My husband Neil is fond of quoting the American psychologist Carl Rogers as having said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Many people whose lives have felt the impact of ADHD are eager to change their lives in some way. Sometimes we look outside ourselves and feel certain that if this or that person close to us would just adjust and adapt and make allowances for us, our own lives would be much better.
That may or may not be true, but eventually we probably come to the disappointing but realistic conclusion that whether that is true or not, we actually have no power to change any other people. Some people never reach that realization, and they spend their lives blaming their circumstances on people and factors outside themselves.
If we do come to realize that the only person on whom we can actually have an impact for better or worse is our self, we often begin our remedial work by looking at all the “bad things” we want to eliminate.
It seems to most of us that becoming conscious of our shortcomings and being somewhat ashamed of them, and then determining to eliminate those behaviors is the obvious and rational way to become a better person. I think that’s why Carl Rogers called it a “paradox” that only when, instead of condemning ourselves, we accept ourselves as we are can we actually begin to make change.
Many of us have grown up judging ourselves harshly based on a rather rigid sense of how a good person “should” be. Others have punished us, and we continue the pattern by punishing ourselves. It can actually seem morally wrong to accept ourselves as we are when we aren’t yet all believe we should be.
Yet self-compassion and self-acceptance and personal growth go hand in hand. There is a concept in neuroscience that goes like this: neurons that fire together wire together. We are constantly creating new neural pathways and reinforcing old ones. The more we engage in old patterns of thought – such as self-condemnation – the more deeply we carve out those neural pathways. So the more we condemn ourselves for our failings, the more we believe we are failures.
It seems that we can rewire our brains by focusing our thoughts in a new direction. What you focus on expands, e.g., the neural pathways related to what you are focusing on become more defined and substantial. So doesn’t it make sense to focus on seeing yourself in a non-judgmental way – actually accepting yourself as you are? Then, from that standpoint of self-acceptance, the distance to creating new, more positive ways of thinking and behaving is not nearly so far as it was from the rut of self-condemnation.
There’s a possible trap awaiting us here – judging ourselves negatively for not being self-accepting. I think I’m going to take a deep breath and consider what it feels like to accept what is, and that includes accepting myself just as I am.