Be strong, but not rude.
Be kind, but not weak.
Be humble, but not timid.
Be proud, but not arrogant.
I am such a fan of compassion-based concepts and therapies because I know they worked for me. By happenstance I stumbled on these ideas and practices from a mix of sources while I was working on my own personal growth. Through meditation, lots of reading, journaling and therapy my personality changed in many large and small ways, some of which I documented in several blogs and videos, and a book.
Now this information is accessible in programs such as Mindful Self-Compassion training and Compassionate Mind Training, available in books, websites and apps. (See resources at the end of this blog.)
I describe what I achieved as self-acceptance, distinguishing that self-compassion is a tool to achieve the goal of self-acceptance. Some people use terms such as self-actualization or enlightenment. Perhaps we should call it good emotional health. Or emotional maturity. Or self-love.
The idea of fully accepting yourself — flaws and all — is a key component to emotional health, because this allows you to manage the powerful emotion of shame. When poorly tolerated, shame is the “master emotion” and a cause of most of what we label as “mental illnesses,” such as anxiety and depression.
Whatever we call this process isn’t as important as the idea that more people develop these traits, so that we, as a society, can move forward from the immature, survival behaviors of hate, cruelty and disconnection — behaviors people engage in with others and with themselves! Self-criticism, self-rejection and low self-esteem are the core problems causing so many intrapersonal and interpersonal problems in the world. The antidote is to use self-compassion to gain self-acceptance.
GUILTY OF FOCUSING ON PATHOLOGY
I must confess that I have fallen victim to a sin that many of us in the mental health field are guilty of committing. I have spent a lot of my time and effort writing about those with problematic emotions and behaviors — I label them Other-Blamers, Self-Blamers and Blame Avoiders. However, I have not spent as much time discussing the attributes of those with healthy emotional functioning.
This is the same complaint many make about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, written by the American Psychiatric Association. It labels and describes hundreds of so-called “mental disorders” and has correctly been criticized because it offers no description of a psychologically healthy person to contrast with these “disordered” individuals.
As many know, I am staunchly opposed to the false and unscientific disease model proffered by the DSM. In part one of a recent lecture I list some of the general concerns about the DSM’s failures, although there are many more.
Of course it can be easy to over-focus on describing problematic issues in psychological functioning, because that is part of our job in psychology. Healthy, stable, emotionally high-functioning people have no need for our therapy services!
I can also blame the fact that I have worked hard on improving my own emotional functioning and self-acceptance and tend to forget that not everyone has a similar vantage point.
So this blog is about what constitutes an emotionally healthy, fully functioning, psychologically sound human being. No small task to describe this, so full disclaimer that this is an attempt from my experience and from my perspective as an expert on shame and self-acceptance.
However, with the understanding that shame is a powerful, trans-diagnostic emotion that underlies nearly all DSM “disorders,” this viewpoint can be quite illuminating.
Unfortunately, it will help to start with an understanding of poor emotional functioning before we get to describing healthy functioning.
SHAME INTOLERANCE EXACERBATES NATURAL FEAR OF REJECTION
Shame intolerance is the experience that drives conditions such as anxiety and depression, because feelings of inferiority and unworthiness trigger fears of social exclusion or rejection. Our primal brain reacts instantly and therefore does not have time to distinguish between physical threats (“Run! Bear!”) and social threats (“He doesn’t like me!”). In this way, the emotions of shame and fear can become linked, leading to hyper-sensitivity to experiences of rejection in social settings and relationships and then cognitive conclusions that one is unworthy, leading to shame-based reactions.
This shows up as an inability to handle criticism and accountability in three Shame Management Strategies already listed. People can externalize or deflect feelings of shame onto others (Other-Blamers), internalize guilt and blame (Self-Blamers) and avoid situations and relationships that trigger shame (Blame Avoiders).
But there is a fourth Shame Management Strategy: Self-acceptance that leads to shame tolerance, the ability to stay present to the painful experience of shame. There are many traits of this healthier personality, but the key is that shame and fear are decoupled, so that experiences of inadequacy, failure, criticism or accountability do not immediately trigger the threat response.
