June 30, 2010 7:44 AM   Subscribe

How can I improve myself? Problem - nobody in my life has ever accepted me as I am.

I want to do lots of things to improve myself but tend to lose motivation because it plays on sensitive psychological territory - anyone close to me has always been insistent on changes.

I'm working on loving myself more. For example I made huge changes recently in my life out of self love, and am proud of my courage and the skills I'm learning. I am resigned to a life without that feeling of overwhelming love and acceptance but I am quite sure that it's something high on my list of existential goals - something I would not like to die without experiencing.

I worry there's something wrong with me I'm blind to that makes people discount my presence - for example I did a really big good thing in a community I'm a member of and out of a group of people that were thanked I was left out. How can I identify something like this that's causing people to discount me? I'm aware it's my fault not theirs but what should I do? Therapy isn't that practical but books would be.

Some broken, moldy part of me is crying out for that feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. How can I get it?
posted by By The Grace of God to Human Relations (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Don't change yourself to satisfy others -- change yourself to satisfy yourself. So if your question here is how to improve yourself, then the answer lies within you. Why don't you sit down and make a list of qualities you do like about yourself and qualities you don't like. Once you identify these characteristics, you can sharpen the good things and work on the not-so-good things.

Not everyone is going to immediately recognize the change you're making. There's no promise that anyone is going to stoop down and say, "Good job!" But I'm sure there are people in your life who have accepted you. They may not love you on the level you'd like them to, but that is not something you can force.

Just be good to yourself. Identify the parts of yourself that you're unhappy with, and change them. The rest will follow.
posted by fignewton at 7:52 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Love yourself unconditionally. Also, get a pet dog.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:52 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

From what you say -- or more the way you say it since it's pretty vague stuff -- I'm not sure what you are lacking is self-love as self-contentment or fulfillment. To me, the things I do (from my job to community activities to small kindnesses to strangers) should be sufficient in and of themselves, without someone else needing to validate me or tell me I am doing a good job or that I am a good person.

I mean, it's disappointing to be overlooked, but it shouldn't be crushing. There should not need to be any question of whose "fault" it is, unless you think cruel people were deliberately trying to hurt your feelings. Letting others' negligence or lack of response make you unhappy or jerk you around is putting your well-being in their hands -- take back control of your feelings. If you did something well, let that be enough. If someone praises you, icing on the cake -- but that shouldn't be the goal.

I am not up on a lot of self-help strategies, but I can't help but wonder if the terms "self-love" and "overwhelming acceptance" might be part of the problem here. Are you focusing too much on lavishing dramatic emotion on yourself? That's not always the way the world works, all that drama, and often it works much better *without* big drama.

I think long term happiness is more a sense of understanding and acceptance of oneself, not judging oneself (and of course accepting and not judging others either).

I realize this is a little rambly, but I hope it helps. Do you have a professional counselor or trusted friend you can talk this over with? Also, whether you're spiritually-inclined or not, consider meditating; setting aside a certain amount of time every day to relax, let go of anxiety, and just breathe as simply as possible can make a surprising difference in your overall life.
posted by aught at 8:02 AM on June 30, 2010

I'm aware it's my fault not theirs

Are you sure? Some people, and some groups of people, just aren't very loving and welcoming. That's not your fault -- it's theirs. I don't know the specifics, but your question reads like you are taking all the weight of this on your shoulders, when perhaps part of the answer is going to lie in who you choose to surround yourself with, who you choose to be friends with, who you trust with your heart.

So while on the one hand that's all on you -- note the repeated use of the word "choose" -- that's also external to you. It's not you engaging in a purely internal act of self-improvement, it's you choosing an environment that is loving and supportive of you, rather than an environment that ignores you or treats you poorly.
posted by Forktine at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

unconditional love and acceptance

You should begin by giving them to yourself. It is hard, but you will enjoy life a million times more. You should also explore the possibilitiy that it may be your circle. Try to meet different kinds of people, and see if you get along better.

Also, choose somebody that is mature and smart, and ask them this question directly. You may be shocked by what you find. Maybe you are shy and people think you're being stuck up, or maybe you way of speaking comes off the wrong way. I know I used to sound like I was fighting all the time, until my sister had the sense of letting me know. I had to force myself to sound non-fighting, until it came naturally. I still need to work a bit on the agressiveness of my manner, for example.
posted by Tarumba at 8:29 AM on June 30, 2010

anyone close to me has always been insistent on changes.

