Love is an uphill battle for me — both with myself and everyone else.
I preach a lot about love and its potential to radically transform our world, but, honestly, my doing so is mostly for me. Y’all, I’m judgey. I was raised Southern, which means I’m polite around people I don’t really care for (because manners), which I perceive as a passive-aggressive fault I’m working to correct in my own time.
That said, despite my outward pleasant demeanor, I usually walk around with a grumbly-ass, intolerant inner monologue that pipes up pretty much the minute I start my day and doesn't stop until I'm asleep. Even though this ongoing negative commentary stays within my own head, I’m aware that how it's altered how I interact with others and, to a selfish extent, how it affects my personal happiness.
Needless to say, love is an uphill battle for me — both with myself and everyone else.
I recently read Andrea Miller’s Radical Acceptance, in which she describes making love a priority — both as a gift to your relationships and to yourself. She doesn't just advocate love, though; instead, she encourages all of us to step outside our comfort zones, see people's inherent flaws and occasional awfulness, and love them to the extreme.
According to her, this challenging new M.O. promises to transform your life from the inside out while also having a trickle-down effect into those who experience your personal acceptance.
Admittedly, I rolled my eyes a little bit while skimming through her intro with these steep promises, but then she said something that hooked me: "Looking around, I see an endless slew of people trying to evolve and transform themselves. But the truth is, people do not self-actualize in isolation."
Damn. She got me.
As someone who works from home in my tiny, snack-filled bubble, it's easy to wish for a happier social experience without doing any of the actual social interaction that would facilitate change.
"In other words," she continues, "People who transform themselves positively do so with others...people who self-actualize can be truly seen and loved for who they really are — including the scary, shameful parts. As our egos stand down, our hearts can open to others and ourselves."
She seemed on to something, and, although it made sense, this wasn't a practice I was very familiar with on a personal level. Sure, I've read what the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra has to say about how the ego works, but I'd never been handed a literal manual as to how to move it aside.
With Miller's step-by-step advice in hand, I realized I could actually work on this. Her book is tailored specifically to those readers working on romantic relationships, but the premise is still the same: Learn to love others by accepting them exactly as they are.
I thought, “What if I did this, hardcore, for just a week? What if I shushed that negative-as-hell voice that disguises itself as reason and injects negativity into everything, and just tried to accept everyone around me with love for a minute?”
The thing is, being grumbly is comfortable for me, but this behavior doesn’t really make me happy; it’s just a lazy defense mechanism I adopted as an adolescent and never thought to reboot in all my years, even though my circumstances are way, way better these days. It’s far past time to defrag my system.
First, I had to start with myself. Making a statement, internally or out loud, about hating my appearance first thing in the morning started as a habit some 20 years ago and, at this point, it’s just a compulsion. My husband, best friend, and daughter have all called me out on it repeatedly, and yet, it’s something I feel inclined to do every single time I catch a reflection or image of myself.
That first morning, I walked into the bathroom and, with way more gusto than necessary, proclaimed, “Good MORNING, gorgeous!” It was ridiculous and while I forced a smile, it felt like I was lying to myself. I smiled anyway, mostly because I've read a million times that "faking it until you make it" can cause a shift in positivity.
I wish I could say that was a linchpin for a whole day’s worth of positivity and that starting myself off on the right foot had a trickle-down effect that showered love and acceptance onto everyone, but that’s not how real life works, no matter what those Instagram memes want us to believe.
The minute I stepped out of the shower, I was greeted with the same struggles that make me grumpy every day. My husband left dirty dishes in the sink from his midnight snack again; my daughter was whining about not wanting to eat any of the numerous options I was presenting for breakfast; traffic was traffic; women at the quiet bookstore where I write were loudly complaining about their spouses not buying them what they wanted for their birthdays.
Despite my initially optimistic attitude, after being bombarded with the same stuff that gets deeper and deeper under my skin and all up in my nerves with every passing day, I was ready to retreat back into my house where nobody was going to ruin my groove.
Even worse was that, I’d find myself reacting the same way I always do, realizing it seemed involuntary despite me actively trying to act through radical acceptance, then taking myself on a guilt trip with the realization that I am even judgier than I thought because I was then judging myself for being so judgmental and intolerant. And that all felt gross.
By the end of the day, I felt like a failure.
I woke up on day 2 ready to try again, and I did a little better. I smiled at myself in the mirror, didn’t complain to my spouse about the dishes, tried to be understanding when my kid didn’t want to eat, and so on. But by lunchtime, I’d caught myself rolling my eyes and scoffing at the personal choices of people around me at least a dozen times.
