If you ever felt unhappy with your life, chances are that someone has told to “just be yourself” or “accept yourself the way you are”. But this is, without a doubt, one of the worst things you can adopt in your personal philosophy.
The usual idea behind “just accept yourself” is that you shouldn’t care about other people’s opinion. So your close friends and family will encourage you to use this phrase as a personal “fuck you” to the haters.
And when I say this advice is terrible, and that you should never accept yourself, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of:
How dare you say that? Why shouldn’t I accept myself the way I am? There’s nothing wrong with me!
For the most part, I wholeheartedly agree. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. But it’s not about whether there’s something “wrong” – it’s about whether it’s good enough.
Quite naturally, your initial instinct is to apply black and white thinking: in psychology, it is recognized as a failure to combine both positive and negative qualities of the world into an objective reality. 1Splitting (psychology)
It is a common defense mechanism because this simplified outlook divides all notions into only two opposite categories; good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. This makes the world seem simpler, but also prevents you from adopting new ideas.
Life is never simple.
Life isn’t “one thing” or “the other thing”, but a combination of a variety of different experiences. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, most of them are in the gray area. The controversy with “accepting yourself” arises from people looking at life in this overly simplified fashion.
This makes it seem like there are only two opposite options to choose from:
- Fully accept yourself the way you currently are.
- Completely change your personality to suit other people.
This is known as a false dilemma, a situation where there seem to be only two possible options to choose from when there are actually other options which haven’t been considered. 2False dilemma is a type of an informal fallacy.
Likewise, there is a plethora of options when it comes to “accepting yourself”.
According to this particular false dilemma, when I say “never accept yourself”, you assume I’m trying to tell you to succumb to peer pressure and change yourself only so that others will like you.
In reality, I’m trying to teach you how to achieve the opposite.
Accepting your current self is even worse than succumbing to peer pressure. If you have to force yourself to accept your current personality, then you’re not really happy with it, are you?
So the dilemma becomes: If you already like yourself, why would you need to accept yourself?
THE PROBLEM WITH ACCEPTING YOURSELF
People who usually acclaim this motto think it is empowering: “Don’t try to please others, just be yourself!” To them, refusing to change is a middle finger to all of society who refuses to accept them. I get that.
But it is more often used as a justification for having bad qualities.
If you are shy, easily irritated, or overly aggressive, chances are you will say something along the lines of “Hey, it’s just the way I am”, implying that these traits are an inherent part of you.
They are not — you are just making excuses for bad behavior.
There is no gene for being violent when you’re drunk. You are not anxious in social situations because it is “in your blood”. Most of the traits you believe to be a core part of “who you are” have been developed over time.
All of the things that make you “you” are a product of your surroundings, experiences, and interactions with others. You weren’t born shy or social or smart or stupid. In one of his songs, musician Wax illustrates this point in a great way:
Before you start invoking the nature vs nurture debate, I’m not saying that everybody is born the same. Of course, we’re not. Our genetics, surroundings, and upbringing play a huge part in developing our personality.
But just because you started out one way, doesn’t mean you can’t change.
And when people use the “just accept yourself” justification, they mostly aren’t talking about accepting their genetics, but personality traits they developed through their own choices.
If you are completely satisfied with who you actually are, this phrase will never even cross your mind.
Confident people don’t need to accept themselves. Mentally strong people don’t need to convince themselves they’re great. Emotionally stable individuals don’t need reassurance that they are okay. They already know it.
When the “just accept yourself” phrase slips into the conversation, it’s because someone is not happy with who they are and their family, friends, and oftentimes themselves, try to convince them that they should like themselves the way they are.
But… why? If you’re not happy with who you are, why not be better?
- If you’re shy, but want to be social – why not?
- If you don’t go on dates, but want to – why not?
- If you’re weak, disrespected, distrusted, unreliable, out of shape, abandoned, broken down, battered, or fucked up in any other way, but you don’t want to be – why not change for the better?
