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Monday, 25 December 2006

Self Acceptance

So it's the time of year when, once all the presents are purchased and wrapped, I start pondering New Years Resolutions. (I think last year I resolved to procrastinate less, so this bodes well for that. (um, ok I didn't, but it still bodes well. anyway.)) I think an important one for me next year is self-acceptance. But what does that mean, exactly?

If I accept myself just as I am, does that mean accepting that I haven't accepted myself? But self-acceptance would, itself, constitute a change. So I'm not accepting myself as I am right now, because that's a paradoxical sort of impossible. There's a version of the uncertainty principle at work. You can accept yourself (now) as you were. And you can accept yourself as you will be in the moment after self-acceptance. But you can never accept yourself right in that moment.

This is a perhaps silly way of pointing out that people are moving targets. We change constantly. I've heard music theorists talk about laptop artists as being the only folks who have to work with a constantly self-modifying instrument. (Software upgrades, etc can cause major changes fairly frequently in way which doesn't tend to happen to, say, a violin.) but it's not just laptop artists, it's also vocalists. Our selves, our physical presence, our internal image of ourselves, the conversation between the two, the control mechanisms of same are all constantly in more or less flux.

Therefore, change is inevitable. Self-acceptance itself is a form of change. to be meaningful, it must also embrace change. It's also a process. Which is to say it's not instantaneous, but rather a process applied to our selves. It implies a change in the conversation between our physical presence and our internal image of ourselves and this causes a change in in our internal image. That change in internal image is the goal of the process, but also part of the process.

To accept yourself, it is necessary to know what you are accepting. While it's possible to accept the unknown, this process certainly implies a level of self-awareness. It seems that in order to accept yourself, you have to make some sort of inventory of what exactly you are. This involves a questioning process and thus forms identity. The accepted self is more clearly defined than the unaccepted self.

But what of our physical selves? Their alteration may be included as part of the process. For example, imagine a man looking in the mirror and having a moment of acceptance. "I'm going bald." he finally admits to himself. If he truly accepted that, would he continue having a combover, or would he change his hairstyle to more accurately reflect the current state of his hair? If he truly accepted the state of his hair, he would react to it by changing his hairstyle. Therefore, self acceptance can imply physical changes, or under certain circumstance, may require them.

So we inquire to find ourselves and then apply changes to uncover the revealed self. But the revealed self is created through the process of discovery. The questioning creates the identity. What we accept, then, is not some "true self" that predates the process, but rather the self formed through experiences, questioning and the process of acceptance. We have agency through the process so therefore, we have agency as to what our accepted selves will be. But that agency has limitations. The bald man who accepts his baldness finds his choice limited. He cannot will his hair back into being. His baldness is like a closet that he comes out of.

Lack of self-acceptance stems from discord between our mental image of ourselves and our physical manifestations. We don't want to believe that we're bald. We want our actions to reflect what we think our principles are. When our physicality and our self-image are at odds with each other, this causes us pain. The way out of this pain is to go through it, but many of us instead turn away from it, letting out self images diverge from our physical selves. A reminder of the difference causes pain, so we put a block there and diverge further. Eventually, the divergence must be faced.

What if our image is very strong and very sure but is in missmatch with our physical selves? For example, we believe ourselves generous, but are not. We suffer pain from this mismatch in the form of guilt. Few would argue that the best path would be to accept our lack of generosity, but rather to practice changing our physical manifestations, our actions, to match our idea of ourselves.

Some of our sense of self seems to be immutable. Whether it is inborn or formed later in life is moot. The point is simply that some ideas of ourself are changeable and others are not. Self acceptance implies serenity then. We change what we can and accept what we can't. We bring unity between our inner sense of self and out physical manifestation then by changing our manifestation. After Joan of Arc's initial trial for heresy, the court forced her to wear women's clothes. after only a few days of it she refused. Her inner sense of self was in terrible conflict with her dress. For her, the path to self-acceptance involved being forced to chose death over compromise. Fortunately, few of us will be put in a situation so dramatic.

Joan's idea of herself was certainly a combination of factors including ideas of herself dating from childhood and her experiences as an adult. Her path included intense questioning, although from an external source. These factors lead her to form an identity surrounding her gender presentation. This sense of identity and the accepting of it limited her choices. She could not be at peace with herself and wear a dress.

In summary, self-acceptance implies questioning, physical and/or mental change, limitation and serenity. Lack of self acceptance and dissonance between our idea of self and our presentation of self causes pain. Self-acceptance implies a relief from this pain. It is a involved and possibly painful process, but a worthwhile one, as it brings peace.

Happy Holidays!

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