This time of year many of us tune into that insistent inner voice that tells us to turn off the TV, hide the caramel corn and — once again! — make some do-or-die New Year’s resolutions.
You’re not thin enough; lose 40 pounds.
You’re not fit enough; hit the gym at least five days a week.
You’re not a good enough lover, spouse, parent, co-worker.
You’re not strong enough, not kind enough; and what about those flabby underarms?
Resolve to be better!
You may think that listening to your inner critic will lead to positive lifestyle changes, but here’s the shocker. It won’t. It’s actually a diversion, an easy mistake many of us make, over and over again, based on an incomplete understanding of how to make meaningful changes that last.
I’ve studied this for years, and now I’m going to share something so radical, so counterintuitive, you’re going to wonder if I’ve inhaled too much mistletoe: The path to real change begins with accepting yourself exactly as you are.
Or, as psychologist Carl Rogers put it: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
That’s the theory behind the evolving and compassionate practice called Radical Acceptance, and if you’re someone who has tried and failed year after new year to become the healthier, more energetic, less stressed person you wish to be, let me introduce you to some of the basic concepts.
ACCEPT YOUR IMPERFECTIONS. “Imperfection is not our personal problem,” writes Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and author of the classic primer on this subject, “Radical Acceptance.” “It is a natural part of existing.”
When we focus on our imperfections — I’m not thin enough, I’m not fit enough — we create feelings of shame and unworthiness, therapist Brach explains, and those negative emotions create havoc in our relationships and stifle creativity and spiritual growth. All of that makes change most unlikely.
“Clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we see with an open, kind and loving heart, is what I call Radical Acceptance,” writes Brach, a Buddhist teacher who wants us to silence those inner voices that keep our lives small and unworthy. “There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.”
AFTER YES COMES KNOW. “Radical acceptance requires that you look upon yourself, others, and the world in an entirely new way,” writes psychologist Laura Schenck. “You must be willing to let go of your ideas about how you ‘should be’ and simply accept the way that you are … in this present moment.”
When you let go of judgment and accept what is, you open yourself “to reflect on what might be in the future.” In that way, she writes, “Radical acceptance is the key toward ultimately making lasting changes in your life.”
ACCEPT REALITY. “Radical Acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is,” Karyn Hall, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today. From traffic jams to tragic accidents, bad things happen. There is no one to blame, no reason for shame. “People often say ‘I can’t stand this’ or ‘This isn’t fair’ … It’s exhausting to fight reality and it doesn’t work. … [it] doesn’t change the situation and it adds to the pain you experience.
“You can stop the suffering by practicing acceptance. Acceptance means you can turn your resistant, ruminating thoughts into accepting thoughts like, ‘I’m in this situation. I don’t think it’s OK, but it is what it is and I can’t change that it happened.”
From that place of acceptance, Hall explains, you can begin to heal.
RETHINK YOUR RESOLUTIONS. “Radical acceptance … is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly,” writes Tara Brach. When you practice it — and it is a practice, just like meditation, which is one great way to practice it- we free ourselves from what Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness,” and we wake up to the truth of who we really are.
So this is my New Year’s message to you. When you turn your compassion onto yourself and recognize your own essential goodness, you’ll find the strength to do pretty much whatever you want to do.
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle expert, well-being coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to MyEnergyExpress@aol.com.