I’d do it, immediately realize I’d done it, and then feel terrible about my lack of compassion, which seemed to fuel more grumpiness, thus perpetuating the whole icky cycle.
Honestly, I knew I struggled with showing my unconditional love for the people I felt it for, but I thought for sure that if I put in a little concentrated effort, surely I could turn that around with no problem. Suffice to say, I was super-embarrassed to find out I was wrong. And more than my disdain for the things I don’t like that other people do around me, I was steeping in self-loathing at the realization that I seriously have a problem with acceptance.
This was counterproductive and I knew it. I needed to change my M.O., but the problem was, I didn’t know how.
It’s frustrating when self-help gurus encourage us to “Just let go!” and “Learn to love unconditionally!” without actually telling us how to do those things. If I’ve never done something, I don’t know how to just start; if I could flip that switch just by deciding to, I definitely would have by now.
I needed a blueprint.
I sat back and thought about the people in my life who have shown me unconditional love, how that felt, and how that looked to me. I then posed those images against the people in my life who said their love was unconditional but struggled with demonstrating it.
What felt different between the two types? Which characteristics of each do I demonstrate and what do I need to tweak? It was a hard practice to undertake, but shining a light on my weaknesses and seeing what I needed to do to fix it felt empowering.
Now I could start making a game plan. I realized that showering myself and others with compliments doesn’t undo the criticisms that I also put out there, so first things first: I have to nip this negativity in the bud.
Knowing I do best with visual aide, I set up reminders in my phone to interrupt my day and keep me on track. These were both reminders to be kind to everyone around me and also to myself. I put sticky note reminders on my mirror, in my kitchen, and in my car.
The changes started immediately, but very gently. I’d put a sticky note on my dashboard reminding myself that I’m part of a vehicular community when on the road and everyone deserves the same grace that I sometimes have to ask for in traffic. Amazingly, I was cut off three times by the end of the day and yet, I didn’t blurt out any of my typical exclamations of protests. Instead, I thought “Oh man, I’ve been there...” and shrugged it off.
This was new. And then something happened that changed everything.
Coincidentally, I started coaching my daughter’s volleyball team that week, and, while I was excited, I was nervous as it was my first time being the leader of a group of kids. I’d planned a rough outline of our first practice, but when I got there, I saw that these beginners’ abilities weren’t quite up to my expectations, so I quickly ditched my plans and adapted to the needs of the group.
We spent a little time working on basics, and a couple of my first-year players began to get really upset that they weren’t getting the hang of serving and setting. Without a second thought, I said, “Dude, this is Day 1 of Volleyball for you! You’re doing aaaaawesome!”
This usually elicited a smile and dried a few tears, and I didn’t think much about it until our second practice a couple days later, when one of them came up to me and said, “Coach! I practiced this week and I think I got better!” and showed me how she’d improved the maneuver in her own time. She smiled the whole time. In fact, all of us smiled that whole second practice and laughed when any of us made a mistake.
It was only after I’d gotten in my car after the session that I realized what had happened. I’d done it. Without overanalyzing my actions, I showed this group of kids what support looks like without criticism or expectations, and as a result, I’d created a safe space for them to play and improve. I was capable of exhibiting acceptance and unconditional support! I’m not a soulless monster and I’ve been able to do this all along!
With my newfound momentum, the next step was learning to apply this mentality to my ordinary interactions. Alright, deciding to treat others like first-year athletes just learning a new game seems a little nuts from the outset.
But the truth is: Aren’t we all wandering through life for the first time, just trying to figure out how to be better versions of ourselves? Don’t we all deserve the same understanding and freedom from judgment of minor mistakes as we work toward making our lives better? Don’t we all have a better chance to flourish if we’re not oppressed by others’ criticisms, and doesn’t that make for wonderful symbiosis among us?
These realizations are what created a foundation for a more effortless sense of compassion and acceptance in me. Just stating empty compliments at myself and others has only ever worked superficially, and never felt genuine to me or changed the thing inside myself that fueled my negativity.
However, once I clearly saw that we’re all playing a game we haven’t quite had enough practice for, my ability to look past others’ flaws and see their intent came naturally.
Granted, I’ve only been practicing radical acceptance through this new epiphany for a few days, but I’ve noticed a shift both in my personal interactions and within myself. That nagging, judgey inner monologue is a little quieter, and the less she speaks, the lighter and more free my spirit feels.
I will continue to be a work in progress, but after this jumpstart, I’m excited to see what can happen with this new groove.
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