Self-acceptance is one of the most difficult, yet, vital challenges of the human journey. It’s certainly been an ongoing challenge for me. After many years of being involved in meditation and psychological training—and then hosting a 20-part interview series called The Self-Acceptance Project (available free on the Sounds True website)—I now have lots of tools to work with, and it’s nowhere near as painful or debilitating as it used to be.
I tell a story in the beginning of The Self-Acceptance Project from when I was 22 and had recently started Sounds True. I was producing a live public radio broadcast of a Soviet-American dialogue called “Citizens Summit,” hosted by Barbara Marx Hubbard. I had 50 public radio stations airing my first live broadcast, and when it was over, I learned that the translation feed did not come through. About 25 minutes of the broadcast was spoken only in Russian, making it basically incomprehensible for almost all our listeners in North America. I went back to my hotel room, crawled into bed, and pulled the covers up over my head. I would’ve crawled under the bed if I could have. And then a voice inside my mind said, You should die now. You deserve to die.
My first thought was, How could something in me be so mean? I heard that same voice over and over for about 24 hours. I just stayed in bed, ordered room service, and picked myself up the next day. I swore at the time that I wasn’t ever going to do anymore live broadcasts. It took a long time for me to get both the professional staff that would prevent that kind of thing from happening and the confidence to know that even if something unwanted did happen again, I could handle it.
When I launched The Self-Acceptance Project, I wanted to explore why so many people, even after they’ve been on a spiritual path for a long time, still hear those kinds of voices. I don’t think there’s an easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but I wanted to hear from different spiritual teachers, neuroscientists, and psychologists to help me understand this.
One thing I learned is that as human beings we’re wired for what’s known as the negativity bias. This served us when we lived in the wild and feared a tiger would leap from behind a bush and attack us, so we were always scanning our environment for threats—looking for what’s wrong or for what’s out of place. For some of us, this negativity bias could be stronger, but for others, we need to tone it down. If you’re a lawyer or a businessperson, for example, you’re constantly paranoid. Although this is how our brains are naturally wired, it doesn’t mean we can’t become aware of it, start to see it at work, and learn to balance it. That’s part of the work of self-acceptance.
Another reason for the negative voices in our heads has to do with early childhood experiences being punished for making mistakes or not doing what our parents wanted. Underneath that we all have a desire to belong, to be accepted by our social group. If something happens like a screwed-up broadcast, or nobody cares about our poems, or people think we’re fat and ugly, or we’re not successful enough, then we’re terrified that we’re not going to be loved and accepted. The voice then says, Come on, get it together! Lose weight so you will be loved! Get your money act together so you won’t be shamed! Underneath the voice of self-criticism is merely the voice of an inner ally trying to help us be loved and accepted and safe. It’s just not necessarily going about it in the most helpful way.
I went into The Self-Acceptance Project thinking that the self-critic is the problem. My first interview was with Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of Self-Compassion (Morrow, 2011). Right off the bat, Kristin said that the set-up had to change for me to truly understand the depths of self-acceptance. Instead, she suggested, we could have compassion for this voice of criticism. We are attempting to understand what it was trying to accomplish and how it was simply intending to serve our good, our safety, and our sense of belonging. She introduced an on-the-spot technique that anyone can use, which I found to be one of the most helpful teachings in the entire collection of interviews.
She suggested gently placing a hand somewhere on your body—on your heart or on your arm, for example, or you could touch the side of your face or maybe even cup your face in both palms—and offer words of self-compassion to yourself, saying something like, I realize I’m suffering. This hurts and it’s okay. I bring my own love and compassion to this situation.
She explained that this physical quality of touch elicits a change in our whole nervous system, moving away from the threat response system—the reptilian part of our brain—to the mammalian system of love and bonding. Kristin calls this the “move to tend and befriend.” It releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. This also happens when we pet a beloved dog or when we hold hands with a friend or a partner. This release of oxytocin relaxes us so we don’t feel like we’re about to be attacked.
Kristin also pointed out that this is a shared human experience. As we’re tending and befriending, we can also say to ourselves, I realize many other people feel the same thing and have gone through the same experience. I’m not alone, I’m simply part of the human race, one of the many humans who make mistakes or suffer like this.
I also interviewed Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She offered another powerful suggestion based on the Buddhist loving-kindness meditation that works in a similar manner—except we don’t have to wait until we feel triggered to use it. She suggests we train ourselves on a regular basis to say phrases like, “May I feel loved and accepted, safe, and at ease.” The words themselves are not as important as the feeling and the well-wishing spirit behind them. We can send out the same words for a friend: “May our friend feel loved and accepted, safe, and at ease.” We can then send the same words out for people who we run into at the grocery store, in our neighborhood, or when we’re traveling; and then for the people in our lives who we view as difficult; and finally for everyone in the world. The more we’re trained in that practice of loving-kindness, the more we have that resource to draw on when something happens.
So when we end up being late for an important meeting, for example, and we think, I miscalculated the time. I screwed up! we can immediately call on loving-kindness and say to ourselves, May I feel at ease. May I feel loved and accepted. We can draw on the fact that many people miscalculate and end up late to a meeting. We don’t have to make that big a deal out of it.