How Self-Acceptance Might Just Save the World

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.” 

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

self-acceptance

Photo Credit: [RAWRZ!] via Compfight cc

When I was in middle school, I was forbidden to see the new Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. I understand why:

He was complicated.

He was a superhero, but he was depicted as dark and disturbed and a little unhinged. Instead of wearing his trademark gray, he cloaked himself in black. Instead of telling jokes, he was somber and depressed. He did good things, but he did them for the wrong reasons. He was a complicated, tortured soul, working out his redemption in the best way he knew how.

He was a good guy, but he had bad parts.

In a word, he was human.

Now, almost twenty-five years later, our cinematic superheroes are increasingly complicated. They are good guys with bad parts. We’ve become quite comfortable with the complexity of our fictional characters.

Yet, we continue to resist, and fail to embrace, this complexity in our lives and in our hearts

Pedestals and Pitfalls

We scan the horizon for the next real-life hero, and we imagine them to be flawless. We put people on pedestals. And then we get surprised when they fall off:

We idolize people with great golf swings, and then we find out they’re addicted to sex. We idolize the triumph of bicyclists, and then we find out they were juicing. We tell ourselves our political candidate is the good guy, and then he leaves his microphone on and we hear words that are only supposed to come from the bad guys. We get dismayed when we find out the Dalai Lama gets just as angry as we do.

So we continue to scan the horizon, waiting for the next infallible hero to lead us.

The truth is, all of this hero worship is a collective exercise in self-rejection.

We look inside of our own hearts and we see the bad parts lingering there and we assume we must not be one of the good guys. We look in the mirror and we don’t see a flawless hero; we see a complicated human. And we forget what the superhero movies have been trying to tell us for a quarter of a century:

Humans and heroes are one and the same.

The Line Between Good and Evil

I’m confronted by my good-badness with every blog post.

I write for good reasons—simply because I love to write and because I hope my words might provide a little clarity about this life we’re all living. But if I’m honest, nestled right next to all that authenticity and goodwill is a decent-sized dose of self-interest. It emerges, usually, once the post goes live:

Will people like it? Will they like me? Will they share it? Will they spread the word?

I’m not thrilled with the self-interested part of me. Sometimes I want to disregard it altogether, pat myself on the back for being a pretty great guy, and ignore all my frustrating complexity. I can do a lot of harm to others when I start thinking of myself as the flawless good guy. At other times, I’m tempted to focus only on the self-interested part of me—I start to loathe my tireless ego, and I begin to wonder if I’m worthy of publishing even one more sentence.

These days, instead of casting myself as either a good guy or a bad guy, I try to embrace both my good parts and my bad parts. In a word, I try to give myself grace. By acting like a puppy dog.

Like a Puppy Dog 

Last December, I finally caved to peer pressure (read: wife and kids) and gave my blessing to getting a puppy. At first I liked him. And then he chewed my MacBook cord in half. We’ve had a rocky relationship ever since. He’s seen the best of me, and he’s seen the worst of me. Yet, every day when I arrive home, he is waiting at the back door for me, tail wagging, just thrilled to be with me again.

Grace is a like a puppy dog, welcoming home both our good parts and our bad parts, simply overjoyed to be with us again.

What if we all gave ourselves this kind of grace?

What if we welcomed home all of ourselves, embraced everything we are, and learned to rest in the fullness of our humanity? What if we recognized ourselves as complicated souls working out our redemption in the best way we know how?

I think we’d quit scanning the horizon for the next infallible hero. Instead, we’d look in the mirror and realize we are one of the good guys and one of the bad guys, all at the same time. Hopelessly complicated, thoroughly flawed, endlessly fallible. In other words, beautifully human.

We’d look in the mirror and we’d realize the heroes have already arrived, and we are one of them. We’d realize we are a quiet hero, walking amongst other quiet heroes. When we finally embrace the fullness of our humanity, we might also embrace the fierceness of our heroism.

Calling all heroes. Which is to say, calling all humans.

Question: What would you do in the world if you didn’t have to wait to be perfect to start doing it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: Why I Don’t Believe in Grace Anymore

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Hilda

    I think I’ve already started to do it! I work in the healthcare industry as a geriatric care manager. Dealing with older folks while becoming one myself I started to take a closer look at all the things that were happening to me in this aging process.

    After meeting with other healthcare professionals all dealing with these same issues for over a year, I decided to lead an effort to start a Memory Cafe for those with early memory loss/dementia, diagnosed or undiagnosed, We started in June a year ago with six attendees without much of a clue of how things would go (or not go). We just celebrated our first anniversary and average 24 folks for each meeting. They can’t wait to come back to see what we have planned for them to participate in. The best decision I almost didn’t make!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hilda, that is fantastic! And I think you identified a very important of the experience for so many: not having much of a clue how to do it or how it will go. When we embrace our flaws we can also embrace our mistakes and live a life in which we learn from them instead of hiding from them. Thank you for being a living example of that!

  • Clare

    I love your messages…and this one is one of my favourites so far, as I’ve had similar thoughts before. Thank you Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Clare, and I’m glad we’re on the same wavelength with this!

