In 1969, pop psychiatrist Thomas A. Harris wrote a self-help manual titled, “I’m OK, You’re OK”. It became such a runaway bestseller that its title became a catchphrase of the ’70s. What a nice attitude. It says, “I accept myself as OK, and I accept you as OK.” Sounds great. But what if I don’t feel OK? Am I then stuck with, “I’m not OK, but you are”? What a demeaning way to live in the world! Everyone else is somehow more real and entitled than me. If I’m that not-OK, I’m lucky to get scraps. I’ll end up settling for the short end of the stick in every arena of life. Happiness is for others, not me. Woe is me, poor, poor pitiful not-OK me.
“OK-ness” is a subjective assessment of the self, based on ideas and feelings, mostly from the past. If I had a family who praised, appreciated, adored, and guided me, I’d probably end up feeling OK about myself no matter what happened externally, no matter what I look like, no matter what my flaws are. But if I had parents who ignored, demeaned, shamed, or belittled me and my needs, I’d probably end up feeling bad and not OK about myself no matter what happened externally. (Yes, I’ve seen supermodels doubt their good looks, and wealthy people feel financially insecure.) OK-ness or self-esteem is like the rudder of a sailboat: when it’s deep, the vessel can endure huge waves; when it’s shallow or missing, the boat can capsize in puddle-deep water.
The good news is whatever has been done can be undone, and whatever hasn’t been done still can be done. I love that about human freedom. I love that as a therapist. When I witness someone with an arid past and bad sense of self recover or discover a fundamental sense of OK-ness, I like it. The hard-earned sense of OK-ness claimed through working a 12-step program, or therapy, or just plain life lessons is sweet. Now here’s what I really like: Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross’ version of Dr. Harris’ statement, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Dr. Kuebler-Ross was a psychiatrist famous for identifying the five stages of the dying and death process. She came up with this: “I’m not OK, and you’re not OK. But that’s OK.” Now there’s a humanism I can live with! In her model, I don’t even have to be OK to experience OK-ness! It’s like a free ticket to the circus! Come on in! Admit one! Everyone welcome!
Self-acceptance means being able to admit fl aws, laugh at one’s own quirks, and screw up without declaring oneself a screw up. Self-acceptance means knowing it’s not a sin or stupid to not know what you don’t know. Self-acceptance says “maybe I’m not right about something, but I’m right with my core.”
So let’s go a little deeper. I say in order for there to be true, lasting self-acceptance, there must be knowledge of the core self. If I base my self-acceptance on momentary success, fame, ideas, feelings, or even the acceptance of others, it’s subject to change, and then I’m subject to suffering. I must know the self that abides amid the chang-es but doesn’t change. And, frankly, that self is so lovely, deep, and peace-drenched that self-acceptance hangs like heavy fruit on its branches, waiting to be picked. No need to chant, “I love myself, I love myself.” Here! Just reach for the fruit, pluck, and enjoy! (Just a metaphor, for those of you who currently aren’t eating fruit.)
How to come by this core self, you ask? In quietude, when the mind finally settles down, in those little moments when life-as-is breaks through the ideas, when each breath signals “I am alive,” and you get it and feel it full measure! That means I have to take time to be quiet, maybe on a regular basis. So yes, even though self-acceptance is like the natural sweetness of a fruit off a tree, and even though it’s my own tree on my own property, it still takes effort to be with it. I still have to reach for it.
That’s where the quest for self-acceptance comes in. The noble search for peace and truth. The age-old quest for enlightenment. It’s the element we seek in everything we pursue: aliveness, fun, joy, depth, love, rest. If only we could have that feeling within us without the attachment to form. Then we’d be in heaven! Having that experience, and knowing the self as part of that joy, containing that love, and being contained by that aliveness—then we’re right there plucking the fruit off that tree and enjoying the juiciness of the moment.
The true ﬂower of self-acceptance grows in a deeper garden.
Sometimes the love and acceptance of others is a good place to start. We see that in the Healing Circle at Hippocrates week after week: people sharing and accepting the supposedly unacceptable things about each other. That kind of concentrated love and support can bust through years of wall-building and negativity and self-condemnation. That kind of kindness heals hearts and lives. When others reach out to us with unconditional acceptance, it helps us reach in and find it there, too.
Outside love helps but is not the final measure of successful self-acceptance. The true flower of self-acceptance grows in a deeper garden, in a place inside us even deeper than any messages of undeservedness, deeper than any layers of holding back or hiding out. It’s a precious flower planted by God long ago, when we were innocent and original. All we have to do to find our way there again is to become as simple and guileless as we were back then. To rediscov-er our innocence and reclaim it as our core—that’s a solid foundation for full self-acceptance.
Now, let’s talk about shadows and the dark side of human nature. Goodness and light are easy to accept because, well, they’re good, and it’s easier to feel good about goodness than it is to feel good about badness. We humans collectively honor goodness and dislike the dark side. But every yin has its yang. The larger the front, the larger the back. Every good thing about us and in us casts a shadow, and we need to reckon with it and, yes, make peace with it to round out the self-acceptance picture. The Dark Side is important and ignoring it can lead to problems.
Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi beat his wife? How do I know that? He wrote it in his autobiography, fully confessing that he not only contained the seeds of violence within himself, but also had acted on them in his life. I honor the man who admits his dark side and then transforms it into humility and determination to be nonviolent. I accept Gandhi as my hero, not because he was perfect but because he kept on going beyond his mistakes. He kept on perfecting himself with flaws and all. He didn’t hide his imperfections but challenged himself with them to reach new depths of personhood. Heck, it turns out even Gandhi wasn’t OK. But that’s OK.
By Andy Roman