What Does “Progress” Look Like When It Comes to Self-Acceptance?

Blame it on my brain chemistry, cultural conditioning, or perhaps my familial mythology, but the trait I have held onto most consistently in my 27 years on this earth has been self-criticism.

Thankfully, I *sometimes* have the capacity to take a step back and cultivate a sense of humor about how pervasive and relentless my Inner Critic is. Like, I’ll be sick and lying in bed with a cold, playing a loop of rhetorical questions in my head: why did you let yourself get sick? Why didn’t you take oregano oil last week when everyone in your office was sick? Why haven’t you been sleeping more? Why have you been sleeping so much?  [Insert mean rhetorical question here]

In other words: I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I set myself up for failure almost constantly, and it always proves to be a giant waste of energy and time. It also makes me feel bad, and keeps me from feeling energized about the actions I want to make in my life, which span from doing laundry on a Sunday to writing a book to learning to treat myself with more kindness. Yes, I want to learn how to let go of this critical voice, as profound a loss as it will be.

The irony is that the ostensible “goal” of being so hard on myself seems to be a drive toward progress, ambition, some amorphous goal of “virtue”—more oregano oil, more sleep, less sleep, more water, less smoking pot, fewer calories, more omega 3-fatty-acids, whatever the obsession of the hour is. This continues to be the case even though I’m self-awarely “woke” enough about neuroplasticity to know what the research says: self-criticism is not just unproductive, it’s actively destructive. To motivation, to mental health, and even to the immune system.

The stubborn, rebellious part of me wants to say, “fuck that.” But the bottom line is, If hating yourself worked, I wouldn’t be talking about all this. I’d probably just be an evangelist for self-loathing. Instead, I’m speaking out against it.

***

As I write this today, I am in the midst of a real push to feel happier in my life. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, or the byproduct of far too many years berating myself, but that’s where I am at and I have gathered quite a bit of focus behind it, exhausting and self-referential as it may be to hear about (sorry).

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It’s true.

In addition to #therapy, I’m now also working with a mindfulness life coach to help me be more accountable to concrete goals that support my mental health and happiness. Meditate every day. Write poems again. Smoke less pot. Start a journaling practice. You get the picture. (I’ve even begun writing LETTERS between different “parts” of myself, which reminds me of the Pixar film Inside Out. Quite literally, I write myself letters “from” my Self-Loathing and then imagine my Self-Acceptance as the recipient, who then can respond in the form of another letter.) The practice of Working On Myself is DIFFICULT and time-consuming, but I’ll admit, I feel a tremendous sense of progress.

But when it comes to self-acceptance, what does “progress” mean, anyway?

In today’s techno-solutionist world of measuring our steps with FitBits, recording and analyzing our workouts on Miscellaneous Exercise App, and even tracking our REM cycles during sleep, the vague and idiosyncratic notion of progress—especially for something as mythic as self-acceptance—may seem impossible.

And indeed,  it often feels impossible, or at least it does to me. On some days, I’m easily able to observe my thoughts, habits of mind, and patterns of behavior with a sense of openness, expansion, and curiosity. All of that, to me, are central qualities in self-acceptance. But on other days, I feel myself contract and fall back into old, oppressive patterns. I’ll judge myself, and ask questions that break me down instead of build me up. Sometimes, I feel able to intervene in the cycle of self-judgment and re-route my attitude. Other times, I can’t. Frustratingly, all of these paradoxical steps are part of how I understand progress.

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Redefine your terms. B+ ≠ Failure!

My ability to connect with and actually recognize these things as progress ebbs and flows. Like, last week, when I forgot to take my Zoloft and was completely unable to focus at work, I sank and sank and sank until my inner dialogue was so recursively negative that it felt inescapable. I was cognizant that talking to myself with such judgment was costing me, and I kept doing it. The voice of Self-Acceptance seemed nowhere to be found. It wasn’t, the day ended (with a couple of glasses of wine), and the next day came around. I took my Zoloft, got a good amount done, and recognized that some days are worse than others. Perhaps being able to bounce back so quickly was progress in and of itself.

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Embrace the paradoxes of progress.

What’s deeply interesting to me is that horrible, regressive days like this can exist alongside days in which I feel so self-accepting that I’m almost unrecognizable to myself. Another day last week, to provide a counter-example, I found myself just about to spiral on the heels of receiving an angry letter from an ex. The depths of depression felt so close within my reach, and I knew that forcing myself to work would just lead to procrastination, self-judgment about said procrastination, and a negative cycle from there. I decided with discernment—and with kindness—to read my book instead of finish an article with an upcoming deadline. The progress in this instance wasn’t something anyone else could understand as a personal victory. It wasn’t an extra set of steps to record on my FitBit or dollars to watch flow into my bank account. But it was evidence of my growing ability to accept myself, the very goal I set out to achieve once I began this recent, concerted effort to be a happier person.

How can this be useful to you?

It may or not be, depending on how type-A you are, and how willing you are to regard experimentation as a rigorous practice.

I am, admittedly, type-A, so I am actually quite resistant to the notion that anything, self-acceptance or otherwise, isn’t something you can capital-a Achieve in a singular event. It also, counter-intuitively, won’t always feel good or victorious. Sometimes, accepting yourself means feeling fat and lazy and horrible, and noticing that—with a recognition of the pain it is causing you, and what might mitigate it.

Sometimes, it may mean feeling fat and lazy and horrible and “intervening” with a breath, and a reminder that the mind is playing tricks on you. Perhaps the breath helps, and perhaps it doesn’t. “Success” in these instances is irrelevant. It is all self-acceptance, and it is all progress.

The key bit is noticing, which is certainly not something you can accurately measure and understand with a device or app. If you can breathe, you can notice. And if you’re doing both of those things, you are making progress.

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