The healthy person has learned to manage experiences of unworthiness and stay in the “safe- and-soothed” part of the nervous system, rather than launching by default into the “fight-or-flight” or “freeze” parts of the threat response system. By staying calm and mindful, the healthy person can then hear facts about their behavior and stay present and receptive to those facts, rather than becoming immediately swept away by fears of how they will be perceived.
This can be difficult to describe, but I know from my own experience that this decoupling of shame and fear is very powerful and transformative. Before gaining self-acceptance I would hear even minor criticism or constructive feedback and immediately feel embarrassed, even if I knew that the criticism was on point. I would blush and stammer, maybe become tearful if the criticism was sustained or felt especially personal. While I would generally behave toward others in a contrite manner, I might feel victimized and leave filled with thoughts of resentment.
I’m sure because of this behavior many people recognized my inability to hear feedback and decided not to offer any up in an attempt to protect me from my own shame. I’ve since learned that we humans can generally read the emotional cues of others, especially around the painful emotion of shame (we know how bad it feels!). Many people will try to protect others from embarrassing experiences. We all know how we hesitate to tell someone something embarrassing — “You have spinach on your teeth” — because we can empathize with that shame.
In contrast, I now welcome criticism as an opportunity to learn and grow. Please tell me I have spinach on my teeth! Or anything else that might be helpful to me, even if it is embarrassing in the short term.
So this core skill of shame tolerance is what I believe is the most significant sign of healthy emotional functioning, because without it the shame/fear reaction is destructive to relationships with self and others.
Dread of shameful experiences may lead to self-judgment and negative self-talk that creates the threat response in the mind and body, leading to “anxiety” (sympathetic nervous system responses on the chart) and “depression” (dorsal vagal responses).
In contrast, someone with healthy self-acceptance lives in the ventral vagal response (“safe-and-soothed”) much of the time, entering into the activated fear response only when absolutely necessary.
Someone who spends their time calm and centered can engage their pro-social emotions and behaviors far more often and easily than someone in threat response. Fear makes everyone more survival oriented — self-centered, selfish, vindictive, angry, and prone to many other anti-social traits.
As a consequence, someone who can tolerate shame without an immediate threat response can be less reactive and angry when held accountable for shameful acts. Those who cannot tolerate shame engage in the shame management strategies to help protect them from this difficult emotion — strategies they learned in childhood from parents who were also emotionally immature and unable to teach them these skills.
Think of self-acceptance as building a higher threshold for shame so that it takes more difficult emotional pain before it flips you into secondary reactions to shame, such as anger, guardedness, avoidance, guilt, rumination, anxiety or self-blame.
Self-acceptance is the absence of the blame-shifting and shame intolerance strategies. But I hate to describe something as important as this as an absence of behaviors. So below is a list of traits that I believe are clear indicators of someone who has achieved self-acceptance.
Essential for a self-accepting person is the mental state or trait of equanimity or “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” This
quiet virtue allows us to unhook from taking things personally — which indicates shame tolerance. It gives us the ability to recover or maintain balance as we ride waves of constant change and emotional upheaval of life.
Neurologically, equanimity may be a sign of the ability to stay out of the threat response and remain present and logical, even in the face of difficult situations — or difficult emotions such as shame.
Equanimity is natural but can be cultivated through emotion regulation skills and mindfulness, an ability to pause and reflect on situations affecting self and other before reacting.
Those with equanimity can face life situations, relationships and decisions with wisdom and patience, rather than emotional outbursts and meltdowns. Equanimity also indicates resilience, especially around emotional upsets.
DECREASED APPROVAL SEEKING
Many styles of parenting in the Western culture use withholding of approval and love. Some parents engage in a conscious “cold shoulder” to “teach the child a lesson” when they do something wrong. Others are just emotionally distant and unexpressive, based on how they were raised or on cultural expectations, such as not giving boys physical affection and teaching them to be tough.
