“The full and joyful acceptance of the worst in oneself may be the only sure way of transforming it.”
— Henry Miller
Most of us are far more practiced at sending acceptance and compassion outward than inward. We all have awkward and ugly aspects of ourselves that we’d rather ignore, or better, erase.
Carl Rogers, a great psychotherapist, knew keenly how much people desire acceptance. He observed that offering radical acceptance of the person had the power to spark significant change in their lives. He based his method around that insight, and cultivated an attitude of what he called “unconditional positive regard” for his patients.
The vast majority of human beings have experienced the love of others as conditional upon something- “I’ll be loved as long as I don’t keep hitting my brother”, or“as long as I get top grades”. The conditions placed on us don’t have to be spelled out to create serious limits within us, like inner prisons.
Rogers found that when his patients experienced acceptance for all that they were, including their flaws, they discovered in themselves the possibility for transformation.
We all have our ways of finding tenderness for others, even when our patience is stretched thin. In a place of healing like a hospital, we see all the time how showing tenderness leads to transformation.
It’s far more difficult to shower compassion on ourselves, but it’s worth doing. It’s hard to learn and grow when mired in fear and shame. It’s hard to imagine new possibilities for oneself while held back by self-doubt. You might think that being starkly critical of one’s shortcomings would be a realistic basis for improvement; instead it breeds paralysis.
The Buddhist spiritual practice of Metta, also known as Lovingkindness meditation, can be a powerful aid on the path to self-acceptance. Traditionally it’s practiced by cultivating the feeling of warm compassion in ever-widening circles, beginning with oneself and ultimately including enemies and strangers. But as many of us know all too well, loving oneself sometimes proves to be the greatest challenge.
With Metta, we can see and acknowledge that difficult aspect of the self… and send it our tenderness. Holding at bay the wish to obliterate that knot of pain, we can send it compassion just as we would to another person who is hurting and in need.
Throughout our lives, we respond to our wounds and our flaws with shame. Those parts of ourselves crunch up or clamp down or lash out like toddlers having decades-long temper tantrums. But love is as profoundly illogical as it is powerful, and nothing is more powerful than love. Acceptance is the great untier of knots. Slowly, gently, the act of compassion liberates us for joy.