The inability to accept and tolerate one’s self is in one form or another a primary area of mental anguish and suffering. It is also at the heart of a majority of circumstances in which people seek psychotherapy.
This is no accident. It is very hard work to accept all of ourselves. While successes, achievements, friendships, and romances are relatively easy to embrace (though not always, as in cases in which we convince ourselves we are “undeserving” of these things) it is the failures, dead ends, frustrations and enormous ambiguities of life which pose such a mighty challenge when we ask the question “Who am I” and “Am I a good person and worthy of love and acceptance?” Psychotherapist and Buddhist scholar Tara Brach refers to the painful doubts that emerge as the “trance of unworthiness” and the relentlessly destructive power of this trance over time can be emotionally devastating. It is the job of therapist and patient, working closely together to identify, slow down, stop and ultimately…..reverse, this form of thinking and being.
Often, even more than the mistakes we make or the failures we experience, it is the hidden “unforgivable parts” of ourselves that can be the most damaging and frightening. It is the realization that even we “good people” can have a dark side. A side that can experience blind rage, extreme selfishness, cruel indifference, weakness and cowardice.
It is not an accident that the public and the media want to see over and over again the depraved stories of terrible acts committed by others. We want to feel safe and different from these people and to know that “this could never happen to us” that those people are fundamentally different from us. In short that they are “bad” people and that we are “good” I believe that this is a false premise. We all have the capacity in us to do great harm. When we experience some of the panoply of the negative and dark emotions I listed, we are reminded of this. It is a frightening humbling and unsettling experience.
The challenge is tapping into our equally deep strengths of flexibility, gentleness, patience and compassion and direct those inwardly, towards ourselves. To recognize and accept that like muscles we exercise in the gym, we can choose to enhance, strengthen and emphasize certain traits and characteristics. The difference between a “good person and a “bad” person is not that they have a radically different makeup, it is more that one has chosen to embrace and exalt the higher qualities of virtue, tenderness, tolerance, kindness and flexibility and makes a conscious decision to live in active pursuit of these qualities…..while the other doen not and allows selfishness, fear, greed and rage to expand and grow to a point of domination.
It is the work of the therapist and patient together to have the courage to recognize and name these “unforgivable parts” that live in all of us. To recognize with profound relief that these parts do not make us horrible, unlovable, unforgivable…..but merely human. And to see that striving towards the highest and best parts of ourselves with courage and determination makes us transcendent.