So, who died and made them God? Nobody gets to insist that you change. They can decline to spend time with you, of course, or let you play their reindeer games, but who you want to be is up to you. Trying to model yourself after everyone else's preferences is crazy-making. Stop doing that.

Otherwise, it sounds as if you've already been pushing yourself to change somewhat faster than you're comfortable with, and you're hoping that recognition, love and acceptance from others will somehow ease the stress of all this change and make it feel worthwhile. Slow down. Breathe. You are already okay. You are already a good person. There's nothing you need to do to make yourself acceptable. You just need to quiet yourself and settle those anxieties.

A handful of people in your lifetime are likely to love you unconditionally, but even their reactions to you and treatment of you will be conditional. Someone in your family, who will always love you deeply, will be pissed off that you didn't take the trash out until the spoiled meat scraps stunk up the kitchen, or that you left the cap off the toothpaste. Or they'll treat you badly because they are having a bad day for reasons you have nothing to do with, and you are convenient punching bag, and then they'll make up some BS rationalized excuse for treating you badly just to save themselves from feeling guilty. You need to develop a calm, stable center to stand on so that other people's behavior doesn't constantly throw you into chaos.
posted by jon1270 at 8:44 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

"Unconditional" love is what exactly? Someone who loves you regardless of who your are or what you do? That's not very realistic, other than the dog BBB mentions. Children want unconditional love from their parents because they are relatively helpless and the world is a big, mysterious place and they need help learning to navigate it. Adults come to realize that for relationships to have value, there must be give and take on both sides and what is given and received needs to be recognized on some level by both parties.
There's a lot of possible reasons for people to ignore your work a community. Social groups are frequently more responsive to "group perception" rather than the actual mechanics of who did what. If you are new to the group they may not want any help from a perceived outsider. Also, your own perceptions are something you need to look at, you think you helped them but do they see it that way?
posted by doctor_negative at 8:57 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Start a journal in which you find record something awesome (or even just good) that you did that day. It could be "Man, I kicked butt on that community project" or "I was super productive and finished all the things on my to-do list today" or "hooray for me for going to the gym even though it was raining outside and I wanted to sleep in."

Get in the habit of giving yourself credit, and acknowledging your own strengths and accomplishments, however small. Eventually other people will catch on. But their approval doesn't matter, only yours does.
posted by egeanin at 9:16 AM on June 30, 2010

I've gotten left out of groups a lot in my life. It sucks. And it happens, probably to everyone, more so if you're shy or introverted or just don't position yourself in the middle of groups for whatever reason. (Coming to terms with the fact that I am just not a large-group person, and don't care to be, has helped me a lot.)

When I'm snubbed, either by individuals or groups, I ask myself the following questions:

- Is this a person whose opinion I value? Frequently, the kind of people who openly dislike or exclude others are rather dislikeable themselves. If someone you really admire was an asshole to you... well, they were an asshole; do you admire assholes?
- If I never saw this person again, would it matter what they thought of me? Unless someone is unstable, or unless you're running for public office or something, if you stop hanging around them, their words and thoughts won't hurt you. They'll probably forget about you and move on to being a jerk to someone else.

Among the jerks, you'll find (or have already found and don't realize it?) lovely people who love you as you are. But even then, it might not be enough, and you might worry about losing them. Even on the infinitesimal chance that they are absolutely perfect in every way for every second of the day, they're not immortal, so there's still the risk of losing them. The only person who's guaranteed to be with you for your whole life is you. Having people who care about you is a very powerful thing, but it won't save or complete you. Keep believing in yourself, and forgive yourself, and love yourself like you're the last person on earth.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:47 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

I used to think that if only someone knew everything about me and still loved me, I could love myself. I then learned that when someone knew (almost) everything about me and still loved me, I thought they were crazy/stupid -- until I learned to love myself.

I have also found the "Do It Anyway" prayer/poem to be a source of much comfort.
posted by elmay at 9:55 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

As someone who has felt the same way as you, please heed the advice of the people that say you are the only one that can love you unconditionally. You are the sole gatekeeper of your potential. To try and illustrate some issues with the "unconditional love" trope here are some made up scenarios. What if you were loved unconditionally for who you are by someone you could not respect or had values that were antithetical to your own (racist, misogynist, whatever)? The healthy thing would be to realize and respect that feeling and acceptance those hypothetical people were granting you, but to *walk away* anyway because to do otherwise would be to compromise who you were as a person.
My point is that you have that aching human need to be accepted, but everyone I've met that has felt that way and were only able to move beyond it when they realized that it wasn't other people's acceptance that they craved, it was being accepted by oneself.

