Accepting the “not so pretty” Parts
At the heart of most, if not all, effective therapeutic relationships lies unconditional positive regard. Ideally, our therapists accept and affirm us, making it clear that this relationship does not depend on us changing. They value and care for us exactly as we are when we walk through their door. Yet most of us go to therapy because we want things to change. And one important principle about boundaries that is often conveyed is that you have no control over the other person: what they do, what they think, how they feel. The only thing you can control and change is yourself. So following the logic, if you wish things to change, then you needs must change yourself. At this point in the proceedings, you find yourself saying “BUT I’m fine just the way I am, didn’t you just tell me that? So I don’t need to change. Which is it, do I not need to change or not? Am I ok or not? Make up your mind, before I start heaving large blunt objects in your direction!! ” (For the record, I would like to state that although I have often felt the impulse, I have never actually thrown anything at BN. OK, except that pair of socks, but that’s a story for another day. ;))
So you don’t need to change, but you’re here to change is another of the paradoxes which reside at the heart of therapy.
The reason this feels like such a contradiction in terms, is, I believe, that we are confusing a few things. For many of us, our worth is dependent on our performance and our ability to take care of other people’s’ needs because that’s what we were taught as children. We strove for perfection because if we could finally achieve it, then maybe we’d finally be good enough that the bad things our parents were doing to us would stop. Because it had to be our fault we were being treated that way. (This served two purposes, allowing us to see our parents as “good” and “safe” which was important because we knew we were dependent on them and gave us some sense of control over a situation in which we were actually powerless. These beliefs about our badness, or falling short, were what allowed us to stave off despair.) Therefore, we believe we must be perfect to be worthwhile. So if our therapists see us as worthwhile, then we must be perfect right? And who wants to change perfection? But we know we’re not perfect (most of us believe the complete opposite at times), so how can we already be acceptable to our therapists?
Hence, the first important lesson in therapy is to understand that our worth is not based on being perfect. Our worth is simply the truth about us, a first principle. We are inherently worthwhile, imperfections and all. So when our therapists say they accept and care for us, just as we are, they mean it. So there is no need to change.
Because of our childhood experiences, many of us were taught lies about things that were normal, and even healthy. Every human being has needs and acts to get those needs met. We were taught our needs were somehow extreme or over the top; we need to learn that our needs are legitimate. We learned that to make ourselves vulnerable was to be hurt; but the truth is truly intimate relationships require vulnerability . Harsh treatments of our failures, led us to believe they were horrible defects or gross monstrosities, when in truth, since no one is perfect, all of our imperfections should have been met with grace and compassion. You get my drift.
So our childhood taught us many false lessons and we developed behaviors in response that allowed us to survive the lies and cope with the deficiencies in what we were given. But we grow to adulthood and the beliefs we learned, and the behaviors that were formed, become maladaptive. Continuing in them is often harmful to us and to our relationships, at their best leaving us unhappy and confused. So therapy becomes an interesting balance between learning to honor these behaviors, because they served an important purpose and there are good reasons we employed them, and recognizing that in order to live a full, rewarding life, we need to learn new truths and new behaviors. So we don’t need to change, but we realize we want to change, for ourselves, to become the person we wish to be.
At this point, things are still making a lot of sense. Of course we can have compassion for and understanding of the things a child would do to survive. We can understand that we didn’t get what we needed and could not learn that which we were not taught. And who is going to argue with learning to have more compassion and gentleness and vulnerability? With learning to not be ashamed of things that aren’t shameful? These are things most people would recognize are good.
The problem comes when we run into the “not so pretty” parts of ourselves. When you have a fragile, or non-existent, sense of your own worth, then recognizing flaws or shortcomings- real shortcomings that even when examined in the light of day and without the distortions of the past ARE really shortcomings- is way too threatening. I know for myself, for the longest time, I could not hear that I was doing something wrong, because it became the whole of who I was; so to recognize wrongdoing was to effectively agree that I was bad or evil and repulsive. On some level, I already believed this, but was desperate to believe differently, so seeing any hard truths about myself was to be avoided at all costs. Having my deeply held beliefs about my own worthlessness confirmed was just too much to face. So learning to acknowledge the “not so pretty” parts of me, let alone accept them, was a long uphill battle.
But an important part of that battle, was BN’s oh so calm acceptance of the fact that I had “bad” parts or felt or did things of which I was not proud. Because he saw me as worthwhile and did not see my worth tied to my perfection, his sense of my worth, his care for me, was not threatened by me doing or expressing “bad” stuff. Showing these parts of myself did not change our relationship.
But if it’s bad, should we be accepting it? I mean, when we see ourselves being petty, or mean, or jealous, or spiteful, or selfish, do we just shrug and say “I’m ok the way I am” so it’s ok to be petty, mean or selfish? Most of us would say that we shouldn’t accept that, right? Here’s where the connection between worth and perfection kicks in again. Because if we accept that we have impulses and feelings that are “wrong” then there must be something “wrong” with us, right? Ah, but we already disconnected our worth from perfection. So the acceptance isn’t about being complacent about being mean, or petty, or selfish or (insert your favorite “bad” behavior or feeling here; you know, the one you use to beat yourself up with regularly :)). No, the acceptance is about recognizing that no human being is perfect and we’re not an exception. So we’re no better than the next guy, but we’re also not worse than the next guy. All human beings are sometimes petty and mean, selfish, or stingy, malicious or spiteful, unreasonable or reactive. And, actually, this acceptance frees us to change these things or at least not to act on them.
BN often told me that the feelings which got me into trouble were the unacknowledged ones. You see, if we cannot acknowledge a feeling, if it is too threatening to know that we feel that way, the feeling has to go underground. And guess what human beings do with feelings that are driven underground? They unconsciously act them out. So if you can’t acknowledge that you’re angry with someone, you might find more subtle ways to punish them (come on, ‘fess up, we’ve all had our passive aggressive moments ;)). So accepting our “bad” feelings, acknowledging them, is what removes our need to act them out. If we accept our own humanity and that there will be times we will feel or even act in ways we’re not proud of, then we are freed up to see the feelings and behaviors for what they are. Common failings with which everyone deals. Bringing us back around to why all us of stand in need of compassion and grace. So part of being human is that we strive for the good, we strive for perfection, understanding and accepting that we will never achieve it. And that it’s ok that we don’t.
You cannot change something you are not aware of, nor can you go towards another place until you know from where you are starting. If we want to change the parts of ourselves we don’t like, we first have to be willing to see them. But if we cannot accept that these “bad” or “evil” bits are part of us, the threat to our sense of self is too strong to allow ourselves to see them. So, if I accept the “bad” parts, I need not be threatened by becoming aware of them. And once I see them, once I am aware of them, once I know where I stand, then I can do something about them, then I can move to a new place.
It’s another one of those things we get backwards. We try to be perfect in order to be loved and feel worthwhile, so we live in hiding, with the constant threat of the loss of love and worth hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. But if we experience acceptance of our imperfections, from a loving other and eventually from ourselves, we are free to better ourselves. The security of knowing our worth and knowing we can be loved if we fail, gives us the courage to try, knowing that at times we will fall short. But knowing when that time comes, as it will to all of us, love waits for us to carry us through. To try again. Welcome to being human.