The Importance of Self-Acceptance on Body Image

The Importance of Self-Acceptance.

“We can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.”
― Lori Deschene

In order to unconditionally love your body, you’ll need to acknowledge and accept your whole inner self. Literally all of it, including the parts that you currently consider completely fucking unacceptable.

It’s a tall order, I know.

Accepting isn’t the same as loving, though. Accepting just means you acknowledge the reality and existence of everything about who you are with open arms and compassion, and without resistance.

It’s worth noting here that accepting something about yourself isn’t the same thing as giving up on self-improvement, or resigning to never changing it. Again, it’s just acknowledging that this part of yourself exists, and more importantly, that this part of yourself doesn’t make you any less worthy of love, connection, or belonging.

Most people fall into the trap of thinking that the only appropriate way to meet a perceived “flaw” is with rejection, resentment, resistance, and judgement. The hope is that by not accepting the truth of who they are, they will “motivate” themselves to change. Sadly, the exact opposite tends to be true.

Changing something about yourself is actually extremely difficult when you reject and condemn it. Likewise, it’s pretty damn easy when you’ve truly accepted it, and recognize that it’s existence doesn’t make you any less worthy of connection.

Let’s use weight loss as an example.

Let’s say you hate the weight you’re at right now, you consider it completely unacceptable, and you’re fully convinced it makes you less worthy of love, respect, care, and belonging. Despising what you see in the mirror every day, you join a gym in a burst of hate-fueled motivation. Desperate to lose the weight quickly, you show up every day, pushing your body past its limits, and cutting way back on calories. After about two weeks your body is exhausted, you’re starving all the time and have massive cravings, and when you step on the scale you haven’t lost as much as you feel like you “should” have, given how miserable you are.

So what happens? You dive face-first into a late night binge at Taco Bell, and wake up the next morning feeling so utterly defeated and worthless that you never go back to the gym again. “Why bother?” you think, furious with yourself for being too weak to succeed yet again.

Now let’s look at what happens if you accept your weight. You might think “this is the weight I am at right now, and it’s perfectly acceptable and understandable, and it doesn’t make me any less worthy of love, respect, acceptance, kindness, and belonging.” Along with that thought, you might notice that your moods, energy, and mental clarity have been a bit low, and that you get winded easily. Noticing this, and also accepting your current weight, you think “I am worthy of having better care, more energy, and a more active life.” You join a gym but decide to take it slow. You showing up twice a week to the gym for months, staying within a conservative level of effort until you’ve built a solid exercise habit, on top of making a few very subtle changes to your diet, like focusing on getting more vegetables and cutting out soda.

What happens? Over time you see results: better sleep, more positive moods, more energy, increased strength and endurance. Motivated by these results, you continue showing up and feeling good. Over the long term the composition of your body naturally changes, perhaps losing some fat and gaining some muscle. You enjoy these changes to your shape or size, but you also recognize that in and of themselves, they don’t make you any better, happier, or more worthy of love, acceptance, or belonging.

Do you see how much easier it is to make positive changes from a place of acceptance, rather than rejection? It may seem counter-intuitive, but resisting, resenting, shaming, and judging yourself for who you are in this moment is never going to lead to positive change.

So let’s talk about self-acceptance.

Our society teaches us generally what it means to be a good/normal person, and we are often shamed or punished for the ways in which we diverge from that definition.

While the specifics of what it means to be “good/normal” is different across cultures, races, religions, and genders, from an early age, we are constantly comparing what we notice inside of ourselves to the cultural definition of “good/normal.” When we find things inside ourselves that go against the messages we’ve received about what is “good/normal,” we tend to categorize it as “bad” and “unacceptable.” To avoid punishment or shame, we try to hide those things, banish them from our psyches, bury them deep down, or even deny their very existence in the hopes that they will eventually go away.

They don’t, of course.

The key to the parts of ourselves that we reject and deny is that we unconsciously (or consciously) believe they pose a threat– most often that threat is to connection itself. It feels like if anyone ever found out about that part of us, they would hate us, abandon us, reject us, or punish us.

Let’s take the example of a man, who is brought up with the message that a good/normal man is masculine, stoic, self-sacrificing, and silent. This man might find within himself bits of sensitivity, weakness, fear, emotions, and insecurity, and decide that in order to keep his status and connections safe, he must push all of those bits of himself down into oblivion, and deny their existence forever. Those parts of himself might become so loathsome to him, so dangerous and disgusting, that he finds himself resenting anyone else, male or female, who displays these traits, and find himself drawn to hyper-masculinity in the form of violence, porn, and an obsessive need to look big, strong, and powerful.