The beautiful thing is that once you get to the point where you realize acceptance comes from within rather than without and are able to accept yourself, then suddenly external acceptance by others no longer holds any sway over you as well. You become free to be yourself. But it all starts inside with self-love, encouragement, and drive for personal growth.

Because I think Metroid Baby nailed it I'll re-quote for emphasis

Having people who care about you is a very powerful thing, but it won't save or complete you. Keep believing in yourself, and forgive yourself, and love yourself like you're the last person on earth.
posted by forforf at 10:15 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

anyone close to me has always been insistent on changes.... Some broken, moldy part of me is crying out for that feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.

I absolutely love my children unconditionally, 100%, no matter what they do or who they become or how annoying their personalities are or how fat/skinny/tall/short/. They've even asked me things like "would you love me if I [killed someone] [was gay] [became a Christian] [didn't go to college] [joined the army] [etc.]?" and the answer is always yes yes a thousand times yes. Unconditional. However, I want them to change. I am always nagging them to work harder, do more, behave differently, talk less/more (different nagging for different kids), etc. It's because I love them that I want them to be more successful in school/work/relationships/life.

On the other hand, it's because I'm looking at them through the prism of my own experience that I want them to do/be a certain way (my way!), and what I want for them might not be what they want for themselves. The people who have been close to you, and have insisted that you do/be a certain way, are looking at you through the prism of their own experience as well, and what they want for/from you might not be what you want for/from yourself. The only thing that makes sense for you (and my kids) to do is to figure out what you want for/from yourself, and then follow that path. When the people in your life see that you have chosen a path of your own and are making progress moving along it, they will no longer insist that you change to do things their way --- because you'll have your own way.

Thank you for the reminder that I need to give my kids some space now and again to find their own paths as well. (Although I will still nag them ... lovingly.)
posted by headnsouth at 10:56 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Problem - nobody in my life has ever accepted me as I am.

I'd stop thinking of that as a problem and more of a boundary condition of the universe. Makes life a lot easier.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:56 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think I need to emphasise something - this is not a case of love while being asked to change. I have an abusive past in the immediate family, resulting in cordial distance there, as well as the extended family. I've never experienced what headnsouth is describing with her kids.

Thanks for all the empathetic and useful answers so far :)
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:17 AM on June 30, 2010

This is the core of your question, right?

By The Grace of God: “Some broken, moldy part of me is crying out for that feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. How can I get it?”

I know you're being dramatic, and maybe voicing a bit of your frustration, when you say that it's a "broken, moldy part" of yourself that wants to be loved and accepted. But whether it's right or wrong for you to feel that way, it's clearly something you share with a lot of people, maybe all people. People want to be loved and accepted. It's hard to make universal pronouncements about human nature, but I think this is one of the things all humans in all times in places have wanted, though perhaps in greater or lesser degrees.

But what does that urge mean? What does it mean that some part of you wants to be unconditionally loved and accepted? That's an important question, and I think one of the steps here has to be to at least be aware of it and keep it in your mind as you go about living your life. I don't say that you'll find an answer to it necessarily; I don't think it's an easy or a simple question to answer. But I do think an awareness of the ambiguity and thrust of this urge can help you avoid common traps.

Also, it helps you to have some perspective and to try to be rational in how you go about trying to find happiness. I hate to say it, but the places you're looking for love and acceptance seem to be the worst places to find those things. The example you give is of a community project that you'd done to help a lot of people; you said you weren't acknowledged at all, and in fact were pointedly ignored for this. It's not cynicism but realism, I think, to note that political and social actions are and will probably always be the most thankless and least personal and immediately rewarding of all things we can do for other people.

Furthermore: I think it's clear that unconditional love and acceptance are at least highly unlikely for human beings in this life; virtually nothing about our lives is unconditional, and creatures which live and die can't really expect that other such creatures will be capable of such absolutely concrete things as unconditional love and acceptance. Politics is a particularly difficult place to seek unconditional love and acceptance, but it appears that those difficulties are present in some degree in all of human life. But again, what does this urge really mean? Are you really hoping for unconditional love and acceptance? Or is there something in this life which satisfies that urge, without being utterly beyond our reach?

I don't have a whole lot of answers to this, but I guess I have two things that I think I can recommend.

