by Elizabeth Eiland, LMSW
We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice
how we are already found,
already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.
Like many of us, I have been known to read Oprah Magazine. Probably like many of us, I might read an article or two in a doctor’s office waiting room, and promptly forget the article’s contents as soon as I put down the magazine. When I first read this particular passage by author Anne Lamott, however, I got to thinking about the paradox she presents. For long after my time at the waiting room, I asked myself: How is it that we find ourselves only when we start to notice that we are already found? How is it that we are, at the same time, already exactly where we are meant to be and yet still evolving? How is it that change happens when we accept that we are already—perfectly—who we are, and yet also on our way towards becoming someone new?
My own response to these questions echoes Anne Lamott’s: accepting ourselves as who we already are allows us permission to access who we are not yet but still hope to become. It is precisely when we accept where we already are that change can occur. For me, this is a critical piece of the therapy process.
Many of us might come to therapy hoping to become someone different, looking to shed a familiar burden of pain, or seeking to become free from a place we’ve been stuck for so long. Perhaps the place that we are starting from is the absolute last fact about ourselves that we would ever want to accept; perhaps the reason we come to therapy is the thing about ourselves that we most wish we could push away.
Paradoxically, it is precisely in the midst of this desolation where the seeds of change lay already planted. Spiritual teacher Anthony DeMello shares a personal example of his desired changes coming into fruition though acceptance:
I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, Don’t change. I love you just as you are. Those words were music to my ears: Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change. . .I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly, I changed!
However profound his transformation, it is my guess that DeMello’s experience of acceptance and change wasn’t as sudden as his story might suggest. For most of us, this process might be messy, scary, long, uncomfortable, or even (temporarily) painful. But the promise of change makes this journey possible. We have to bravely face the already in order to get to the not yet!
The First Step
Contrary to this cartoon from The New Yorker, the first step is not to change who you are, but to notice who you already are. This cartoon pokes fun at the idea that somehow we must change who we are at our core in order to better ourselves; rather, our core selves already offer the capacity for healing and growth. If we desire transformation, change paradoxically happens when we notice who we already are, and, as monastic nun Macrina Wiederkehr said, “accept the truth about ourselves – no matter how beautiful it is!”
Mental health professionals and spiritual leaders alike suggest the tool of mindfulness as the first step towards acceptance.
One example of a therapeutic modality that asserts this paradox between acceptance and change, and responds with mindfulness, is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT begins with the assumption that two seemingly opposite things can both be true (in fact, this is the root of the word dialectic). DBT’s central dialectic, then, is that people can both desire acceptance as they are and, at the same time, desire change. Anne Lamott, Anthony DeMello, and many of us might find DBT’s basic assumptions to be familiar.
Some snapshots from my practice might further illustrate this paradox. The 60-year old man, recently diagnosed with Early Stage Alzheimer’s disease, learns how to live with his memory loss by making changes to his daily routine. Accepting his disease allowed him to make the accommodations that transformed his life. An 11-year old girl mourning the loss of her best friend, greets her grief with curiosity and acceptance, and over time learns to live in joy instead of fear (not to mention winning the school spelling bee). A 36-year old woman accepts that her relationship is not where she wants it to be, and gives herself permission to make the necessary changes. In each of these snapshots, it is precisely when these folks notice where they are – scared for the future, grieving a loss, or unhappy in relationship – that their transformation can begin.
Mindfulness, then, can bring us to acceptance of ourselves as we already are: truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously ourselves.
Already, We Belong
Poet Mary Oliver affirms that the place where we already are is exactly where we need to be. She tells us in her poem Wild Geese,
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
Here she asserts that we do not have to do or be anything different than we already are. Later in the poem, even all of nature affirms that we belong – just as we are, already.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Elizabeth M. Eiland, LMSW
Anne Lamott for Oprah Magazine, November 2009. “Becoming the Person You Were Meant To Be.” <http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-To-Find-Out-Who-You-Really-Are-by-Anne-Lamott/1>
Anthony DeMello, Song of the Bird (1982). New York: Doubleday.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). New York: Hyperion.