These styles create a child who does not get their basic emotional needs for bonding met and then craves attention, approval and love. Sometimes this attachment need continues throughout their life like an addiction that cannot be satisfied.
They can become “highly sensitive” or “highly empathic” people who are overly attuned to the emotional and social cues of others. This hyper vigilance indicates they are living in an increased threat response.
In contrast, some people raised with emotional neglect may give up on gaining love and approval or may fear closeness in relationships, leading to emotional withdrawing, isolation, or even antisocial behaviors.
I worked hard to decrease my tendency toward approval seeking by being very mindful of this as a prior default setting from my childhood. At the same time I learned to be self-approving, so that I was also not so eager for the approval of others. I “filled my bucket” with validation and self-compassion, so that I didn’t depend on others to fill my bucket with love and approval. I also learned how to spot narcissists or Other-blamers, so that I didn’t inadvertently link up with someone who took advantage of my need for approval.
Many people in psychology or other helping professions can experience burnout due to hearing so much difficult content from their clients. Those who are “highly sensitive people” also report feeling wrung out after social events or difficult situations.
In contrast, those who develop healthy self-approval can let go of the guilt-based responsibility for another’s emotional pain. They can hear about someone’s grief or other struggles and not carry it around with them.
People often wonder how I can work so much and “listen to other people’s problems all day.” I am able to let go of their issues in a healthy way, without ruminating or suppressing my emotions. This doesn’t mean I care less about people or I am cold or detached. It just means I can take a wise perspective and I have outgrown the need for ego validation or approval from others.
ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERFECTION
Parents who set high standards for their children or themselves communicate that failure is not an option, even when we know that imperfection is merely part of the human experience for all of us. Because of their own shame intolerance, many parents who are Other-blamers or Self-blamers do not model healthy acceptance of imperfection. I often advise parents to visibly model failure and recovery in front of their children to teach that this experience can be tolerated and even is healthy in that it helps us learn and grow. Parents should also model apologizing, repairing relationships, being accountable, being able to ask for help, being vulnerable, and other healthy shame tolerance skills.
WISDOM AND INTUITION
Although difficult to define, wisdom generally comes from knowledge gained from years of experience — usually from those difficult experiences! But I believe it can be defined as the ability to engage mentally with a healthy balance of emotional awareness and rational judgment. Those driven by powerful emotions, such as fear of rejection and the resulting shame reactions, are more likely that these emotions will hijack their brains. The brain’s primitive fear-based survival emotions can overwhelm the cognitive functioning. When this happens our brains are more likely to default to automatic thinking patterns or biases, such as catastrophizing (“This is the worst problem ever!”), negativity (“Everything will turn out bad”), and persecutory thoughts (“Everyone is against me.”)
In contrast, self-accepting people are in control of their emotions, allowing their rational thoughts to manage run-away emotions. They can be deliberate in their responses, patient and open-minded. Wise individuals make conscious choices rather than unconscious reactions.
They can listen to their emotions as important signals, but they are not mindlessly driven by overwhelming feelings. As a result, their intuition improves — something that happened to me once I became self-accepting. I can observe and honor more subtle emotional experiences, because my stronger survival emotions aren’t so prevalent and overwhelming my brain.
Healthy individuals have access to all their emotions and are self-aware and self-reflective to notice feelings — but they can respond calmly, rationally, flexibly, and appropriately. They do not under-react with passivity or emotional avoidance and they do not overreact with neurotic, fear-driven anxiety. They can access emotions and balance that with rational thought.
TRUE EMPATHY OR PSYCHOLOGICAL AWARENESS OF SELF AND OTHERS
True empathy is the ability to reflect on the deeper motivations, psychological states, and emotions of others, rather than just the surface behaviors. By considering the other person’s experiences, we gain perspective and, hopefully, patience, compassion, wisdom, and tolerance.