First: I believe we live in an incredibly isolated and lonely age. This is in large part because we're convinced that we're not lonely at all; we have so many different ways to interact with other human beings, and so many different new forms of communication, that this rush of "interactivity" convinces us that we're doing just fine on the human contact front. I think it's essential to see this misconception for what it is. How much time do we spend making genuine eye contact with another human being every day? How much time do we spend talking face to face with someone, anyone, about things which really matter to us? I believe deeply that these things are necessary for human happiness and satisfaction; and if you're not getting them, you can make yourself as sick as you would be if you didn't eat food or didn't drink water. Go out of your way to spend time with people, to interact directly with them, to talk with them about things that are important and that you or they care about. I have a strong suspicion that part of what you take to be an urge for universal love and acceptance is actually an urge for human intimacy and friendship; in any case, that's an urge I share with you, and something I've seen in a lot of other people, too.

Second: you don't say much about this, but there are strong implications in your question that you've had trouble in the past with self-doubt and even self-hatred. I think this is also characteristic of our age, in which so many of us seem to actively dislike ourselves and who we are; I've felt this myself at times, and I think almost everyone does. The world doesn't help much. It sounds like a big chunk of what you're looking for is some relief from these overwhelmingly negative feelings that the world seems to encourage us to feel toward ourselves.

Again, I don't think I can offer any complete answers, but one thing I think I can point you in the direction of is: morality and moral thinking. It's occurred to me that many of us (myself included) spend an incredible amount of time and effort trying to avoid being moralistic, because deep down there's a part of us that's worried that morality will mean that we have to feel ashamed of who we are and the of the things we've done. But the remarkable thing is that, even though we're pretty successful in removing all of the explicitly moral parts of our thinking, we're still wracked by shame and self-loathing; it's just that our shame and self-disgust have become abstract and existential, so that we simply hate ourselves completely.

I believe deeply that the best way to alleviate this self-loathing is to rediscover what it really means to be a moral person. We tend to think of morality as being restrictive, and as a thing which exists to shame us and prevent us from fulfillment; but regardless of the good or bad moral teachers our society might have had in the past, I think morality is essentially a sort of freedom to be embraced. Used properly, it's a framework which makes our lives intelligible, and which allows us to shake off the shame and self-loathing which sometimes occurs as a natural byproduct of the fact that we all make mistakes.

To try to put it more concretely: morality gives us a method for thinking about what's right and what's wrong and how we ought to treat our fellow human beings. If we do something which we feel is wrong – say, if we lie to a friend of ours – we naturally feel ashamed; and I think that feeling is inevitable whether we've got a moral framework or not. However, if we think about this in moral terms, we don't have to feel ashamed. The moral thing to do in this situation isn't to feel ashamed; it's to accept our guilt and make it right. Sometimes that means asking for forgiveness; sometimes that just means learning a lesson and trying not to make the mistake again. That's freeing because it gives our shame a chance to dissipate, because we come to realize that, though we might have done something wrong, we have done our best to make it right.

I'm not saying this, of course, because I think you've done anything wrong. Quite the contrary. But one of the reasons I think it's worth it to cultivate moral thinking is because that can help us draw boundaries around moral matters, and to gain a command over our shame and eliminate it where we can. For example, you self-deprecatingly call the part of yourself that wants to be loved and accepted "broken" and "moldy." Now, I know you were just sort of being dramatic, but that characterization makes it sound as though there's something morally wrong with wanting to be loved and accepted. Whereas, in fact, there's nothing moral at all about it; it's an urge, a desire for human closeness, and it would be completely false to give it a moral value. You sound as though you're generally a good person; I imagine you have faults just like anybody else, and those are things you should work on, but you're allowed to accept the fact that you are a human being working toward making yourself better, and that there's no way for you to be anything besides that at this point. In short, I think the only way to strike a good balance between complete self-hatred on the one hand and absolute arrogance on the other is to cultivate a moral outlook toward the world, and to mix humility, which is just the rational acceptance of your moral limits, with confidence and true self-esteem, which come from an acceptance of those limits and of your place in the world. That way, you don't have to feel as though you have some radical or extraordinary fault or flaw; because you know rationally that you've faced your faults and done your best to set them right, and that you remain prepared to do your best to make yourself a better person.
posted by koeselitz at 11:19 AM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Look, I'm sorry for being dramatic, indeed I was feeling upset when I wrote the question.
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:35 AM on June 30, 2010

And, on preview, sorry that was so long. I've been thinking about this question all morning – it's a very good one, I think – so I had a lot on my mind. To put it more briefly, and hopefully more directly:

One of the best teachers I've ever had once told me that everyone carries around in her or his head a catalog of concupiscence, which was a fancy way of saying that, without realizing we're doing it, we all tend to count up all the terrible things we've ever done, the things which cause us pain. We carry this list around and remind ourselves of these things all the time, particularly when we're feeling hurt or alone. It's a way of indulging a part of ourselves that takes pleasure in feeling anything at all, I think; but in the end it only hurts us. Some of us learn to torture ourselves in this way from an early age. This is one of the chief results of childhood abuse – it teaches children to know and remember their faults.

