“It is very difficult to go through life when your core belief about yourself is that you are incompetent and do not count.
When you have no sense of your own value, you are like a leaf in the wind, dependent on what others think of you to know who you are.” ― Valerie Porr
This was originally written as an answer on Quora.
I used to get home from school every day and lie on my bedroom floor crying, crushed by the pain of being myself.
It hurt. Physically. My chest aching. My limbs heavy. Every muscle clenched. Every part of my mind focused on hatred.
The self-loathing felt insurmountable. It built inside me all day. Like my insides were twisting into a knot that got tighter and tighter as I struggled to hold myself together, I thought at the time. Then, arriving home, I unravelled. I felt the fury wash over me until I had to do something, anything to let it out.
Maybe I’d slip out of the house and run through the dark streets, out of breath. I’d run past the council estates where people yelled out at me from bus stops, their faces cloaked in shadows. I’d run past the millionaires’ houses, glancing through the gates at glowing rooms, resentful of their warmth.
It never mattered what I did. I just had to do something to tire me out enough to sleep. All day long, I looked forward to sleeping. Counting down the hours until my mind would slow down and stop.
Of course, I never talked about my nights with anyone. No one ever talks about their nights. Even here, I’m skimming over so much, crafting a narrative from jumbled images.
In school, I’d stare at my classmates, wishing I could swap places with one them, even for 24-hours.
It was hard to envision a worse fate than being myself. As a torture, it seemed too skillfully crafted to be incidental.
Perhaps I had done something terrible in a past life. Every time the horrible truth hit me that I could never be anyone other than myself, I erupted with fury. Oh, the drama. Looking back, it’s all so maddening.
Writing was my escape. I clung to it. Between the pages of my notebooks and within my laptop keyboard, I found something I didn’t hate: words.
Self-hatred is exhausting, you see. It eats you up. It drains you of everything you have.
It turns down the volume on everything, shrouds everything in a dark mist, saps your strength. You can’t, don’t won’t, think of anything else.
Maybe you get good at overcompensating in company. You become the class/ office/ family clown. And yet, you are tired. So tired.
Eventually, you can’t stand it any longer. Emotional burnout sets in. You are forced to confront it. And then everything gets so much worse because you see how your self-hatred is tied up with ever part of your life, how it connects to everything you do, how you don’t know how to think one thought without its presence.
Self-acceptance sounds so warm and fluffy, so self-care-y and pleasant. So simple: you accept yourself. Self-acceptance. Easy.
How do you learn to accept yourself? You don’t learn it. You don’t choose it. You don’t get a say in the matter.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it’s not. As humans, our most natural instinct is to move away from pain. We run from it.
When we are the thorn in our own side, we either destroy ourselves to escape the pain, or we pull out the tweezers and dig and dig and bleed to get it out. Digging it out hurts so much more than leaving it. But at some point that ceases to be an option. Self-destruct or self-accept.
How do you learn to accept yourself? You commit to living. Once you do that, you don’t need to learn. You can’t do anything else.
You accept because to live is to accept. There’s no third option. This is you.
This is your life. This is not your funeral.
This is who you are, this is what you are going to do.
But you commit to it. This is a different sort of living to the kind you do in the fog of self hatred. This is not existing, this is not drifting along, this is not floating along passively praying for it all to stop.
You embrace the mundane minutiae of life: you cash a cheque, empty the vacuum cleaner, cook rice, open the mail, go somewhere to see someone or something. And all the while, you observe everything like a piece of fine art. Dum dee dum, would you look at me, folding this laundry as if it matters, as if I am not crushed by the weight of my impending death, as if everything isn’t a pile of shit.
You take stock of yourself and acknowledge that this is it. This is you. This is your life. You try on gratitude like an old shirt that might fit. Wear it despite the too-long sleeves. You’ll grow into it.
How do you learn to accept yourself? You treat your Self as a fact of existence, like the color of the sky or the feel of rain on your skin. It just is.
If people get an inkling that you hate yourself — and people can smell genuine self-loathing, not the attention-seeking stuff, a mile away- they’ll try to talk you out of it. They’ll tell you you’re beautiful, talented, fun to be around, successful, cool etc. These things are probably true. We all need external validation to survive.
It’s also a bad idea to base your self-worth on traits like beauty and success. Those are not you. You can lose them at any time. If you can only find acceptance if X or when Y, you’re still at square 1.
Because I don’t think self-acceptance is about appreciating some underlying level of physical attractiveness, intellectual prowess or the achievement of some other metrics. Let’s get out of the conditional mindset.
You are what you are. You don’t, can’t need to be anything else. You can always improve but you have to get real about the underlying self first. There are pros and cons, facts and incorrect beliefs. Living matters so much more.
Time passes. You get better at living — it’s easier if you treat it as a skill, because it is. Acceptance is never a surrender, never a defeat, never an event, never a victory. Just a process, too slow to try measuring.
But someday, you look back and see that old fog behind and you shudder.
- You notice how much lighter things are.
- How much easier it is to just get up in the morning and do what you need to do without a three-hour internal debate first.
- How much lighter you feel when the opinion of everyone around you is not always at the forefront of your mind.
- How much simpler it is to live when not living is not an option. Not that it ever was.
Is that learning? I don’t know. It’s more like growing. A tree doesn’t want to grow or know why it needs to grow. But it grows because it needs light to survive. We are the same.
When I was younger, I saw acceptance as surrender.
Looking around, seeing people calmly going about their lives, seemingly unruffled by the fact of their own existence, bothered me. The idea of giving up felt like weakness. Because everyone else seemed to just accept, heck, some of them even seemed to love living, I figured I had to be so uniquely flawed and wrong that I didn’t get permission to just be.
Then, like everyone at some point, I got serious about death as something real and terrifying.
When you’re a kid, death is abstract, impossible, glamorous, a gesture, a statement. You know so little of life and have such a weak grasp of what it can be that you can’t possibly fear death. Life is a jumble of confused images and death is just one of those images.
When you learn, somehow, to hate yourself, you grasp that the only way to escape yourself is to escape life altogether. But you don’t really get what that means. When you do, it’s horrifying.
Once, I held a dying bird in my hands as she breathed out her last moments. Her yellow eyes rolled, her wings twitched, her beak moved silently.
Then she was gone. A cold mass of feather in my hands. Flies already settling.
It felt perverse, sudden, total.
How do you learn to accept yourself? You hold your own self in your hands like a gasping bird and you recognise all the frailty and chaos and beauty.
Metaphors don’t work. Not for this.
- You are not a tree chasing the light.
- You are not a bird that needs to fly.
- You are not stardust.
- You are not a mermaid or a goddess.
- You are not Lux Lisbon or Sylvia Plath or James Dean or Kurt Cobain or Janis Joplin or Marilyn Monroe.
- You are not a tragic image trapped in amber, to be admired for your faux-brave escape from the mundane realities of life.
- You don’t need to tell yourself you are a flower or a sunbeam or a magical creature.
- You don’t need to make this into something it’s not.
As long as you expect self-acceptance to happen in a blinding flash of light, it never will.
As a wise prophet (Conor Oberst) once said, there are hundreds of ways to get through the day. Just find one. In my case, I wrote. Because I loved writing and wanted nothing more than to get better at it, to do it all day every day, I cut out the isn’t-my-life-so-tragic crap. My life was material, therefore it was necessary.
You get through the days and you love the days until you just find yourself accepting because you learn to prefer living to not living.
Acceptance is not the dark surrender of drowning. It’s the liberation of swimming with the current, not fighting it, not reaching towards the ocean floor with one hand at all time, just letting things flow.