In a world slowly becoming more and more governed by the idea that how you identify yourself is paramount, there has emerged also the notion that every person, no matter how ludicrous their personal claims of identity, is already somehow perfect in who they currently are at any given moment.
Forget growth as the natural effect of new information, to hell with health standards or objective beauty of any kind, and damn those who dare claim that your debilitating self-perception and mental state is anything less than exactly who you should be because, after all, it’s who you are.
I’m all in favor of self-acceptance.
If you’re born blind, or feel you’re too short, or too tall, or have genetic health problems, or anything else that is concretely unchangeable about yourself, you’re going to need to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. This kind of self-acceptance is absolutely necessary to be able to move on and become confident with who you are and who you always will be.
Personal empowerment comes from within, and the only chance one has of ever feeling confident in themselves and the human-shaped shell they find themselves stuck inside is to accept the fact that there’s no escape from this fleshy prison. We can paint our faces, and shape our muscles, and modify bits and pieces through cosmetic surgery, but for the most part we are who we are. We’re born into the bodies we’re born into, and what happens to the development of our minds is completely out of our control until we come of age and start to break in our personal autonomy like a tough pair of jeans. There are things in this life you can’t control, and the longer you refuse to accept that reality the longer it will be before you find any semblance of peace within yourself.
There are, however, plenty of things you can control about who you are and how you’re perceived. Yet, there are still large swaths of people ready to bombard anyone who might make the suggestion that, for example, you aren’t your trauma, or maybe that being morbidly obese isn’t something to be praised or valued, or that your mental illness isn’t an identity. It’s as if these people can’t see beyond the circumstances they find themselves in or are able to envision a life where they’re free of what’s holding them back from evolving as individuals.
Or, perhaps they see the hard work it takes to pull yourself out of a bad place and voluntarily dismiss the idea that there could ever be a better version of who they currently are.
Stop taking pride in fixable flaws.
Listen, I’m not saying that all personal flaws should be seen with disgust or shunned in other people. It’s the flaws in all sorts of things that can make them interesting, after all.
In art, music, people, and personalities, it’s the little flaws, mistakes, eccentricities, and accidental features that make people and their creations unique, endearing, and memorable. Finding your personal style in the arts has always been a process of finding what works for you, aiming at your best, and trying to stretch yourself just beyond what you’re capable of. This usually results in an evolutionary process of making mistakes, finding your flaws, and working through them until you master what they are and grow out of them or turn them into a kind of signifier. But if the advice “accept who you are” applied to writing, for example, no one would ever write a second draft.
. . .
Let’s get weird and imagine for moment that as human beings we evolved with our lungs on the outside of our bodies. Let’s say, for example, that they were on the sides of our necks and we could watch them inflate and deflate as people breathed. Sounds gross, but in this world we wouldn’t know any different, so just go with it.
Okay, so let’s say that people in this world still smoked cigarettes, and they still affected our lungs in the same blackening way they do now. You’d be able to see who was a smoker and who wasn’t just by seeing how dark and shriveled their neck-lungs were. It would most likely look pretty obviously unhealthy. It also likely wouldn’t be praised as being beautiful or seen as brave to confidently show them off or pretend it’s not a detriment to your wellbeing.
Would we put these people on the cover of magazines or be telling young people that it’s okay to have black lungs because maybe being a smoker is just who you are? That maybe you can’t help it that you like cigarettes and you shouldn’t have to change or try to quit? I mean, sure, people can treat themselves however they please and I’m not saying we should stop people from doing what they want, but why would we promote something like that as if it’s just as healthy or perfectly normal when it’s clearly a result of a detrimental habit? In what way is the choice to harm yourself “who you are?”
That’s not a personality trait, it’s a toxic lack of self-control.
I know this because I smoked for about 15 years. I understand the habit and unconsciously identifying as a “smoker.” It just becomes who you are and who you relate to. It gives you a chance to relate to other smokers and always gives you an out if you ever want to leave a situation to go take a couple puffs outside alone. How many smokers reading this can relate to thinking It’s just who I am? Most lifelong smokers have accepted themselves as such and no longer see their lives without smoking as a realistic option.
The thing is, I quit smoking last year and haven’t had a cigarette since. I understood the long term effect it was going to have on me and decided to take the necessary steps to getting them out of my life. It was hard at first, but my desire to not go back was strong enough that I no longer ever have cravings or see them with any sort of nostalgia for a nice long drag.
