your being and you are unhappy with that person then any change you try to effect will be a by-product of self-hatred and self-rejection.

But look at it another way. Imagine that the body-mind-spirit in the looking glass is NOT the sum total of your being. Imagine that within that person there is a core self that is whole and perfect just as it is but invisible. You cannot see, feel or taste it. The body-mind-spirit in the mirror, rather than representing the totality of your being, is simply clothing your inner self has adopted to get you through the day, raiment wrought by a combination of nature and nurture. Your core self, rather than the image in the glass, is the true you. Your core self is like a seed. If you or others have fed it rubbish in the past, it may not have flowered as beautifully or as lushly as it could have. But once you become aware of your (or their) mistakes, you can change the physical, psychological and spiritual diet it receives and allow it to flourish in accordance with its true nature.

How you do this is up to you. It could mean detoxifying your system so that your inner signals become clearer to you, or obeying mythologist Joseph Campbell's exhortation to 'follow your bliss' (i.e. making sure your work and leisure pursuits truly resonate with you and give you joy), or finding other ways and means to express your inner being. I do feel listening to your own voice above those of others is crucial, though. It is only when you accept your core being as something lovely and worth treating well that you can start to change your body, mind, personality (or whatever) from a position of self-love, not self-hatred.

If you want to change in order to obliterate yourself because you value yourself so little, or if you want to change into someone you can approve of because the culture or significant others have in some way trashed you, then you may have a problem. There will always be a loving, rebellious part of you arguing against the inner fascist trying to destroy you. Hey!' it says. 'I'm fine the way I am. Get lost! Result? Intense inner conflict. BUT, and it is a HUGE but, if you love and value your core and are content to befriend the person you are inside, then you can say to yourself, I am going to change my diet. I am going to change the way I dress. I am going to exercise and look fabulous because I love myself and I want to do whatever is best for my beloved body, mind and spirit. I want to treat that person inside as lovingly as I would treat my beloved child or my best friend. And you will eventually look and feel wonderful, if that's what you want. But you will have arrived at that point without conflict: not from a position of self-hatred but from a position of self-love. Your loving inner rebel will no longer have good cause to fight your hate-filled inner fascist because that inner fascist will simply no longer exist.

Ultimately, accepting yourself does not mean accepting, in perpetuity, the outer role or clothing you have adopted to muddle through the day. Rather, it means accepting your essence and your intrinsic worth and changing whatever you need to change to make your life happier and healthier on all levels of being. 

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