How to unlearn past childhood behaviors, so you can love and accept yourself once and for all
If you’re anything like me, you have an array of self-help books, a pile of half-filled bullet journals, and a belief that the time after New Year’s is the perfect excuse to do yet another self-excavation to figure out what else you can “fix” about yourself. But unearthing these things means having enough self-awareness to recognize and build on your areas of strength as well as to identify areas where you would like to make improvements in your life. It sounds exhausting—and, frankly, tedious. But this is how growth happens. This is how we change. This is how we become as confident and self-assured as Lizzo.
At least this was what I was telling myself for years. But after one too many journal prompts of “What do you want to change in your life right now?” I couldn’t help but ask myself, When is it all going to be enough? And more precisely, When am I going to stop working on myself and just…be myself?
The idea of not being “good enough” is a common thread that Amie Roe Chadwick, a New York-based psychotherapist, sees in her clients in their 20s and 30s. While they mostly worry about being physically attractive, making enough money, being successful, or having enough friends, she says the desire to fix ourselves “all boils down to wanting to be loved and accepted. We incorrectly believe that our flaws render us unloveable, so we do whatever we can to hide or fix them.”
After my “aha” moment, I was faced with confronting some serious issues about why exactly I felt this incessant need to keep fixing myself all in the name of “self-care” and “self-help.” Ultimately, I unearthed a heap of shame—everything from body image issues to relationship hang-ups—that I had either suppressed or labeled “wrong,” stemming from my childhood all the way into adulthood.
According to Chadwick, this is normal for most people who are obsessed with fixing themselves. “A lot of my clients first got the message that they weren’t good enough in childhood [and] in their families of origin,” she says. Sometimes it happens in subtle ways, through small comments or teasing, while other times, it can be more explicit, like being shamed about your body size or a school performance.
My quest for perfection at work? The embarrassment I felt over being “too emotional”? The obsession with my body? These were about things that I was hanging onto from my past that I had deemed “fixable” instead of recognizing them as what they were: totally acceptable parts of me.
But if our parents or caregivers didn’t tell us we weren’t good enough, then, of course, there’s the omnipresence of social media that often does. While common worries of not being successful or pretty enough predate social media, Chadwick says, “Ads and influencers [on social media] actively play on these fears to get people to buy their products or programs. Most advertising is selling the promise of a better life—more happiness, more connection, more love—if you’d just improve yourself through a particular product or regimen.”
Because of this, it’s easy to get sucked into a comparison trap and become obsessed with images of other people’s perfect bodies, cars, trips, and relationships.
So how do we get down to our core and start to accept and love ourselves for all that we are, and, maybe most importantly, all that we’re not? We asked Chadwick and Ross to weigh in on how we can learn to accept ourselves so we no longer have the desire to change ourselves.
1Learn to become uncomfortable with something about yourself to find peace with it.
“First, I think it’s important to realize that self-acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to be head-over-heels in love with every aspect of who you are. Acceptance means being able to tolerate things as they are,” says Chadwick. “I work with lots of people who are trying to make peace with their bodies after years of disordered eating and/or dieting [and] sometimes, they think that they’re falling short of accepting their body as it is because there are still aspects of their appearance that cause them discomfort. I explain to them that you can be uncomfortable about something and still accept it at the same time.” Ultimately, we might never be 100 percent happy with every part of ourselves, but it’s important to remember where these thoughts originated from. While it would be great to shift our thoughts from negative to positive, sometimes it’s best to just find a neutral ground by thinking, “I have a body, and I’m grateful.”
2Figure out what your values are.
Your values are the core pieces of what makes you, you. Being aware of where your true values lie will help you determine what’s important and not important. “The first thing I do when I work with my clients is to help them decide [what their values are], and what is most important to them,” says Ross. “We review virtues like honesty, integrity, gratitude, empathy, and love. I ask them to think about the priorities of their health, family, friends, partner(s), [career], playtime, finances, and home environment. Doing this kind of inner work helps with self-awareness. It’s a process of finding your center and staying grounded within yourself.”
3 Focus on things that you like about yourself.
If you want to start working on self-acceptance, Chadwick recommends consciously focusing on the things that you like about yourself, or even love about yourself, instead of fixating on what you see as your flaws. “Sometimes, in the pursuit of perfecting ourselves, we adopt a mindset that’s constantly on the hunt for things that need to be fixed. If you catch yourself dwelling on the parts of yourself that you’re struggling to accept, you don’t have to just passively wait for those thoughts or feelings to go away,” says Chadwick. “You have the power to redirect your attention. You can start small by simply stopping yourself in the act of self-criticizing.” Of course, this will take time to learn. But keep in mind that practicing on a daily basis will strengthen this muscle each and every time you do it.
4 Study what self-compassion means to you and then embody it.
“I have found that we need to unlearn much of what has been taught to us,” says Ross, who suggests reading spiritual books, and attending groups, or taking mindfulness or meditation classes to start the process of thinking in new ways. “Reading about self-compassion helps to breakdown the rigid thinking we have been taught. Most people I work with at first don’t feel like they’re good enough, do enough, and/or don’t measure up. [As a wellness coach,] I help them question those beliefs and ask whose voices they’re hearing when they talk negatively about themselves. I encourage them to journal, take time for themselves, and unplug from social media, mainstream news and entertainment.”
5Practice balancing self-growth and self-acceptance.
Being such a strong proponent of growth and evolution, one of my biggest challenges has been understanding the difference between balancing a necessity for changed behavior or cognitive patterning with loving myself for who I am right now, and who I might always be.
While Chadwick admits it can be hard to love yourself while acknowledging your character flaws or past bad behaviors, she says it’s important to know that “there’s a difference between accepting responsibility for the things that you’re not proud of versus beating yourself up over it. If you berate yourself for the things that you’ve done wrong or how you’ve been in the past, you’re wasting energy that could be used to move forward in life.” Which means don’t chastise yourself into better behavior. “Accepting responsibility means taking ownership over the negative consequences of past behavior, while not getting so bogged down in guilt or shame that you don’t work to avoid making those same mistakes again,” says Chadwick.
Adds Ross: “The key to balancing personal growth with self-acceptance is to think of personal growth as becoming more of who you really are. Get to know yourself as you would a new friend.” Ross recommends making a point to spend time alone and ask yourself what’s important to you, journaling your answers so you can see your progress. “If you can begin to believe that there’s nothing wrong with you, that your purpose here on earth is to grow and become the best version of yourself, then you can enjoy the process,” says Ross.
6Try to let go of the past.
The truth is, we’re unable to learn and grow if we’re still holding onto or beating ourselves up over the past. If we continue using old language that will only hurt us, not heal us, then it’s impossible to add better thought patterns into our minds when we don’t have the room to add them.
One of the most profound experiments I’ve made is acknowledging the “flawed” parts of myself. Instead of shaming them or trying to fix them, I just name them and allow myself to accept that part of me. I might not love what I see all the time, but I give myself permission to not pass judgment and allow these parts to co-exist within me. I know it’s my baggage, and though it can be a heavy load at times, I can make it look good to me, and I feel functional as I continue on my journey. Because if we want to embody the same self-acceptance that Lizzo has, it’s important to realize that yes, we are already 100 percent that bitch, flaws and all.