We are often hard on ourselves anytime some trait or aspect of our being (either physical or psychological) falls outside of the norm or the societal ideal. Maybe we are not skinny enough (for girls), or muscular enough (for guys), or outgoing enough, or positive/upbeat enough, or mentally tough enough. We label the non-conforming part of us as “bad” or “broken”, and consequently try to fix it. But what if it doesn’t need fixing?
Does a crow, whose feathers are only black, need fixing because it is not more colorful like a parrot? No. That’s just how it evolved. And the crow's black feathers serve a purpose. (Did you know that the black feathers actually help them stay cooler in dessert environments by concentrating the heat from the sun on the surface of their bodies where the wind can easily blow it away? Whereas birds with lighter feathers absorb more heat into their bodies. I know, counter-intuitive, right?)
Why can we accept differences in animal species so much more easily than in our own species: humans? You are the way you are for a reason, even if you don’t know what that reason is. You developed into the person you are today as a result of many factors, some of which were completely outside of your control (like your genes, your upbringing, your external environment), and the way you are is the result of these factors.
But rather than accepting the fact that we got to be who and how we are due to many different factors, we often blame ourselves, as if we had complete control over our own development and every factor that went into it.
For example, someone who has a highly sensitive (i.e., finely tuned) nervous system, might be more strongly affected by other people or external stimuli than someone else. They might be labeled by others, or even themselves, as "too sensitive" and told that they need to "toughen up". If they hear it enough, they will likely internalize it and come to believe it's true, and that this trait of sensitivity is somehow a failing or a weakness.
But this same person might also notice subtle details and nuances about their environment or people around them that others miss - allowing them to detect a disturbance before their peers, and react accordingly to avoid an issue. For example, they might be the first to notice a lion in the bushes, and therefore the least likely to be eaten. Meanwhile, their less sensitive peers might have continued tramping loudly through and been unpleasantly surprised. Or in modern-day circumstances, perhaps their heightened sensitivity allows them to better navigate delicate social situations where others might make things worse unintentionally when they don't realize what they've said or done might be offensive.
This higher level of sensitivity might also lead them to develop habits for regulating their system that are deemed anxious (and thus, bad). Or perhaps they tend toward feeling melancholy more than their peers because they are more strongly affected by the trials and tribulations of life than others whose systems are not so finely tuned. This can sometimes lead people to believe that they are broken, but that is absolutely not the case!
Another example of a trait that is often mis-labeled as broken or bad: Introversion. Perhaps one person has a preference for alone time to recharge, whereas another prefers to be around people to fill their tank back up. Neither is right or wrong, but we sometimes mistake introversion for shyness or neuroses and label it “bad” because of the societal value placed on extroversion and assertiveness.
What if we accepted these things about ourselves, rather than pathologizing them, and approached them with gentleness and compassion? Yes, there are coping mechanisms we develop around some traits that may become less than helpful, but the traits and who we are as a person isn't broken or wrong.
Sure, you might say, but I don’t like XYZ about myself! It causes all kinds of problems! Maybe you are more anxious than you would like to be, or more melancholy, and it is causing you difficulties. If that’s the case, start by trying to be gentle with yourself and accepting that that’s how your nervous system and/or brain developed, for whatever reasons, many of which were outside of your control. Be curious, rather than judgmental.
This doesn’t mean you can't endeavor to shift patterns that aren’t working for you anymore. By all means, that's what psychotherapy is all about. And I encourage anyone who is struggling to shift difficult patterns in their life (like anxiety or depression) to seek out an experienced person to help. I just want you to know that it doesn't mean you are irreparably broken or have done something wrong.
The paradox of change is that we can only change when we accept how we already are. Accepting something doesn’t mean we have to like it or even agree with it. Just that we acknowledge how it really is, without judgement. Only then does it shift.
If you, or someone you love, is struggling to shift a difficult pattern in your life and would like some extra support learning about how to work with it, or you just want to gain a better understanding of the mysterious constellation of traits that make up your personality, fill out the contact form below to apply for a free consult call.