One of my favorite quotes on psychology speaks about this:
If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves, rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time, cease to react at all. — Yogi Bhain
I can attest that it is very freeing to mindfully pause and reflect with an open, wise mind on another’s motivations and recognize that they are likely disconnected or unrelated to us and our behaviors. That person may be caught in their own fears and reactivity and drives that have nothing to do with me.
Now that I have gained equanimity I can watch this happen without reacting. I recently was working with a couple on parenting issues and very gently questioned what they did in response to their daughter’s violence, swearing and name calling toward them. I hadn’t even told them what to do or not do as parents. They immediately became defensive and quit therapy because they felt I was “overstepping my boundaries.” Since the point of therapy was parenting education, this was not a boundary violation. But I could see that their shame was triggered and their reaction, while shocking, was not my responsibility. They are responsible for their emotions and behaviors. A therapist with poor shame tolerance might have gotten angry back at the parents because the therapist’s shame issues were triggered by the (unjust) criticism.
Many faith traditions, philosophies and mindfulness practices are based on compassion. The “golden rule” of treating others as we would like to be treated is a tenant in most religions. This ability encompasses mindfulness and the intention to relate to the self and others with kindness. Compassion leads to patience, tolerance, and forbearance. A key ability in those with self-acceptance is healthy levels of judgment toward self and others. We should be judgmental in appropriate ways to set boundaries and hold oneself and others accountable, but not harshly critical and rejecting.
With healthy shame tolerance, we learn to hear criticism from self and others without defensiveness. This allows us to engage in a range of behaviors that help build healthy, reciprocal relationships. We can admit fault with grace and equanimity and forgive ourself and others easily and appropriately. Conversely, it often helps us feel less guilty and co-dependent, so that we can hold others accountable with assertiveness, boundary setting, and values-based judgments. If we are less needy for approval, we often have less fear of conflict and possible rejection.
FLEXIBLE SOCIAL HIERARCHY
Self-acceptance means a person’s ego needs do not demand that they rigidly adopt dominance or submission in their social relationships. They do not have to rely on a narcissistic sense of dominance to control, coerce, exploit, or abuse others. An emotionally healthy person may be the boss at work, but can acquiesce to a partner’s opinions at home or can be a low-level committee member on a volunteer activity. Self-accepting people can flexibly adopt various roles depending on the situation or relationship, without triggering feelings of unworthiness or shame. Their sense of self is not dependent on where they rank in the tribe.
Unlike a narcissist who has to be on top all the time, I can be both and leader and a follower as needed. These social hierarchies aren’t determined by MY emotional needs, like a narcissist, but by the needs of the group. If the group needs a leader, I can step up, if not I can take a back seat. Narcissists must always be the most powerful person, because to feel powerless feels shaming to them. Self-accepting people know that they have intrinsic worth and dignity, so that taking on a menial task or role does not diminish them in any way. I don’t have to compete with others to prove my worth.
HEALTHY HUMILITY AND PRIDE
Because they can tolerate shame, self-accepting individuals can admit when they are wrong or do not know something. They can flexibly change their minds and don’t always have to be the “smartest person in the room” or insist on “my way or the highway.” However, if it is appropriate they can exhibit healthy pride in their accomplishments. In contrast, they do not rigidly downplay their achievements in an effort to portray submissiveness and people-pleasing traits.
INTEGRITY, CHARACTER, AND VIRTUE
Integrity, character and virtue may sound like old-fashioned words but I believe should be brought back into favor. People who know themselves and can hold themselves accountable have strong personal values and live by them. They can hear those inner voices driven by the emotion of guilt that say: “You’re not living according to your values.” They can change course and change behaviors. Those who are more eager for approval, because they lack a healthy ego, may be willing to give up their values in service of getting others to like them. They may give in to peer pressure or ignore their needs in a relationship. Other-blamers or narcissists may both demand approval or loyalty and avoid disapproval or blame. Narcissists and sociopaths notoriously do not have good values, because their only need is emotional self-preservation. Healthy values are generally more pro-social and focused on what is good for others and society.