A woman on the other hand might get the message that in order to be “good” she must be small, delicate, passive, feminine, and selfless. Afraid of all the non-small, non-passive parts of her that she discovers inside, she becomes terrified that her very existence poses a threat to connection and belonging. She takes all of her aggression and “selfishness” (aka her strong sense of self and boundaries) and stuff them down out of reach, along with her needs, desires, intuition, anger, sexuality, and voice. She skates down the middle, careful to be enough of something, but never too much. Confident, but not too confident. Funny, but not too funny. Successful, but not too successful.

It’s not only cultural messages which teach us to reject parts of ourselves, either.

Many of us have specific memories of being shamed for something about our personalities, behavior, or bodies which we tagged forever as “unacceptable.”  Maybe your sister always called you dumb, or your dad used to comment on your unladylike manners or your mom worried about your weight. Whatever it was, these moments land in our brains as red flags for disconnection, letting us know that something about who we are is dangerous and we must stay on high alert to fight it off.

Self-acceptance isn’t easy. But it is absolutely a requirement for healing body image and walking around with an unconditional sense of self-worth.

If you still carry shame for any part of who you are– whether it’s about the kind of sex you fantasize about, or how much you want out of life, or how hungry you are for intimacy or attention, or how unkind you can be in your own mind– you will always need an outlet for that self-rejection.

Your body will always be a convenient location for your self-hatred, offering a tidy distraction and protection from the truth of your own hatred.

Think of it like this: all the parts of yourself that you reject get locked away in a corner of the deep dark basement of your psyche and treated like garbage with no food, no light, no human contact for years.

You, (the You who lives on the 5th floor of your psyche, with sun streaming through your windows enjoying the view and getting on with your life) rarely think about the basement. You’re far too busy with work and family and relationships and hobbies and routines and life.

So you carry on, happy-ish, thinking you did the right thing by locking those parts of yourself in the basement.

But two terrible things happen.

  1. The first is that you are desperately lonely, and always feel like something is missing. People who meet you and don’t like you make you feel worse, because you’re paranoid that they suspect, or can tell, about the parts of yourself you have banished to the basement, and you live in fear that they know and already hate you.

    People who meet you and like you make you feel guilty, because you know you’re pulling the wool over their eyes, and that they would despise you if they ever knew the truth of who you really are.

    You meet people all day, unable to fully connect with any of them, no matter how they treat you, because you are constantly distracted by guarding your secrets, and are never able to be fully authentic anyway, because you have far too much to hide and protect.

  2. The second is that sometimes you are there happily working on the fifth floor and you think everything is fine, when you suddenly hear screaming coming from the basement: blood-curdling, primal raging enemy-screams.

    One might call these moments shame spirals, “imposter syndrome,” anxiety/depression, self-loathing, beating yourself up, or bad body image days. They arise when you remember that these severed parts of yourself (fueled with rage and hatred for having been chained up in the dark for so long) exist, which means that you are inherently a monster.

Plus, occasionally, one or more of your basement captives will break loose and take over the whole building with extraordinary violence in vengeance for the war you have waged against them, leading to exquisite levels of self-sabotage and out-of-control bad decision-making.

Self-acceptance is about recognizing that we all have these parts of ourselves, that they’re normal and natural, and that (if you don’t wage war on them first) they’re not dangerous.

We all have flaws. We all have the capacity for unkindness, gross habits, and weird shit that we like and want and do and are. These parts of ourselves do not make us lessworthy of love, connection, or belonging.

Self-acceptance is about letting those parts of ourselves out of the basement, raising the white flag of peace, and gently integrating them into our sense of self.

What happens when you do this is that you restore yourself to psychic wholeness, and stop being afraid all the time. When you stop hiding and protecting your secrets, you can connect with people more fully– so the feelings of loneliness and isolation cease, and those moments of “I am worthless garbage” ease up.

Don’t get me wrong. Self-acceptance takes courage, patience, compassion, and tons of self-examination. But it’s worth it, because on the other side of self-acceptance you actually have access to unconditional body love, confidence, wholeness, aliveness, and a deep feeling of unshakeable, unconditional self-worth.

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