One of the courses I’m taking this semester is Biopsychosocial aspects of addiction. I have a group of assignments that entail attending various anonymous meetings such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), AL-ANON (for family members, friends, and relatives of alcoholics), etc. Last week, I attended my first open-discussion NA meeting and was very moved by the discussion that took place and the members’ insights and contributions.
The topic was self-acceptance. The NA literature discussed the addict’s general lack of self-acceptance and went so far as to elude to this inability to accept one’s Self as being a potential cause for addiction. I found this particularly intriguing as the medical model of addiction, from what I have learned thus far, does not make room for any type of psychological or social factors. But beyond that piece, I was most touched by what the members themselves had to say regarding their struggle with self-acceptance. They discussed not liking themselves, of having hidden behind their addiction or having used their addiction as a means of covering up “who they really were” because they were sure that if others truly knew them, they would be rejected. As I sat listening, it occurred to me that this thought process is not unique to addicts. True, covering who they are through using and abusing substances is specific to them, but the process of implementing any type of front or mask to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, from being hurt or rejected by those around us is, I think, a rather common occurrence.
One woman, though, expressed her struggle most concisely when facing the task of self-acceptance. She said that basically, what she knows she has to do is to forgive herself for being human. The idea of not being able to accept our Selves unless we are without blemish or imperfection seems to me a very patriarchal and Christian concept that has pervaded Western culture. I think the struggle with self-acceptance is based, partly perhaps, on a dislike (at least) or an abhorration (at the other extreme) of traits, events, behaviors, or experiences. I see the struggle as a complex battle between having placed immense negative value on those traits, events, behaviors, or experiences (or any combination therein) and of having them be associated with the Self. We might think that if only we didn’t have them, that we would be better, more acceptable, more Love-able. We begin focusing on them, dwelling on them at length so that they seem to grow, to eclipse all other aspects of our Selves, particularly our positive aspects. They become stains on our identities, shackles weighing us down, burdening us and blinding us from seeing anything but them. Dislike soon turns to hate and loathing, but things become so blurry by this point that we cannot differentiate those traits, events, behaviors, or experiences from the rest of our Self, and we conclude by judging our whole Self harshly. It brings to mind several adages – throwing out the baby with the bath water, a few rotten apples that spoil the barrel (or however that one goes – you get the idea).
So what do we do? How do we move forward and accept our Selves for everything that we are in order to progress toward self-Love? I think the first step is to recognize that those negative aspects that we don’t like are just that – aspects, not the whole. Why should they possess any greater significance than our positive aspects? In every person, there is a blending of positive and negative. It is important not to lose site of the positive simply because of the presence of what we consider negative. Another important task is to gain perspective. Few people walk through life without experiencing pain in some way, but focusing on the pain to the degree in which we cannot see anything else is not healthy or helpful. We must use our pain and grow beyond it, put it into perspective. Pain frequently comes with difficult lessons that we are to learn, and when we allow pain to eclipse the actual lesson, we lose the lesson and it will come around again, but the next time it will be harsher, more difficult, and messier. A third task, and a rather difficult one, is to let go. Letting go can mean releasing traits and/or behaviors that served us at one point but do not any longer. Letting go can also mean to stop resisting the fact that we experienced certain events, recognizing that they need not define all of who and what we are, that we have control over defining who and what we are based on how we approach the story of our lives and our identities, and that we can always and at any point re-create and re-tell that story from a new perspective.
None of these steps toward self-acceptance and, subsequently, self-Love are easy. Much of the time, walking them through requires de-programming of old and out-dated ideas, beliefs, and values, as well as great healing work. And healing work is almost never easy. But it is possible.
If you want to do the work to gain self-acceptance and self-Love (as it is ultimately your choice and your choice alone), I encourage you to persevere through the process and to hold on to the Hope that you can create and find the ending you desire. Many blessings to you on your journey…