When I was in college, I went off to the mountains for a weekend of hiking with an older, wiser friend of twenty-two. At one point, my friend described how she was learning to be “her own best friend.” A huge wave of sadness came over me, and I broke down sobbing—I was the farthest thing from my own best friend.
I was continually harassed by an inner judge who was merciless, relentless, nit-picking, driving, often invisible but always on the job. I knew I would never treat a friend the way I treated myself, without mercy or kindness. My guiding assumption was, “Something is fundamentally wrong with me,” and I struggled to control and fix what felt like a basically flawed self.
Feeling not okay went hand in hand with deep loneliness. In my early teens I sometimes imagined that I was living inside a transparent orb that separated me from the people and life around me. When I felt good about myself and at ease with others, the bubble thinned until it was like an invisible wisp of gas. When I felt bad about myself, the walls got so thick it seemed others must be able to see them.
With my college friend it was different—I trusted her enough to be completely open. Over the next two days of hiking I began to realize that beneath all my mood swings, depression, loneliness and addictive behavior lurked that feeling of deep personal deficiency. I was getting my first clear glimpse into a core of suffering that I would re-visit again and again in my life. While I felt exposed and raw, I intuitively knew that by facing this pain I was entering a path of healing.
When some years later these longings drew me to the Buddhist path, I found there the teachings and practices that enabled me to directly face my feelings of unworthiness and insecurity. They gave me a way of seeing clearly what I was experiencing and showed me how to relate to my life with compassion. The teachings of the Buddha also helped undo my painful and mistaken notion that I was alone in my suffering, that it was a personal problem and somehow my fault.
Over the past twenty years, as a psychologist and Buddhist teacher, I’ve worked with thousands of clients and students who have revealed how painfully burdened they feel by a sense of not being good enough.
It doesn’t take much—just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work—to make us feel that we are not okay. When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.
Because our habits of feeling insufficient are so strong, awakening from the trance involves not only inner resolve, but an active training of the heart and mind. Through Buddhist awareness practices, we free ourselves from the suffering of trance by learning to recognize what is true in the present moment, and by embracing whatever we see with an open heart. This cultivation of mindfulness and compassion is what I call Radical Acceptance.
Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.
When we practice Radical Acceptance, we begin with the fears and wounds of our own life and discover that our heart of compassion widens endlessly. In holding ourselves with compassion, we become free to love this living world. This is the blessing of Radical Acceptance: As we free ourselves from the suffering of “something is wrong with me,” we trust and express the fullness of who we are.
I based this entry on my book Radical Acceptance (2003)
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Photo Credit: Shell Fischer