One day a friend has tagged me to try a social network challenge: a popular photo game was rippling across the digital world. Should I? – I thought to myself. Among the heaps and mounds of tasks of the daily life, I had no time nor grit to stop and think of how a picture may express my day, my values or my thoughts. Not yet.
My initial response was to close the window and carry on with my life. But then there was something else that stopped me. I shut the window, nevertheless. But I began to think: why do I do it. I like taking pictures from time to time, and I’m interested in photography for its inspirational or therapeutic purposes. I suddenly caught a thought sneaking through my mind: ‘But what if I’m not good enough? What if this is not going to impress others?’ Working with people from a broad range of walks of life, I’m highly aware of how a self-image is rapidly getting grounded on likes and depreciation, and how these days social networks print and replicate people’s perceptions of their identity, teenagers and adults alike. Hearing tons of similar thought processes from various people that attend the self-esteem courses, I allow myself to speculate and summarise why others do not dare to share their own views expressed verbally or visually, even though they have fascinating stories to tell. The silence may not mean a growing precaution to leave a digital print mark in this self-imposed Orwellian world. It is more likely to do with an alarming question infused to many from early days: ‘Am I going to be liked? Am I good enough?’.
So, I set myself a challenge: not only on my social network site to visually reflect what’s important for me, searching for personal symbols in black-n-white. Without trying to impress. Without needing to receive a single like. Knowing how universally the tempting ritual to ‘check the progress’ became wide-spread, I sought to offer myself a different self-talk.
But why do we need challenges like that after all? Why my self-esteem should be based on a mere thought, that others have to like me so I can function better. Where does this popular unhelpful thinking pattern come from? It seems, it has a sturdy backbone in the evolutionary psychology: the fear of being rejected. Our ancestors would not have been able to survive should they have become outcasts in their tribes. They had to fit. They had to be neatly weaved into a community fabric to be able to contribute and receive the protection. Now, the fear of rejections is still painfully present, even if an individual, at least in the western societies, most likely will be able to survive. But those thinking patterns have long roots and have no intention of growing out. Moreover, with people’s intentional or unintentional assessments, communicated loudly or in silence, they grow deeper still.
Thus, modern people invented how to improve their self-esteem in order not to be rejected… emotionally. How to be liked. And it is a fair need, knowing how a social isolation can make more damage to the psyche of people, particularly on teenagers or older adults. So, people seek recognition in countless ways to fine-tune their body silhouettes, refine their intellectual mineshafts, to collect trophies, awards and achievements, hoping it will solidify their self-esteem. Often only black’n’white images allowed, it’s either you are totally perfect seen from the top of the Olympus, or ‘a loser you are’: no shades of grey in the unfolding picture of our Selves.
However, I would like to bring to this equation psychologist Ellis’ thought.
What if our self-esteem did not depend on the way we look, the things we own, the mountains we climb. What if I stopped rating myself and‘fully and unconditionally accept whether or not I behave intelligently, correctly and competently and whether or not other people approve, respect or love me’.
What if I could say to myself, that I’m deeply and genuinely OK. I may want to change an element of my presence here and there, but I want to choose it rather than trying to fit an invisible society’s frame, these days carved from likes and magazine front pages.
Can the concept of self-acceptance, unconditional and compassionate, find its way to the society, not only among contented hippies and hipsters. One of the attitudes I like that psychologist and theorist R.Ellis holds, is that people have a tendency to disturb themselves by inventing some rules (e.g. I have to be liked by all people), and then they deeply worry about breaking those rules (It’s over - some people don’t like me! Why my life doesn’t matter anymore). People tend to bother their ego, instead of carrying out their tasks mindfully and in full swing and flow. Some artists tend to get stuck in a box of blocks about whether they are going to be liked by art-lovers and sponsors, are they going to be recognised and famous. Quite a few parents often worry and mind-read about how relatives or by-passers judge their parenting skills. Some managers might fear their subordinates are going lose the respect toward them, and in turn, these subordinates are terrified to think of all possible ‘being fired’ scenarios should they make errors, heavily comparing themselves to their colleagues.
And I dare to ask you a Socratic Question: how helpful is to self-down yourself, to compare yourself to others? A moment of silence. And you might answer: it gives me the sense of motivation to strive for more. If that is empowering and energising thought to own, carry on! But if it isn’t, how beneficial it is to rate yourself in global terms and reduce a whole multi-coloured personality to ‘what an idiot am I’. Psychologists Palmer and Neenan suggest: we are a collection of small ‘I’s, some of those ever-changing, a rich hodgepodge of features, talents and interests. So how can I call myself ‘I’m a total loser’ based on one or couple features that are not up to the standard that I believe should adhere to? The psychologists ask, if you happened to notice a rotten fruit in your fruit basket, would you throw away the entire harvest?
Therefore, a theorist and practitioner Ellis confess:
‘I do not have intrinsic worth or worthlessness, but merely aliveness. I’d better rate my traits and acts, but not my totality of “self”. I fully accept myself, in the sense that I know I have aliveness and I choose to survive and live as happily as possible, and with minimum needless pain. I require only this knowledge and this choice—and no other kind of self-rating’.
Or I’M OK. In a nutshell.
Coaching psychologist and author Neenan suggest couple thoughts and concepts that might be helpful in your journey of self-acceptance.
- Be kind to yourself. If you choose to improve some internal or external aspects, be less harsh on yourself. Be factual and precise, try not to exaggerate your faults.
- We all are a part of common humanity. I’ve witnessed deep sighs when people, finally have met others who undergo similar processes. We are segments of humankind, no one is isolated; and however unique our experiences are, they still tend to fit into some tendencies.
- Staying mindful - holding uncomfortable and aching thoughts and feelings without exaggerating them, without over-identifying with them, staying in a fair balance.
And I would like to finish with Brene’s Brown thought:
‘Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
And so. I have invited myself to patiently complete a challenge and record my seven-daily imperfect black’n’white moments of life. Unforeseen to me, I experienced a beautiful feeling of liberation, being able to expose my limited yet growing communion with myself, without needing any external approval. I am in the world, I am present, I am able to share without a sheer cry to be recognised. I may indulge in the occasional round of applause, but my self-esteem does not depend on it. I was able to – and Maslow would be happy to hear it – to accept my helplessness and limitation, and be unperturbed about it. And that feeling of vulnerability, mixed with anxiety, apparently, eventually lead to self-acceptance.
However, I’m an adult, being able to work out my choices and not depending entirely on other people’s opinions. Teenagers yet encounter many struggles with defending their selves. At times, teachers and parents could be more helpful by appreciating not only their achievements and criticize the errors but start from within. I’m OK – you are OK, as old dear Berne would say.
So, ‘promoting self-acceptance in early childhood can also serve as a protective or preventative factor in the development of future mental health problems. Both parents and teachers can teach and encourage the practice of self- acceptance within the child’s environment’.
Joining other passengers of Self-Acceptance Train, I say, it’s still only a fragment from my journey that lies ahead, but I’m on track.