The curious paradox is
that when I accept myself
just as I am,
then I can change.
- Carl Rogers
Most people who come into my office have a list of things they hope to change. They usually are not happy with themselves for not living up to a standard of how they want their lives to be and are tired of suffering. They often want me to tell them what to do, how to change, and how to fix their lives.
Many people find it hard to imagine accepting themselves as they are, when clearly they are not who they want to be, do not feel the way they want to feel and are not where they want to be in life. This leads to a lack of curiosity about their anxiety, depression, addiction or self-rejection.
Sound familiar? It's easier to find a self-help book telling you how to change than one guiding you to accept yourself, to dig deep and find a place of compassion and love for yourself, just as you are.
Paradoxically, this is the precursor to any lasting change. A solid foundation of self-regard and acceptance ( and maybe some humor about it!) will see you through all that you will face throughout your life. The idea that perfection is achievable or even desirable, will only create internal conflict in your life.
Self-acceptance does NOT mean complacency; it "simply" means befriending yourself, creating an internal spaciousness to explore who you are and what your true desires are. This allows shifts to occur, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. In either case, change comes from a place of positive self-regard rather than despair, anger or self-recrimination.
Wholeness is not achieved
by cutting off a portion of one's being,
but by integration
of the Contraries
Many people come into my office struggling with seeming opposite feelings or beliefs, often thinking that they have to eliminate one or the other of them. They often label one as "bad" and the other as "good," wanting to eliminate the "bad" or troublesome part of their personality.
Black or white thinking is very prevalent in our culture; there is not a lot of encouragement to accept and be comfortable with ambiguity or with the wide range of "gray" in between the opposite poles of black and white.
It's often hard to accept that you may feel both anxious and excited about something, fearful and courageous, loving and critical, vulnerable and protected, serious and also fun-loving. There is only a "problem" when the different parts are out of balance, or when you bounce back and forth between them, in an unconscious and uncomfortable way. Even addictive behavior has a message in it, if you can listen beneath the behavior to the need that is trying to be met.
Carl Jung proposes that if you can sit with the "tension of the opposites," if you can tolerate the discomfort of this/and instead of this/or, another, previously unimagined way of feeling or thinking will emerge. If you can tolerate the seeming opposites in yourself, an integration will eventually take place. You will achieve a sense of wholeness, of being more truly yourself, without having to eliminate any parts of yourself.
Get rid of the voices that are within you
and soon you will be surprised
to hear a still, small voice
you have never heard before...
then a sudden recognition that it is your voice.
There is so much noise inside and outside of our heads, that it is often difficult to hear and make space for the still, small voice within. This is a culture full of stimulus and sounds from TV, radio, Spotify, podcasts, social media, texting, chatting, or spending time in loud busy places like gyms, bars, and restaurants.
There is usually a similar noise level within our heads as well; there are voices that are critical and judgmental of ourselves and others or that are playing over conversations that happened or rehearsing conversations that may happen. These voices feel like our own, yet are composites of things we heard and absorbed from parents and others. Meditation teachers have called this the Monkey Mind, as it tends to leap from thought to thought, and we can get caught up in its antics, identifying fully with it.
Yet we are more than our minds and its thoughts. There is another voice that in volume can't compete with the loud chattering in our heads. It is the authentic voice, the voice of intuition, the voice that is the real you, beneath the layers of voices that have built up over the years in your mind.
Especially at first, it requires effort and quieting the mind to hear that voice, and may be difficult to not only hear but to recognize as genuinely yours. It may not speak in an actual voice but may be a "gut feeling" or sensation that communicates wordlessly with you. The more you pay attention to it, the more attuned you will become to your true self!
The opposite of depression
is not happiness;
the opposite of depression
~ Andrew Solomon
The definition of vitality is: "the state of being strong and active; energy." The experience of vitality is one of feeling energized and alive, engaged in what is "vital," essential and important. When you are engaged in your life in a vital way, you may feel that you can take on anything, that you are up for the challenge of whatever comes your way or whatever endeavor you choose to undertake. You are unlikely to be impacted much by fear or doubts.
Depression, on the other hand, is an experience of feeling stuck; energy, motivation, and aliveness feel very distant. It is often described as being trapped in a dark hole and not knowing how to get out of it.
Often people think of happiness as being the opposite of depression, as they seem to be such opposing feeling states: optimism vs pessimism, hope vs despair, energy vs lethargy. If you are feeling depressed, you may yearn for the elusive feeling of happiness. Although depression does include the loss of a feeling of contentment or pleasure which are part of happiness, the true energetic opposite would be vitality.
What has become unavailable due to a situation, trauma or brain chemistry, is that sense of feeling alive and engaged, active and directed. Pleasure, contentment and happiness will follow this state, but the essential first step is to connect to your vitality, your chi, your energy again.
Psychotherapy, possibly medication, meditation, exercise, nutrition, social interactions: all of these will help you connect or re-connect to your vitality.
We don't receive wisdom;
we must discover it for ourselves
after a journey that no one
can take for us
or spare us.
- Marcel Proust
Our culture abounds with experts: in the arena of the inner world, there are spiritual and psychological teachers, self-help books, TED talks, webinars and workshops. They often suggest that you can have the life you desire if you follow their wisdom and advice. There is certainly an allure to the hint or implication of a magic wand that will solve your problems!
In fact, there is valuable guidance and information to be gleaned from all of the above resources. Yet the journey is still uniquely yours. Just as you have a fingerprint that is not duplicated, so the journey to wisdom and to fully inhabiting your own life is also unique. Certainly there are templates and models of growth and change that are universal. Yet, the unique combination of nature and nurture that makes you YOU, also means that your path to self-discovery and wisdom also has its own healing symbols, twists and turns, your own demons to face, as well as making peace with yourself, your life and others in a way that resonates with who you are.
Psychotherapy ( and therapists), in the best of circumstances, will NOT tell you what to do! Therapy will provide you with a safe place to be curious and honest about your life, your inner world and your path. The therapist can help you learn more about yourself, your patterns, your hopes and desires as well as the obstacles that stand in your way. But the transformative process and path to wisdom is uniquely yours!
If you would like help exploring your path to wisdom
call me for a phone consultation
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley