If you wander to the book store and pop open a self-help book, you’ll probably make it a few pages before you stumble on the following advice:
Indeed, the idea of ‘self acceptance’ is one of the most cliched little nuggets of wisdom we dole out to each other. You hear many different versions of it:
“Be proud who you are!”
“You are good enough!”, etc.
While these ideas can certainly be helpful, they may come across as patronizing when a person is seriously struggling.
After all, how are you supposed to ‘accept yourself’ when you’ve been unemployed for eight months? How can you be ‘good enough’ when you’ve sabotaged every relationship you’ve ever had?
From personal experience, one needs a more rational foundation for the concept of ‘self-acceptance’ for it to truly be helpful during life’s rocks and crags.
In this article, my goal is to establish such a foundation, explaining how ‘self-acceptance’ is not some rosy ideal — but instead, a valid recognition of ‘things’ as they actually exist.
What is a ‘thing?’
In order to accept one’s self, one must first understand what it means to exist as a self.
Obviously, this is a weighty topic. Yet with the help of a few thought exercises, I think the general idea can be distilled without too much headache.
To start, let’s think about what it means for a ‘thing’ to exist.
This seems like a pretty straight-forward question, right? ‘Things’ are simply objects that occupy a different time and space.
Yet upon inspection, it’s pretty difficult to determine where one thing ends and another begins.
To understand this concept, consider how we use the verb ‘is.’
When we say something ‘is,’ we affirm the existence of a ‘thing’ right?
Yet no ‘thing’ simply ‘is’ by itself.
For example, you can’t just say ‘the dog is’ and expect to be understood. Instead, the dog must be connected with another ‘thing’ — e.g., the ‘dog’ is an ‘animal’ — before meaning is generated.
Thus, what we understand to be ‘things’ actually refers to a three-part process — i.e., a movement between two seemingly-different ‘things.’
This movement-from-thing-to-thing applies to everything we experience — including ourselves!
The Triad of Self
Consider this: How would you reply to the question ‘who are you?’
If you’re like most people, you’d probably list some other ‘things’ to which you relate. Perhaps you’d say you’re an accountant, a mother, or a fan of K-Pop.
Once again, these descriptions affirm that your ‘self’ exists in union with some other ‘thing.’ You’re literally defined by these relationships!
Obviously, the connection between ‘you’ and other ‘things’ isn’t stable. For instance, you may have been a huge Bill Cosby fan in 2008. Yet in 2018, this relationship has probably changed substantially.
Given this difference, one might be tempted to claim that the ‘you’ in 2018 is not the same ‘you’ as in 2008.
Yet when you look at a picture of yourself from ten years ago, are you inclined to imagine that person as someone else?
Of course not!
Once again, ‘things’ exist as a movement from ‘thing’ to ‘thing.‘
This movement perpetually places the ‘self’ into a relationship with the phenomena that appear before it. And while these other ‘things’ are continually changing — the three elements of being (i.e. the Thing, the Something-Other, and the Movement) are always there.
What I’m attempting to describe here is pretty much a paraphrase of Hegel’s Dialectic. You can see it represented in the following diagram:
Notice how the larger circle in this model subsumes the underlying three elements. This over-arching circle is Hegel’s conception of being-for-itself — or in other words, the essence of all objects.
So… how does this relate to self-acceptance? The logic is as follows:
If one’s self exists as a ‘thing,’ and one wants to accept herself as honestly as possible, then she must recognize herself as the overarching circle — i.e., as the the Thing, the Something-Other, and the Movement all at once.
To make this idea less abstract, let’s consider an example.
Suppose you look in the mirror and feel as though you’re getting fat.
In that moment, ‘you’ exist in union with the observation of ‘fatness.’
It doesn’t matter if this observation is true or false. What matters is that the observation is occurring, and that ‘you’ exist in relation to it.
Furthermore, ‘you’ also exist in the movement to and away from this observation, and it’s this three-step process that constitutes what ‘you’ are.
As such, a person who ‘accepts herself’ does not dwell on an unsavory reflection in the mirror. Instead, she accepts this observation as a part of her — and then, staying true to her nature, she moves onto something else.
On the other hand, trying to disconnect the ‘self’ from this observation of ‘fatness’ would be an act of self-denial.
This reaction could manifest itself in many different ways — including shaming one’s self, purging, or breaking all of the mirrors in one’s house.
At heart, the impetus for these self-destructive behaviors is an inability to accept one’s relationship with the ‘things’ that appear before her.
So what does this mean in real life? How can you ‘accept yourself’ without the need to get all weird and philosophical?
My humble advice:
When you think of ‘self-acceptance,’ try not to think of the self as a stable ‘thing’ that is either good or bad.
Instead, try to picture ‘you’ for what it truly is — a ceaseless movement from thing to thing.
This mindset comes with radical implications. Namely, it requires you to accept the most heinous ‘things’ imaginable as a part of you. On the other hand, it also means that ‘you’ exist in the most glorious heights of your imagination.
Each ‘thing,’ along with the movement to and away from them, is your very essence. And it’s only through embracing this fact that the mind can gain a lasting sort of peace.
This idea is what the poets, priests, and corny self-help writers are trying to convey when they tell you to ‘accept yourself.’ It’s a crazy type of wisdom that, frankly, is best understood on a spiritual level.
As but one example, I’ll leave you with this verse from the Katha Upanishad:
He who performs this fire-sacrifice three times, being united with the three… and who fulfills the three-fold duty… crosses over birth and death. Knowing this worshipful shining fire, born of Brahman, and realizing Him, he attains eternal peace.