Maybe you put it together while you were reading, but I was making the comparison to the sort of radical acceptance we see today where extremely unhealthy and obese people, particularly women, are being told that there’s no reason they should try to better themselves by eating better or exercising because they’re perfect how they are.
No, I’m not trying to sound like some guy just going on about how this or that kind of woman doesn’t look “hot” so it’s obviously wrong. I’m not dismissing the fact that there are plenty of naturally bigger people out there or that they can’t be seen as attractive. Of course they can. I’m talking about it strictly from a health perspective and how we shouldn’t be encouraging people to remain exactly how they are if how they are is a detriment to their health and wellbeing.
I used to be a drug addict.
If I had taken the advice to accept myself how I was, I would probably have overdosed on heroin years ago. If I considered my bad habit a part of “who I was,” I wouldn’t have ever seen a reason to try and get clean.
I saw the reasons, though. That path had only two destinations: jail or death. I had the thought that all former addicts had at some point which was, “Hmm, maybe this doing-drugs-every-day thing isn’t great for my life. Perhaps I’ll try to grow and be better. No, in fact, I will be better.” And then I quit and haven’t looked back. That was five years ago now.
I say all of this because I’m getting tired of seeing these sentiments online where people use these kinds of fixable flaws to identify with as if that’s all they are.
I see so many posts and jokes and memes about having mental illnesses as if it’s just another zodiac sign.
Oh, you’re a bipolar anorexic introvert? That’s so crazy, I’m an ambiverted bulimic with clinical depression. We’re a perfect match!
I know I’m joking, but that’s honestly how it sounds sometimes. I get it that it can be a good thing to see your flaws with humor and even makes jokes about it to take away its stifling power. I understand that it’s okay to shed light on mental illness in the sense that we don’t dismiss them or reject people who suffer from them as invalid, but we shouldn’t be normalizing mental illness to the point where people end up not actually seeking the help they need because they identify with it so strongly.
When you’re sick, you try to get better, you don’t just start to identify as “someone with the flu” and so continue to do things that only exacerbate the symptoms because you don’t know who you’d be if you got healthy.
I personally just sought out a therapist.
I’ve been struggling with a lot of depression these past few months and started to realize that I’ve been dealing with this my whole life. This past year was hard on everyone, and I’m sure it definitely made my own depressive cycles even worse, but it also made me realize that it wasn’t just this year that I’ve been feeling this way.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been dealing with these cycles of highs and lows. To the point where I just considered it normal to go weeks and months feeling miserable about yourself and about life in general. I thought everyone was lost and confused and directionless and lacked any kind of purpose or joy in their life. That’s like, this generation’s zeitgeist, right? Well, only for those who refuse to lean into the work it’s going to take to break out of that pattern.
So, I’m going to finally start going to therapy. It’s not going to instantly fix how I’ve been feeling, but it’s a start. If I had told myself to “accept who I am,” I would have no desire or drive to better myself and seek help. I would just be a constantly depressed person forever because that’s just “who I was.”
. . .
Like I said before, I’m absolutely on board with self-acceptance. But I just feel that people are missing the mark when it comes to what exactly they are accepting.
Instead of using the idea of accepting themselves to be a foundational starting point from which to propel themselves forward, people seem to want to just sit down where they are, wrap themselves up in the cocoon of their circumstances, and ignore the reality of the world beyond their own perception of themselves.
Of course, at first, you should accept who you are. Then, once you set aside what you cannot change, you focus on what you can, where you want to go, who you want to be, and you work with what you’ve got.
Identifying with your flaws, refusing to change for the better, and claiming that everyone should just “accept who they are” just like you, is like having a huge, infected splinter in your hand and getting angry when people suggest taking it out. Ignoring an infected splinter isn’t a personality quirk, it’s called having a deluded ego and it’s literally hazardous to your health. Take the damn thing out.
You are not your flaws. You are not your illness or your habits or your trauma. Those things don’t make a person who they are. You can’t claim a list of vague descriptors as an identity. You can be so much better than what you’ve experienced and the person the world has turned you into.
Stop letting people tell you to just “accept who you are” when you know that you could be so much more.
This post was previously published on Change Becomes You.
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