I often talk about how you can change your relationship with sugar through loving relationship itself: kindness, compassion, connection, and acceptance. Many people email or ask me, “But how? How does being accepting or kind to myself help me change how I eat?”
It’s a great question! In this post, I’m going to focus on self acceptance, and how self acceptance fuels growth, healing and change.
What acceptance isn’t
When I first learned about “acceptance,” I felt skeptical and resistant. I thought acceptance meant agreement – as in, “I agree with this and I’m okay with it.” So how could I accept/find agreement with things like bingeing, gorging on sugar, overeating, judging myself and more – habits that were obviously leading to tremendous suffering in my life? And if I did accept them as “okay,” then wouldn’t accepting these habits keep me further entrenched in them? Wouldn’t it be a form of resignation – or permission?
After many years of studying and practicing acceptance, I’ve come to see that acceptance isn’t any of these things. Likewise, it’s not a value judgment of good (or bad.)
What acceptance is
Acceptance is merely an acknowledgment of what is – of what you’re experiencing in any given moment.
Let’s make this tangible. Imagine that you find yourself craving food – or following that craving and overeating. In that moment, what are you experiencing? What are the feelings, emotions, needs and sensations that are arising in your body?
Perhaps you’re feeling angry, or sad, or afraid. Perhaps you’re believing things like, “I’m powerless,” “I’m a flawed mess,” or “I should’ve been in more control.” Perhaps you’re telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling/reacting/thinking this way.
How acceptance stops the cycle of self punishment
These are all subtle forms of blame and judgment. When you tell yourself I shouldn’t be XYZ, you’re not allowing the truth of your experience to be – which is that you are craving food; that you are feeling angry, sad or afraid. This judgment tends to spiral, proliferate and grow.
Acceptance is what stops the cycle. It’s the doorway out.
Rather than judging ourselves for what’s going on inside, or telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling this or wanting that, acceptance is a gentle nod of, “Yes, this is how it is for me right now.” It’s making space for all our feelings, all our emotions, all our longings and needs, all our experiences – for the full width and breadth of the human experience.
Acceptance is a powerful form of surrender: an opening to what is and not what we wish were true. To quote The Beatles, acceptance is “letting it be.” Father Thomas Keating describes acceptance as saying, “I consent” or “This, too.” Yes to this, and yes to this, and yes to this….
Whew – it’s radical, isn’t it? It’s a dying to self – dying to all the ways our minds say “But it should be _____!” … dying to all the ways our minds say that we, life or others should be different. (Yes, this can feel like annihilation!)
It can take a while to get to acceptance – it took me a decade of fighting to surrender. At first, all I could see with acceptance was loss – the loss of what I wanted, imagined, or wished were different. I didn’t realize that, yes, while there’s loss in acceptance – the loss of the way we think things should be – there’s also a tremendous gain: the freedom to feel at peace with what is.
When we practice acceptance, a few things happen:
1. Space opens up. When the heart and mind feel safe – not judged or shamed – they can open. Rather than moving into self protection and shutting down from self judgment, there’s space for curiousity and openness. We can slow down and gently inquire, “What’s really going on here?”
This soft touch of curiosity invites opening: let’s see what’s here. We develop an understanding for why we’re overeating, or why we’re lashing out at a loved one, or why we’re judging our sadness….
2. We unhook from the idea that we’re a “flawed, bad self.”
Rather than trying so hard to defend ourselves so we look good – or scrambling to hide our “flaws” – we relax into our own imperfection. Our self esteem isn’t dependent on being the best or on being “good” all the time. Ah, the pressure to be perfect softens!
We can look at the truth of our experience and accept it without falling to pieces and thinking we’re a flawed mess. There’s room for the entire width and breadth of our human experience – the “good,” the “bad” and the “ugly.”
Likewise, our identity isn’t caught up with trying to be a “good self who doesn’t make any mistakes.” (Can you feel the tight, cramped ouch of trying to be that person?) Because we accept all our many “selves” and aren’t so identified with them, changing no longer feels like a rejection of the self. We can change and find ways of acting that better meet our needs.
3. We forgive ourselves and others, finding self compassion.
Acceptance naturally leads to compassion – an understanding of our interdependence, and the 10,000 factors that influence our day to day experience, emotions, thoughts and beliefs. Rather than shaming or judging ourselves for our conditioning – those factors that have shaped our personality and development – we move to care for these hurt parts with wise, appropriate action.
And rather than shaming or judging others for the conditioning that shaped their personality – and therefore ours – we find more levity and space to see that they, too, are doing the best they can.
3. We don’t make ourselves wrong for feeling however we’re feeling. There is tremendous freedom in this. On a physical level, acceptance feels like a giant softening. For me, I experience this softening in my belly, jaw, and neck/shoulders, as these are the places where I hold onto the tension of “This shouldn’t be this way.”
As this tension leaves the body, you may feel a soft, relaxed warmth in the belly – similar to the positive, warm sensations that you may feel after sex/orgasm, while nursing a baby, or during a time of loving, positive connection. (In writing these examples, I’m wondering if acceptance releases endorphins or some of the feel good hormones, like oxytocin (the love hormone), as sex and breastfeeding can.) In a word, it feels really, really good!
4. New options open up. As you move out of this painful, tight, cramped space of judgment – where it’s hard to make any wise decision, as you’re feeling too hooked – and you move into this warm, relaxed field of acceptance, you move into possibility. Suddenly, things don’t feel so rigid, tight or impossible.
So rather than doing the same thing over and over – and getting stuck in the same ruts – you realize there are 10,000 ways to respond….and lo and behold, you do something different.
You put the fork down, you question the impulse for the gallon of ice cream, you leave the room when you would’ve fueled the argument. You pause. You self soothe your anxiety rather than acting on it. You respond, rather than react.
You stop walking into the same pothole. You adapt. You change. You grow. You do one thing different.
You realize that the story of, “I can’t change,” is not true. Baby step by baby step, you grow.