  • Eoin Brennan

    I think thats why people love dogs so much, they never judge you, they’ll stick by your side no matter what and they’re always glad to see you even if you’re hair is messy or you’ve lost your job or whatever, they dont care.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It is interesting to think that they are more faithful to us than we are to ourselves. They have a lot to teach us, I guess!

  • Just Thinkin’

    This post is ridiculously awesome.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Vaughan!

  • pieri_21

    I think I’d start a family. I’ve been waiting for “the right time”, I. E “the perfect guy”, and most of all “for me to be good enough, stable enough, happy enough, wealthy enough”… I think maybe those things don’t really exist… and I should stop waiting 😀

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think you are right on; you’d wait a lifetime for the stars to line up and they never would. It takes courage to have said that!

  • Tracy Rydell Dunbar

    Simply beautiful…

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Tracy.

  • ALEJANDR1971

    I never considered “perfect”.If I’m very strict with myself
    haunts me do things right I think if I’ve always thought I’m perfect
    or should meet the expectations of others.
    If I could, I can not because I have no money and no job at the moment,I would go around the world in a van

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hmm. That is a worthy dream. I wonder if there are creative ways to step toward it…

      • ALEJANDR1971

        I get studies in tourism,if I could get a job in the area,I could travel on a cruise …
        it is not a van, but …:)

        • drkellyflanagan

          I love it! You’ve already upgraded your van for an oceanliner. : )

  • Catharine Phillips

    I smiled all the way through this one. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Smiling thinking of you smiling, Catharine. Thank you!

  • Brooke

    I’d stop having two minds about my capabilities; transfer from my certificate program into the degree program and become a criminologist, with a minor in psychology.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Or keep your two minds (do they ever merge completely?) and do it anyway? Whatever you choose, I hope you find peace about it, Brooke!

  • Karen

    In 1992 a song came out entitled “Hero” In part the Lyrics read “There’s a hero, if you look inside your heart. You don’t have to be afraid of what you are” Fear has a way of blocking self-acceptence-But as adults we have a choice to keep accepting this fear as normal or questioning the value of it in our lives-do we still need it as protection, prevention,or whatever it has come to mean to you? What would happen if we stop being afraid of what we are and step outside of our learned responses to life? Martin Luther said that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. We have permission, therefore, not to be perfect, just to do the best we can and recapture the joy that life has to offer. As for me in answer to your question- I am joining community again, learning to relax and just be around people in a normal setting-trying to let down my guard of being an ex-pastors wife(In the churches my husband pastored I was held to higher standards then other women-talk about feedind my fear).
    Enjoy the puppy-animals have a way of teaching us and reaching us at our base level. I adopted an dog in Jan.(caving into the pressure of my granddaugher) uncanny the acceptence she has of me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Simultaneously saint and sinner. I like the paradox of that. It feels true.

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  • Riverdaughter

    Heal.with words with joy with my God given smiles. Bring light into my and others souls whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Beautiful.

  • Thank you so much for this article. It confirms for me the need to keep accepting myself, flaws and gifts, as part of the beautiful, wonderful, blessed, broken, needy person that I am, which continues to make me abundantly blessed. Keep writing, Kelly. You do a great job.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m glad it affirmed you where you are, Jenny, and thanks for returning the affirmation!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    In so many ways, I already have no difficulty embracing the reality that I own my good and my bad, my failings and my victories, my limitations and my limitations and my limitations — and my strengths. But those limitations. When I typed it once it didn’t feel like it was enough, so I expect that’s the area, where if I could feel that I was enough, as is, there are things I would do more of.
    If it were enough that I am messy and imperfect, I would build a program for our local elementary schools to deal not with Stranger Danger or Good Touch/Bad Touch, but with preparing kids for Body Safety so that they could generalize to the variety of situations in which they deserve respect, from themselves and from others, the things that build appropriate trust and confidence, and the things that produce unhealthy, risky, or disrespectful interactions. It could be a bigger impact than the piecemeal, family-by-family, and academic approach that can feel hopelessly like raindrops in an ocean.
    I expect I have some people to get in touch with for collaboration. Messy imperfection and all.
    Thanks for the shove.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shel, that sounds incredible. It gives me goosebumps to think about what this world would look like if each of us did the one thing closest to our hearts, even if our hearts feel cracked. Thanks for the goosebumps, and the hope.

  • Stephanie

    “What if we welcomed home all of ourselves, embraced everything we are, and learned to rest in the fullness of our humanity?” Simply beautiful. As an Intensive Outpatient Therapist I frequently share your blog posts in my groups. Thank you for exploring your edges and sharing your experiences on such a public platform, truly demonstrating strength in vulnerability. By embracing shadow and practicing acceptance you give others permission to do the same. I have used your work many times to invite clients to lean in to discomfort. Intentional self-work is happening here in Denver with the helpful prompting of your blogs and we are grateful. Thank you for inspiring us.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Stephanie, thank you for the work you’re doing. I know the kind of difference a good inpatient therapist can make in the lives of people. I’ve had many experiences in which IOP was the redemptive turning point in a client’s life. I’m glad I can in some way contribute to the work you’re doing. Thank you for letting me know!