The curious paradox is
that when I accept myself
just as I am,
then I can change
- Carl Rogers
It is indeed a paradox that change isn't possible without first accepting what is. Most people have a long laundry list of things they find unacceptable about themselves from the physical, to the emotional, to achievements, to the way they go about living. This is certainly what brings many people into therapy; a deep dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives.
Dissatisfaction or unhappiness can be great motivators for change, as they are often what lead you to begin to look for solutions and ways to change, and often push you to seek psychotherapy. And this is where the paradox often shows up, as self-criticism and recrimination as well as self-doubt frequently surface. An immediate reaction is frequently a desire to get rid of these unwanted parts of yourself or ways of being or experiencing the world.
The idea of accepting unwanted parts of yourself may feel unimaginable and you may wonder why you would want to do that. Yet paradoxically, acceptance and change are two sides of the same coin. You cannot simply disown or cut out a part of you that you dislike, as it is exactly that, a part of you. The distaste you feel for it doesn't make it any less a part of you. In fact, resistance to it makes it more firmly entrenched.
However, by simply approaching whatever you hate or dislike about yourself, with interest, curiosity, tolerance or compassion, will soften the feeling. It doesn't mean you condone bad behavior in yourself, but you begin to have an interest in it, in how it developed, and in how at one time it served or protected you. Paradoxically, the more able you are to accept all parts of yourself, the more easily you will be able to let go and change.
Try this simple practice: In a comfortable position, take a few deep breaths and relax. Then as you inhale, say to yourself "accept" as you accept the breath going into your body as well as any other feeling, thought or sensations you may be experiencing. Then as you exhale, say to yourself "let go,"as you let the breath go and imagine letting go whatever feeling, thought or sensation you accepted with your inhalation. Repeat for several minutes.
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley