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On Self-Acceptance and Authenticity

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Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 

 

On Self-Acceptance and Authenticity

Kirstin Hotelling Zona

Hello, Lovelies!

Last week I flew to Austin, TX, to participate in a three-day kick-off retreat for The 108, a conscious business collective curated by author, speaker, and growth strategist Jonathan Fields and his team at The Good Life Project (http://www.goodlifeproject.com). The retreat gathered 80+ people from all over the world who've committed to working together for at least a year to inspire, co-create, and support each other in our efforts as entrepreneurs to make this world a better place through the work we love, to fully become—by teaching/making/creating/doing—the change we want to see.

The weekend was full of what you might imagine: super-skilled presentations by leading authors and entrepreneurs; break-out group sessions for strategizing and masterminding; phenomenal food (like outrageously delicious quinoa and wild mushroom risotto that I can’t stop craving); dynamic conversations with other 108ers; great weather; even fabulous swag.

But as I settled into my seat on the plan ride home, exhausted and rejuvenated, I realized that my biggest take-away from the weekend had little to do with any of the above.

Not the largesse of cutting-edge content.

Not the innovative exercises we did, individually and in groups.

Not the amazing food (with yummy vegan options!).

Not even the table devoted exclusively to chocolate brought by everyone to share.   

Instead, what inspired me most, what I kept turning over in my mind, was the authority and ease these teachers inhabited.

The way the first team member moved seamlessly from one register or body of knowledge—a recent finding in neuroscience and its relevance to systems theory and implementation—to another register that’s generally perceived as at odds with the former: inviting us all to stand up, raise and join our arms, and make a traveling dinosaur, complete with sounds and waddles. Or another teacher who introduced a killer presentation on list-growing and community-building with an utterly moving (like moved-us-to-tears) spoken word performance about love, abuse, and recovery. Or the way our host, Jonathan Fields, clad in jeans, high tops, and an untucked buttoned-down, began every teaching point with a personal story, so that by retreat’s end we’d traveled with him through three decades, two continents, a few relationships, and several entrepreneurial ventures, failures and successes alike.

But it wasn’t just confidence, an ease with people and being seen, or even the willingness to be daring or unconventional that shifted something inside me. In fact, it was clear that some of them were a little anxious: sweaty armpits, nervous laughs. Rather, it was a distinctive quality of self-inhabiting, a totally unapologetic authenticity that struck me again and again.

As I watched these new mentors of mine throughout the weekend, I kept thinking “okay, this is what it looks like—what it feels like—to accept yourself, all of yourself.” Not because you think you’re flawless, but because you’ve finally learned that self-loathing is the ultimate block to personal (and thus cultural) evolution, and not, as we too often believe, a catalyst to growth.  

The opposite of arrogance, such self-acceptance inspires communication, collaboration, and risk-taking in those we encounter. As Tara Brach puts it in Radical Acceptance, a book I’ve worn nearly to shreds with love,

"Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening, and intense… When we practice Radical Acceptance, we begin with the fears and wounds of our own life and discover that our heart of compassion widens endlessly. In holding ourselves with compassion, we become free to love this living world. This is the blessing of Radical Acceptance: As we free ourselves from the suffering of  “something is wrong with me,” we trust and express the fullness of who we are." (4)

Being in the presence of such radical self-acceptance was hugely liberating and permission-giving. As the weekend unfolded, I felt an easy integration among parts of myself I’d grown accustomed to thinking of—and living between—as at odds. Namely, the internal friction that accrues between those parts of myself that I sanction, and the parts of myself I can feel ashamed of (a schism that will, if left untended, manifest in all manner of physical ailments, such as inflammation, headaches, autoimmune disorders, and/or fatigue).

Before arriving in Austin, I’d been feeling at once eager and shaky: who I am, two years into entrepreneurship, to be mingling with the likes of these accomplished creators? What about all the unfinished projects I’ve started—the opt-in I created weeks ago but have yet to launch; the home office that I’ve yet to unpack all the way after moving one year ago; the book I started writing but strayed from, no longer sure it’s the book I want to write; the unpublished manuscript of poems in my drawer; the unhung photos in the hallway… on and on I could go. One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with a host of almosts at my side: the book I almost wrote, the love I almost realized, the business I almost built, the movement I almost created.

But as I watched teacher after teacher stand up and share his or her journey in that at-once-easy-yet-unaffected-way, something shifted inside. Not because we’d been taught a lesson in self-love, or an exercise in affirmation (both of which I believe have value), but because in watching—feeling—these mentors navigate without apology or even acknowledgement the ostensible extremes of their own inner worlds, at once vulnerable and strong, humble and accomplished, I simply relaxed. In a deep, profound way.

And in doing so I realized afresh how much energy it takes to disown our shortcomings. How wearing it can be. And how subtle this exhaustion is, like a long, slow leak that we learn to accommodate over time, adjusting almost imperceptibly as we go, until we find ourselves, like the tire, in need of repair.

Simply put, in that moment the distance I’d perceived between my strengths and weaknesses shrank as these parts of myself united. By the time I returned to my hotel room that night I no longer thought of my tendency to distract myself from projects upon hitting the home stretch as a wall of shame I need to hurl myself over en route to legitimacy. Instead, this habit of mine became nothing more or less than a challenge, a problem with a number of solutions. Matter of fact. Not, certainly, something worthy of more distraction via self-shaming and second-guessing.

Interestingly, just as my weaknesses normalized, my strengths rose into relief. Aspects of myself that, in the isolation of my at-home work-world, I take for granted and forget to see became apparent: my ability to listen deeply, and with genuine care. My curiosity. My quick apprehension of pattern and systems. My love of someone’s goodness and capacity to name what I see.

As I felt myself unify within the light of self-acceptance, a seismic creative surge moved through me, I think as a result of simply letting go and letting be (and until then, I hadn’t even realized the extent to which I was holding up/holding on!). The result? Massive energy. Electric synapse-firing. Heightened capacity for discovery and intake. Deepened compassion. A torrent of ideas. And solutions. Connections and inspiration. I filled a third of a notebook with plans and action steps that I’ve been committed to since my return.

What I loved about this experience was how it drove home what I’ve known to be true, if not always embodied: radical acceptance isn’t about eschewing what we dislike about ourselves, but changing the way we think about these qualities, our histories, our hurts. It’s really as simple as deciding to think differently, and employing specific habits to this end. It’s NOT, that is, about fixing ourselves and feeling all tidied up before we can get a move-on with what it is we’re meant to do in this life. No, it’s about realizing that when we avoid our pain we create more of it, and when we face our pain we enter a path of healing, a path suffused with all manner of nourishing encounters.

How, then, in the absence of a retreat getaway, can we practice this process of unification in our everyday lives? In lots of ways, actually! Here are two key practices I employ every day, and that I teach my clients to practice as regularly as they brush their teeth or buy groceries or feed their kids. If you commit to these two practices alone for the next week, I guarantee that you’ll experience a noticeable increase in joy, confidence, productivity, and energy:  

1. Ask good questions. Most of us go around asking ourselves horrible questions with the best of intentions: What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a loser? Why can’t I do better? Why don’t I follow through? Why am I bad at relationships? Why can’t I lose weight? Why can’t I ask for what it is I really want? Our brains are wired to find solutions. They don’t care if we are happy or sad. They just look for answers to the questions we give them. If we ask ourselves why we are bad at something, our brains will efficiently look for answers, and will do so by coming up with evidence to support the assumption at the heart of the question (that you’re broken, bad at loving, can’t lose weight, etc.). Which in turn fortifies the belief underlying the question, and round and round you go, exasperatedly stuck in the very pattern you’re trying to break free from.

But you can break this feedback loop by asking good questions, questions that will generate answers that serve you: What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now? What are my strengths and how can I use them to help me in this situation? What do I need to know in order to do better next time? What do I need to believe about myself in order to follow through? What do I need to give myself in order to love well? What is the most healthful choice I can make in service of losing the weight I want to lose? What small action can I take in service of realizing what it is I really want?

These are GOOD questions. Can you feel the difference immediately as you choose these over the previous ones? Give it a try. Become aware of the questions you ask yourself, then deliberately revise them. I have my clients write down their new stable of questions on notecards and put them in their purses, wallets, cars, and workspaces as reminders. This tool alone will shift you dramatically in one day.  

2. Reframe your weaknesses in terms of your strengths. This one’s really important, and is all too often dismissed as turning a blind eye to what we need to improve. It goes like this: When that little voice of self-criticism starts prattling on in your head, stop and notice it. Pause. If possible, write it down. Let’s take mine, for example: You always jump from one thing to another. You don’t stick with things. You don’t finish. You’re going to be an almost forever. Then, once you notice this voice and what it’s saying, take note of the evidence your mind is piling up in support of its interpretation. With regard to the above example, I could list these: getting divorced, taking leave from university to start a coaching business, not having published my last manuscript of poetry. Then, once you’ve identified the evidence, flip the script: What positive traits or characteristics do these actions demonstrate? In my case: Honesty when it comes to my innermost desires. The courage to pursue my creative evolution even when it seemed risky to do so. An innovative mind. A willingness to put a project aside after having worked it to the bone, a decision that allowed me to realize the creative pursuit that was really yearning for expression—the creation of my own business. Determination. Vision. Once you’ve flipped the script, take out your journal and write down the ways in which the evidence you’d been using against yourself in fact contains evidence in support of your brilliance, your gifts, your goodness. Practice the act of reframing at least once a day, in writing. Soon, you will start to do so automatically, in your mind, throughout your day.

By viewing our actions from this new and improved angle, we are not overlooking our limits or sugar-coating our weaknesses. Rather, we are using positive rather than negative reinforcement to motivate and guide our actions.

The research overwhelmingly shows that shame-based punishment with children and criminals alike does nothing to deter bad behavior or crime, and in fact perpetuates it. In contrast, reinforcing positive behavior while redirecting negative behavior is proven to be a far more successful strategy for teaching kids self-control, self-confidence, and self-efficacy—exactly the traits we are seeking (and lacking) when churning through the cycle of self-doubt, second-guessing, and so-called self-sabotage.

By intentionally reframing as strengths the so-called evidence we cite to ourselves in support of our limiting beliefs, we catalyze our innate love of learning and creative energy, and in so doing jump-start the sustainable motivation to do whatever it is we’ve been avoiding (in my case, finishing unfinished projects). When our efforts to accomplish something are motivated by a belief that we are inherently good, not flawed, we are far more likely to succeed than when motivated by a belief that we’re lacking and must prove ourselves better by accomplishing said goal. The latter approach utilizes will power alone, but willpower is expendable (it lasts, on average, about three weeks). The former strategy capitalizes upon what researchers in positive psychology identify as the human urge to flourish. A belief in your deep longing to flourish will always propel you further along the path of your full potential than will the wish to fix what you believe is inherently flawed. The will-to-love will always outlast willpower alone.

Together, these two practices will dramatically enhance your experience of self-acceptance. With self-acceptance comes unification, that sensation of wholeness we so often misguidedly search for in relationships, in food and drink, in material goods, in overcommitting and overproving. As your self-acceptance grows, so does your energy, and thus your capacity to truly give and receive.  

I’d love to know how these tools work for you! If you have any questions, leave me a comment below and I’ll respond directly.

Love,

Kirstin


 



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