Let’s pull together what we’ve learned about acceptance for a fourth and final installment: learning to accept ourselves.
To many of the young people I work with, the words “self-acceptance” sound short for “the way you are now is the way you are going to stay, and you need to be ok with that.” This statement obviously does not sit well with them, in part because it stands in direct contradiction to what they are after – to change the unseemly aspects of their character and develop into the people they wish to become. They are not interested in complacency.
They also reject this idea because deep down they sense it isn’t true. As Jews, we fervently believe in the possibility of change. A person who is holding in the same spiritual, intellectual, and emotional state at age 50 as they were at 20 is missing a core feature of what it means to be alive. As humans, we are created with the capacity and responsibility to constantly grow into more than we were yesterday.
So what gets lost in translation? What message of self-acceptance is the right one?
The Package of You
We know by now that acceptance is a misunderstood concept. Just as it is incorrectly understood in marriage and when facing difficult life circumstances, so it is misconstrued when dealing with ourselves.
Each of us was handed a package when we arrived in this world. This package consists of the personality, abilities, physical appearance, intellect, psychological composition, and emotional temperament that make up who we are. We were then born into a specific family, community, geographic location, economic bracket, and religious environment. To top it off, we were slated to go through various experiences that would affect and shape our early development. We did not choose any of this. It was all handed to us.
Along with this package came an attached message. It read: “This is the package of ‘you.’ In this container called ‘yourself’ you will find many raw ingredients. You are now asked to work on crafting a project with what you have been given. You will not be told what you are meant to develop, just that the end product should be an expression of all the components you now possess. None of these elements should go to waste.
“Along the way, you may find yourself wishing you had someone else’s package. You may want to trade in your equipment or file a complaint about where you’re short on supply. That is understandable. However, that is also part of your challenge. You must learn to embrace the assortment of materials you have and cultivate something with them specifically. Your strengths – bring them out and use them. Your weaknesses – find ways to compensate for them. Your abilities – channel them into productive endeavors. Your challenges – learn from them and overcome them. Your life circumstances – let them guide you towards finding individual purpose and meaning. I promise that if you embrace this package and get to work putting it all together, the project you design will be exactly what I had in mind.”
This is self-acceptance, the decision to look in the mirror and embrace the package we have been given. It is an acknowledgment that all of our parts are necessary as we go about constructing the best version of ourselves. Acceptance doesn’t mean remaining unchanged, but rather understanding that the path of change begins by looking at ourselves right now and working with what is in front of us.
Acceptance Before Change
Like the young people referred to earlier, many of us assume that self-acceptance connotes the end of personal growth. We think it means, in the words of Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”
The truth, however, is precisely the opposite. Self-acceptance is not an end point, but a starting point. It is a necessary prerequisite without which personal growth cannot happen.
For example, many of us struggle with anxiety, a pervasive sense of nervousness about all the bad things we fear could happen to us or to those we love. However, we may also have adopted an attitude of denial or rejection towards this feeling. We may be hard on ourselves for being anxious, despite the genes, life experiences, and/or upbringing that make the anxiety entirely understandable. We may naively think that if we distract ourselves or numb our emotions, we’ll succeed in kicking the anxiety-can down the road and stumble upon a solution at some later point.
What we don’t do often enough is look squarely at the anxiety and get to work addressing it. This means leaning into the challenge, embracing it, and using it as a catalyst for growth. Anxiety in this case is not an impediment for growth, but rather a vehicle to bring growth about. It is an invitation to remember the message attached to our package, that if we accept our current selves as the starting point in our change journey, there is a very good chance that dealing with our personal shortcomings will result in positive and profound character development. It will get us to where we’re supposed to go.
The Curious Paradox
The importance of acceptance in the process of change was described roughly 60 years ago by Carl Rogers, one of the pioneers of the humanistic (and client-centered) approach in psychology. Rogers famously noted that “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Rogers’ aphorism expresses the fact that real growth is impossible if it does not start where a person is currently holding. Whatever issue I choose to address in my life can only shift if I first fully accept that it exists. If I am not busy fighting with myself to be other than I am, if I am not expending energy trying to reject myself, if I am not bent on denying the life I have been given, then I can change.
As Jews, we adopt this position every single day in tefilah. We face G-d in prayer exactly as we are, knowing full well that Hashem sees all aspects of our current state, inside and out. We are completely exposed – no hiding, no cover-up. And yet, somehow, we are accepted in that moment unconditionally. We even learn that Hashem desires our tefilah; He wants us to speak to Him as ourselves and not to mimic anyone else. This is why prayer is referred to as avodah sheb’lev, service of the heart, because it is an expression of our heart, the truest reflection of our present state.
While tefilah is on the one hand aspirational – focusing us on the core values we aim to inculcate – it is on the other hand an experience in which we are accepted as we are right now. It expresses both where we are headed and where we currently find ourselves. Prayer cannot get off the ground unless it begins from a position of acceptance – showing up in our relationship with Hashem exactly as we are today.
Acceptance Breeds Change
It’s likely, though, that Rogers was alluding to an even deeper point regarding acceptance and change. Just a few years before Rogers, another early humanist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, was developing ideas about self-actualization, the innate human tendency to flourish into one’s potential. Maslow suggested that we are hard-wired to grow and that given the right conditions and environment, we will naturally move towards a higher and more actualized version of ourselves.
Rogers’ “curious paradox” can also be viewed in light of Maslow’s theory (Rogers also wrote extensively on the idea of self-actualization). Not only is acceptance a prerequisite for growth, but the very act of accepting causes us to grow. When we accept ourselves and remove the shackles of self-loathing and self-denial, we unleash an innate tendency to progress towards change.
The theories of Maslow and Rogers line up with the Jewish view of acceptance and change. We all possess an internal engine that pushes us to become more than we were yesterday. In Judaism, we call this engine the neshama, the force inside that naturally spurs us to blossom into a more God-like version of ourselves. When given the right conditions, the neshama’s desire to actualize our potential will instinctively compel us to change for the better.
This Jewish understanding of self-actualizing is expressed through the teaching of Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, who compares man’s personal development to the sprouting of seed. Rabbi Levovitz points out that an expert botanist can look at a seed, understand its genetic components, and envision what it has the potential to become. However, only if the botanist sets up the right conditions for growth and provides the proper nutrition will the seed naturally flourish. If it is not “accepted” as the type of seed it is, if it is not nourished in accordance with its current stage in the growth process, whatever treatment it receives will likely cause it to die.
So too, the organic process of self-actualization can only take root once self-acceptance is in place. If we can come to terms with our G-d-given package and nourish ourselves accordingly, we will see that the result of acceptance is not complacency, but rather slow and steady human flourishing. Of course we are bound to become frustrated at times with the lot we’ve been given, which is why self-acceptance takes work. Yet it helps us to remember that acceptance and change are two sides of one coin. The sooner we lean into our personal reality and accept it for what it is, the sooner we are placing ourselves firmly on the path of real growth.