This is, I think, the source of all our self-loathing and our inability to accept ourselves for who we are.

I really and truly believe that the only way to confront and overcome these moments of self-torture is to build up a certain amount of moral clarity for ourselves, so that whenever we start to feel as though we're terrible people who have done terrible things, we can answer clearly and decisively: "No. I am not a perfect person, and I have done things that were wrong; but I've done my best to make those things right, and I have learned and become a better person because of those mistakes." That takes some careful perspective, and sometimes it takes good friends to remind you of who you are; but it's something that's available to all of us.

Finally, on preview preview – don't you dare be sorry! ;) There is nothing to be sorry about. Being dramatic is not necessarily evil – this stuff is just important to you, that's all. All I want is for you to see that you don't need to beat yourself up; I guess I don't know you, and you might have done any number of things in your life, but you've done nothing wrong here.
posted by koeselitz at 11:49 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've never experienced what headnsouth is describing with her kids.

I'm sorry, BTGOG, I didn't mean to imply that all nagging/insistence on change is a form of love; it often isn't. My response to you was another example of someone seeing you/your situation through the prism of their own experience. We are all flawed, and even with the best of intentions, the way we view others is often unfair to them. My main point is an acknowledgment of that --- you have to find your own path independent of how others want you to be, and feel confident in who you are and how you live your life. Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 12:00 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding There is Nothing Wrong with You.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:47 PM on June 30, 2010

Some broken, moldy part of me is crying out for that feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. How can I get it?

There's . . . . something about this that worries me. I can't figure it out yet, but somehow you're reminding me of a friend I once had. She was obsessed with making sure that the only people in her life were people who would love her unconditionally, people she could fully trust (she came from an abusive background, too). In order to make sure that she could "fully trust" you, to make sure that you would "love her unconditionally," she'd eventually fuck you over somehow. She'd steal from you, or sleep with your boyfriend, or otherwise completely alienate you with appalling, destructive behavior. And then, when you didn't want to be friends with her any more, she'd say, "See? I can't find anybody who is willing to love me unconditionally."

Now, you're not describing anything like that here, but I doubt that she was fully conscious of what she was doing, either. Your obsession with being loved unconditionally might be preventing you from interacting healthily with others.

Nobody is going to love you unconditionally. That's a Disney-fairytale-myth. Deal with it. Just . . . try to be a lovable person.

Good luck!!
posted by sunnichka at 2:09 PM on June 30, 2010

I'd recommend reading Schema Therapy by Jeffrey Young. You strike me as smart enough to pick up on the book, but what it sounds like to me is that you do indeed need therapy. You can fight me on this all you like, but the simple fact of the matter is that you have some personality flaw that either makes it difficult for you to accept the love of others or to gain the love of others (whether it's your fault or theirs, there is an issue here) so get some dang help and don't be stubborn about it.

This isn't going to be the most empathetic post you read here. Personally, I am in the exact same boat as you, so I'm going to be as tough on you as I am on myself. I need help, so I'm getting it. I'm not saying that you SHOULD, but do you really care about getting better? If so, recognize your place in the problem and fix what you can. This is one of those instances of giving yourself the strength to change what you can, to recognize what you can't, and then the grace to know the difference. Because right now, you have a lot of power over changing yourself, but you're not exercising it.

I went to four different therapists before I settled on one who told me that I come off as arrogant. Mortified, I told him that I wasn't intending to be. He assured me that he knew I wasn't, but that unfortunately it matters what others think. So he recommended reading the book above, and I discovered that I had narcissistic tendencies based on the fact that I was raised by someone who was also a narcissist. My way of coping with difficult emotions is to self-aggrandize and shut down. Not exactly a healthy way of dealing with things, and rather alienating to those near me.

Of all the therapists I went to, he was the only one to help me understand that I'm complicit in my life, and that I need to take action. And thus far, I've been very grateful for that information. It's not easy–in fact, it's incredibly painful and I'm stressed a lot. But I'm learning that being upset is okay.

So yeah.
posted by satyricaldude at 4:17 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The answer is to give up waiting for your abuser to show you the unconditional love you are unconsciously seeking out and acknowldege that it is never coming and allow yourself to be angry about that.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:40 PM on December 13, 2010

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