In 1969, the psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris, M.D., wrote a self-help manual called, I’m OK — You’re OK, which became a runaway bestseller and a catch phrase of the 70s.
“OK-ness” is a subjective assessment of the self, based on ideas and feelings — mostly from the past. If I had a family who praised, appreciated, adored and guided me, I’d probably end up feeling “OK” about myself, no matter what happened externally. But if I had parents who ignored, demeaned, shamed, or belittled me and my needs, I’d probably end up feeling bad and not OK about myself, no matter what happened externally.
As a psychotherapist for more than 20 years, I’ve seen supermodels doubt their good looks, and wealthy people feel financially insecure. “OK-ness” or self-esteem is like the rudder of a sailboat: when it’s deep, the vessel can endure huge waves; when it’s shallow or missing, the boat can capsize in puddle-deep water.
The road to mastering self-acceptance is long and winding, but here are four important reminders to help you along the way:
1. Know that whatever has been done can be undone, and vice versa.
I love this sentiment about human freedom, and I love that as a therapist. When I witness someone with an arid past and bad sense of self, recover or discover a fundamental sense of OK-ness, I like it. The hard-earned sense of OK-ness claimed through completing a 12-step program, or therapy, or just plain life-lessons, is so sweet.
Now here’s what I really like — in response to Dr. Harris’ statement, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” psychiatrist Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross came up with this: “I’m not OK, and you’re not OK. But that’s OK.” Now there’s a humanism I can live with! In her model, I don’t even have to be OK to experience OK-ness!
2. Admit your flaws, laugh at your quirks, and know that you will screw up.
Self-acceptance means knowing that it’s not a sin or stupid to not know what you don’t know. Self-acceptance says that maybe you’re not right about something, but you’re right within the core of your being.
How do you come by knowing this “core self,” you ask? In quietude, when the mind finally settles down — when each breath signals, “I am alive,” and you really get it and feel it at full measure. That means taking the time to be quiet, maybe on a regular basis. So yes, even though self-acceptance seems naturally sweet and easily attainable, it still takes effort to be with it. You still have to reach for it.
That’s where the age-old quest for enlightenment comes in; the element we seek out in everything we pursue: aliveness, fun, joy, depth, love and rest.
3. Love and accept other beings.
I see this firsthand in therapy groups week after week: people sharing and accepting the supposedly unacceptable things about each other. That kind of concentrated love and support can bust through years of wall-building, through negativity and self-condemnation. That kind of kindness that heals hearts and lives fully. When others reach out to us with unconditional acceptance, it helps us reach in and find it there, too.
Outside love from others can help, but is not the final measure of successful self-acceptance. The true flower of self-acceptance grows in a deeper garden, in a place inside of us beyond any layers of holding back or hiding out. It’s a precious flower planted long ago, when we were innocent and original. All we have to do to find our way back there is to become as simple and guileless as we once were.
To rediscover our innocence and reclaim it as our core — that is a solid foundation for full self-acceptance.
4. Accept the dark side, too.
Goodness and light are easy to accept because, well, they’re good, and it’s easier to feel good about goodness than it is to feel good about badness. We humans collectively honor goodness and dislike the dark side. But every yin has its yang. Every good thing about us and in us, casts a shadow, and we need to reckon with it and yes, make peace with it, to round out the self-acceptance picture. The Dark Side is important, and ignoring it can lead to problems.
For instance, did you know that Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi was far from the divine and perfect being we often look up to? In his autobiography, he fully confessed that he not only contained the seeds of violence within himself, but also acted on them in his life.
I honor the man who admits his to dark side, and then transforms it into humility and determination to be non-violent. I accept Gandhi as my hero because he kept on going beyond his mistakes. He continued to work on perfecting himself, flaws and all. He didn’t hide his imperfections, but challenged himself with them to reach new depths of personhood. Heck, if it turns out that not even Gandhi is OK, then that must really be OK!