RESILIENCE, SELF-DISCIPLINE, HARD WORK, FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE, PERSISTENCE
Those who can speak the truth to themselves are better able to hold themselves accountable, leading to improved resilience, self-discipline, motivation and hard work. Those who give up easily often do so because the fear of failure (and the resulting shame and self-criticism) holds more power than the possibility of success.
Because they can tolerate the experience of failure without excessive defensiveness or self-blame, self-accepting people can learn from mistakes and persist through difficulties. They have a growth mindset that permits a positive outlook and intrinsic motivation. In contrast, Other-Blamers with poor shame tolerance often change jobs or relationships frequently, because they give up at the slightest sign of struggle or failure. They do not have the resilience to persist through a learning curve on a job and cannot tolerate a boss or partner criticizing them. Self-blamers may look resilient because they have learned to drive themselves with self-judgment and perfectionism, but this is often at a steep cost to their stress levels and mental health. Blame Avoiders often under-function, take unchallenging jobs and have few or distant relationships because they haven’t learned to tolerate shame of failure and push through to success.
AGREEABLE AND LIKABLE
Self-accepting people are likable because they are not excessively opinionated and do not have to be right all the time (Other-Blamer). They do not always agree or placate others in obsequious ways (Self-Blamer) or excessively avoid conflict (Blame Avoider). Because I can stay calm and equanimous in stressful situations I have found that I can generally remain likable, without excessive anger or passivity.
CURIOUS AND OPEN-MINDED
It’s probably obvious by now, but if a person can tolerate being wrong, they can remain open-minded about ways they might be wrong. I find I am better able to be self-reflective because I can stay present to what I discover when I do reflect on myself— such as embarrassing behaviors or errors in thinking. Other-blamers and Blame Avoiders shut down conversations that might expose their faults. Self-Blamers often engage in routinized or rigid ways of thinking about themself and others, usually that “I am unworthy and wrong” and “Others are worthy and right.”
Those with poor shame tolerance often have very inaccurate self-perceptions. Self-Blamers are so hypercritical and guilt-ridden that they come to believe they can do very little well or they are perfectionistic to avoid failure. Other-Blamers are so defended against shame that they cannot hear incoming messages that would give them clues about their behaviors. Blame Avoiders often set up relationships and lifestyles that preclude shame-inducing messages, such as by working for themself or being single. With self-acceptance, we can handle shame, so that we can absorb incoming information about ourselves, whether it is painful or not. As a result, we can stop deluding ourselves that we are wonderful when we are not (narcissistic Other-Blamers) or berating ourselves that we are horrible when we are not (Self-Blamers).
PRO-SOCIAL EMOTIONS AND BEHAVIORS
When one spends more time feeling emotionally safe one can engage in more pro-social emotions. These are the “things I learned in kindergarten” traits of kindness, reciprocity, altruism, generosity, patience, fairness, tolerance for differences, etc. In contrast, people largely motivated to avoid rejection and shame will find nearly every social interaction a minefield of fear — will they like me or reject me or criticize me? For Other-blamers this can mean an increase in anti-social behaviors such as selfishness, vindictiveness, angry, greed, dishonesty, etc.
By now it should be obvious that all of these traits flow out from an ability to tolerate shame. By gaining self-acceptance, we can move past the binary of perfection vs worthlessness. We learn that we are all flawed, imperfect human beings. Living in that middle ground made me less fearful of failure and the resulting self-blaming and shaming that I engaged in. I knew that if I failed, I was just like everyone else in the world. I learned I could meet myself with kindness on the other side. This made future risk-taking less scary and helped me relate to myself with love and warmth, rather than rejection and feelings of social threat.
Now I don’t have to strive relentlessly for perfection to avoid future self-shaming. I also don’t engage in strategies that keep me safe from shame. I can face my faults and failures because the stakes are no longer so high — self-rejection and feelings of unworthiness.
It may be tricky to explain how this feels, but I can assure you I am a much happier and contented person having gained self-acceptance than when I engaged in self-blaming. It is well worth the journey for anyone and I encourage you all to begin the work.
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