Ralph Waldo Emerson once complained to his physician that he felt depressed. His physician recommended a long sea voyage. Emerson later wrote this in his diary: “It didn’t work; when I got off the ship in Naples, the first person I met was myself!” According to psychooncologist Lawrence LeShan, sometimes it’s important to change our external circumstances, but without self-acceptance and a way of working with internal circumstances, no external changes will be very useful.
Self-acceptance practice can be thought of as the mirror image of our often unintentional “practice” of experiential avoidance: the very human tendency to evade unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Self-acceptance is an effective antidote to experiential avoidance, and as such, it is an essential component of living with intention and mastery, which is an important key to living a healthier and happier life.
According to Dr. Steven Hayes, when we are unwilling or unable to accept the thoughts, mental images, sensations, or emotions that arise inside us, we subject ourselves to unnecessary emotional and physiological stress. In our efforts to avoid these inner experiences, we can quite literally exhaust ourselves through the bodily constriction associated with suppressing our experience.
Of course, we would all prefer to experience only blissful thoughts and feelings—or even neutral ones—instead of unpleasant ones. But uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are a fact of life, and resisting them actually serves to magnify them and increase our suffering.
Whenever we allow ourselves to fully experience our inner experience without judging, grasping, or resisting, self-compassion and acceptance arise spontaneously. With practice, we become increasingly able to let ourselves live in an open and vulnerable state of mind, reducing not only our own suffering but also that of everyone with whom we interact. Mindfulness teacher Stephen Batchelor describes this opening, softening process very simply: “In revealing life in all its vulnerability, it [mindfulness practice] becomes the doorway to compassion.”
Self-acceptance is a byproduct of the mindfulness skill of recognizing thoughts as transient mental events or mental constructs. When we can truly understand and accept this knowledge about the nature of thoughts, we become increasingly willing to allow ourselves to fully experience and accept all of our inner subjective events. Self-acceptance is also a byproduct of allowing ourselves to experience our sensations and emotions rather than doing something to avoid feeling them. When we can accept our thoughts and feelings, we can accept ourselves.
So we can think of self-acceptance as a kind of “side effect” of mindfulness practice, but it can and should also be reinforced through setting an intention to consciously practice acceptance of our inner state. Mindfulness practice allows us to consciously choose, from moment-to-moment, whether to act on the products of our minds.