Self-Acceptance: Getting Past the Troll
by Suzanne Manser, PhD
Self-acceptance is HARD. As a therapist and a human, I can whole-heartedly attest to this. It is a journey that can take people decades to traverse. Theoretically we can get there at any moment, if only we would allow ourselves. Here’s the problem: there’s a troll standing guard at the entrance to self-acceptance. He’s grotesque and scary, and he’s got a club and a bad attitude. Allow me to introduce you to your inner critic.
Your inner critic has one job: to prevent you from entering the land of self-acceptance. He does this by constantly informing you that YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. He tells you all day long, in specifics and in generalities, that you are doing things WRONG and people AREN’T going to like you and you are just NOT cutting the mustard. He criticizes your clothes and your face and your driving skills and the fact that you forgot your friend’s birthday, and anything else he can think of. This is not “constructive” criticism. This is judgy criticism.
Your inner critic points out each and every time you fall short of how you “should” be. He informs you that you can’t get past him until you stop falling short. And he’s extremely convincing. When his voice gets loud enough – and for some, it is screaming All. The. Time. – it elicits powerful emotions: shame, insecurity, anxiety, worthlessness. If you don’t believe his words, he gets you with emotion. Oh yeah, he’s good. His very existence depends on it.
But what happens if you get brave enough to walk past him regardless of his words? What kind of clout does this troll actually have? None, as it turns out. He is not the arbiter of Truth and Acceptance. He’s just a bully on a mission to make you feel unworthy. It turns out that you don’t have to believe that your “faults” are SUCH a problem that you can’t accept yourself without fixing them first.
Glinda told Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.” Her wisdom applies to all of us. You don’t need a wizard or a troll to give you permission to go where you want to go. You only have to realize that there is nothing that can prevent you from self-acceptance – other than your belief that you are not worthy of it.
Self-acceptance is not about being perfect, as the troll wants us to believe. Self-acceptance is seeing that you have bits of yourself that you like and bits that you don’t like and knowing that they are all valid. “Valid” has no connection to “perfect.”
Self-acceptance requires not buying in to the rhetoric that your so-called “faults” or “imperfections” speak in any way to your validity as a human. It doesn’t matter what they are. Not being “perfect,” not doing things perfectly (i.e., making mistakes), is part of the deal of being human – not something to be judged as “wrong” or “bad.” This is crucial information for those who have never ventured a toe past the troll.
To be clear, accepting yourself does not mean that you like yourself. It does not mean that you are who you want to be. It does not mean that you stop working on yourself, or stop trying to do things differently, if that’s what you want to do. It simply means that you stop judging and criticizing yourself. You stop giving yourself grief for being human.
Allowing yourself to be who you are takes away all of the inner critic’s leverage. It becomes much less scary to acknowledge the bits that you don’t like when there is no one standing there judging them.
Let me pause here to address those who have had their hand up for the past six paragraphs, waiting patiently to tell me that this does not apply to them. If you think you “need” the troll’s “honesty” for motivation: You probably don’t. Research has shown us that harsh self–criticism actually undermines motivation. If you want to motivate yourself, self-compassion is the way to go. (See my Self-Compassion post for an explanation).
Freeing yourself from the inner critic is a HUGE deal. It makes a HUGE difference not to constantly see yourself through such a judgy, critical lens. I’ve become much more accepting of more of myself as I’ve gotten older and have learned things, and I still have boatloads of room for improvement. If you also have some room to grow in this area, here are some suggestions:
Identify your expectations about how/who you “should” be. Self-acceptance requires us not to expect that we are supposed to do life perfectly or in any particular way. It requires us not to expect that we are supposed to be like our peers or like anyone in particular. Expectations feed the inner critic and provide it with the “shoulds” that are used against us.
If you have trouble identifying your “shoulds,” look for them when you are feeling embarrassed or disappointed in yourself. Do you believe you should be thinner, smarter, more attractive, more relaxed, funnier, less relaxed, less awkward, more assertive, make more money, be more educated, be married, or have more friends in order to be worthy of acceptance? Write down every “should” that you identify over the course of a week.
Look at each “should” and ask yourself if it is worthy of keeping you from self-acceptance. When a “should” or a self-criticism shows up, replace it with curiosity. Shoulds invite shame; curiosity invites acceptance.
When you do make a mistake, be curious about what went wrong and why. If you don’t spend energy judging yourself, you’ll have more energy and a better attitude to figure out how to do it differently next time (which is the point, right?). If you “should have known better,” accept that you either did know better and chose not to act accordingly for a reason that you could choose to investigate, or that you really did not know better. Both get you much farther than the judgment. If you find yourself feeling like you aren’t good enough, be curious about what could make a person feel so unworthy. Don’t assume that you are, in fact, not good enough just because your inner critic tells you so. That guy is a jerk, if you hadn’t noticed.
Spend some time learning about how your genetics, childhood environment, society, etc. have impacted how you see and react to the world. It can be helpful to understand how we got to be the way we are. It is amazing how quickly we take on feelings of blame, shame, and fault in the absence of understanding. Practice looking at the things you don’t like about yourself without judging them as “bad.”
Finally, practice imagining self-acceptance land. It is extra challenging to try getting to a mental place if you don’t have a sense of what it looks and feels like. So close your eyes and imagine what it will be like to accept all of the bits of yourself as valid. Imagine how freeing it will be to see yourself as you are and move on to the business at hand, rather than having to judge yourself and beat yourself down. Imagine what it will be like to show up for life with the wind still in your sails. Imagine how much energy you will have to devote to things that light you up if you don’t have to deal with the troll. The more time you spend painting this picture, the easier it will be to put yourself in it.
To be sure, it takes a certain amount of courage to live in the land of self-acceptance. The “shoulds” provide structure, telling you what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Letting go of that structure can be scary for a lot of us. Accepting that you are valid just as you are, just because you are human, can leave you feeling exposed. When you accept yourself, you are boldly stating, “I am here and I am worthy.” Keep in mind that you can boldly state that while feeling scared.
Walk past the troll as often as you need to. Self-acceptance may be easier on some days than others, or for some bits of yourself than others. Life is easier from the land of self-acceptance – everything gets easier when you are not arguing with a troll all day long.