Why would you accept your current shitty state if you’re not happy with who you are? Why would you rather spend so much effort convincing yourself that you’re great, even though you want to be different? Why would you do that to yourself?
Well… because it’s much easier than the alternative.
ACCEPT YOURSELF… OR CHANGE YOURSELF?
Accepting someone you don’t like is not easy, especially if that person is you. But changing the traits you don’t like about yourself is much, much harder.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re shy.
You’ve always been shy, you’ve never been good with people, and you’re not really sure how to handle yourself in social situations. You don’t have a large group of friends, don’t get invited to events often and, over time, you have simply convinced yourself that it’s “just the way you are”.
So you’re scrolling your Facebook feed and you see a photo from last night’s house party. You know half the people there. Shit, it looks like they’re having an awesome time.
You’ve always wondered how those parties look like. But you never get invited. It kind of sucks, doesn’t it? If only you could somehow… nope! No, stop it. You are just shy and introverted.
There’s nothing you can do about that.
Or is there?
Say you get mad at yourself for missing out on a yet another party. Say you get mad at being so bad in social situations that you decide to find out why. Say you realize that you simply don’t have much experience with people because you spend most of your time alone. Say you decide to change that and be more outgoing.
Instead of indulging in self-pity, you start connecting with old acquaintances. You decide to say “yes” to more events, diversify your social group, talk to strangers, and meet new people.
You decide to spend day after day putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, until those situations don’t seem uncomfortable anymore. After a while, all of those things that seemed impossible simply become a part of “who you are”. As a result, you’re not shy anymore — you’ve changed. More importantly:
You’ve changed because you decided NOT to accept your current self.
And this is the main point I’m trying to make.
This underlying misconception is the main reason why I feel the urge to slap anyone who tries to “accept themselves” with a pillowcase full of batteries, then bring them a warm cup of tea and tell them it’s not their fault:
“Who you are” doesn’t exist. There is no permanent “you”.
You are constantly changing, adapting to your surroundings, and embracing new ideas. And if you’re not, that’s a bad thing. If someone has exactly the same mindset at the age of 15 and at the age of 85, what would you think of that person? That they’re a strong role model or a complete fool?
“Who you are” is always temporary.
Who you are now is not who you were as a child. You don’t just have a different mindset, thought process, and values than you did back then. Even from a biological standpoint, almost every single cell in your body has been replaced. 4How quickly do different cells in the body replace themselves?
Change is possible, but it is very, very hard.
Faced with this, most will opt for an easier option: “Just accept yourself”. Which, when you look at it, is like saying:
“JUST GIVE UP! You will never have the body you want. You will never be as smart as you want. You will never be as rich, successful, or as capable as you want to be. It’s just the way you are!“
Doesn’t sound so reassuring now, does it? What this phrase is really trying to impose on people is: “You are NOT happy with who you are, but just be yourself anyway!”
If you fully accept yourself at any point in your life, with all your faults and unfulfilled aspirations, it means you have given up on improving yourself. “Don’t have the body you want? Don’t change your diet, exercise regularly, and adopt healthier habits – just accept yourself. You’re fat. There’s nothing you can do.”
“If you are born poor it’s not your mistake. But if you die poor, it is your mistake.”
If you are truly satisfied with who you are, and there is nothing you would like to change about yourself, then disregard everything and everybody else and just be yourself. I mean, if you are truly happy, I don’t even have to tell you this, right?
Otherwise, “accepting yourself” is doing exactly what you think you’re avoiding: you are letting other people tell you who you are.
Real control is in deciding how you want to be, not accepting who you are at this moment. Instead of accepting you have problems and doing nothing about it, commit yourself to accepting the problems and fixing them.
If they say you are poor, stupid, fat, insecure, incapable, or ugly, focus on self-improvement to become rich, smart, confident, capable, and attractive. Or continue to be poor, fat, insecure, incapable, and ugly.
After all, it’s just the way you are and you can’t change it… can you?