This article is an exploration of the process of experiential self-acceptance as the lynch-pin of transformation and healing. In addition if offers two compatible exercises for personal practice that will help people attune to the ongoing flow of their inner sensory experience.
With the publication of “Studies in Hysteria” by Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in 1895, a seismic shift began that rattled people’s understanding of the human psyche. Over the next several years, Freud articulated his psychoanalytic theories in a cultural climate that was undergoing dramatic change. The work of Charles Darwin implied that human beings were a more complex form of animal, opening the way for the scientific study of our species. New developments in the field of physics were the catalyst for seeing the human organism as an energetic system. These developments led indirectly to Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind, which are still influential in the field of psychotherapy today.
Over the ensuing 116 years, our understanding of the psyche has continued to evolve. Various schools of Psychology emerged in the last century; each one advocating varied approaches to psychological theory, and different strategies for treating mental and emotional problems. Unfortunately, these theories were presented in ways that sometimes frightened lay people, causing them to fear that they might be headed toward insanity. These various schools of thought were often at odds with each other, and vigorously defended their positions. Their contentiousness at times evoked an atmosphere that was highly judgmental and competitive. What was lost in the dialectical us/them discourse was the sense that we humans are all in the same boat. Every one of us has issues, defenses, and distortions in their personalities and characters. All of us are vulnerable to transferring our unfinished business to our partners and friends, let alone our enemies. What I am suggesting here, however, is that if we explore these psychological discoveries judiciously, there is much we can learn about how to live a life that is more meaningful, more fulfilling, and more pleasurable.
The practice of psychotherapy itself requires years of study, of one’s own therapy, and of supervision by other practitioners. Over the course of my forty-three years in the field, I have studied and experimented with a great number of theories and approaches to the work of healing, as I worked to develop an eclectic way of working with my clients. My desire in this article and the articles that will follow is to share with you specific approaches and tools that I believe will be of great help to people who are on their own path of healing and transformation.
My intention in this first installment of “Tools of Transformation” is to explore what, I believe, is one of the most important discoveries in the history of psychological investigation, the process of experiential self-acceptance. This elegant process of self-awareness and self-validation may well be the essential first step in the healing process. I believe that by mastering self-acceptance you will be well on your way to the changes that you want to effect in your life.
So what do we mean by experiential self-acceptance and how can we learn to utilize it in our lives? A good friend of mine, who is a writer and poet sent me these questions: “Do you advise your clients, if they are having trouble accepting who they are, to challenge themselves, and figure out who they would like to become? Who they admire? Who they would like to develop into? How they can go about doing it? Do you advise them that it takes pain and risk for anyone to challenge herself to face the possibility of humiliation and failure? Or do you advise them to learn to accept themselves, love themselves just as they are?”
My friends questions are representative of how many of us think of self-acceptance. We think in terms of our identity and our accomplishments. Am I successful or am I a failure? Am I a good person, or a bad one? Am I admirable or do I deserve criticism and judgment? And yes, these questions do play an important part in any psychotherapeutic approach. The way I think of myself definitely influences the way that I feel, the way that I think, and the likelihood of my proceeding with my aspirations or holding back and waiting. These questions imply that there are two choices: either I accept myself as I am, even though I may be a failure and a procrastinator, or feel that I am worthless and will never amount to anything. Alternatively, it could mean that I come to accept myself because I accept the challenge to become something different than I have been in the past.
The school of thought that I subscribe has a very different understanding of what self-acceptance involves. My mentor, Dick Olney, the founder of Self-Acceptance Training, taught that self-acceptance is an experiential process that temporarily bypasses the questions of identity and aspiration. He defined self-acceptance as the process of allowing myself to experience whatever I am experiencing, without judgment, criticism, evaluation, or comparison. This allowing of my sensory experience leads to my bringing into awareness whatever I see, hear, or feel inside, as well as my spontaneous thoughts and impulses.
The challenge in learning to be self-accepting in this way is it runs counter to our training and socialization. Milton H. Erickson, the father of modern hypnotherapy, taught that most of us don’t pay attention to our sensory experience. Instead we tend to follow our preconceived maps of the world. We all create idiosyncratic ways of coping with life, and most of us employ these coping strategies without thinking. These strategies are our default positions for dealing with life’s challenges, frustrations, disappointments, losses, and even our successes and intimate relationships. When we learn experiential self-acceptance, we can focus on our sensory experience instead of going on automatic pilot and beating ourselves up with criticism. Shifting our awareness to our experience in the present gives us flexibility, freedom, and access to better decision making. We are no longer stuck with our usual habitual responses.
So how do we learn to be self-accepting in this way? What follows are two compatible meditative exercises that will give you practice attuning yourself to your sensory experience. The first one was created by Milton Erickson’s wife, Betty Erickson. She designed it as a way of inducing self-hypnosis. Choose a quiet place in your home and sit on a comfortable chair or couch that supports your back, or lie down on a futon or yoga mat. Start with your eyes open and turn your attention to your surroundings. Breathe a little more deeply than you do normally and describe either out loud or internally what you see, what you hear, and what you feel in the following manner: Now I’m aware that I see… Now I’m aware that I hear… Now I’m aware that I feel…. Complete each individual sentence 4 times for each sense, then 3 times, then 2 times, and finally once. After you complete the first sequence of 4 answers each, close your eyes and do the next three sequences with your eyes shut. By the time you reach the last of the four you may find yourself in a light trance, feeling comfortable, at ease, and relaxed. If so, let yourself relax further into an open and passive receptivity. Allow yourself to experience whatever you are experiencing. You are now in a state of experiential self-acceptance. You can simply hang out in this state and focus on the flow of your experience or you can move on to self-acceptance exercise #2. If you get to the end of the 4-3-2-1 sequences and you are not feeling relaxed enough, repeat the exercise again.
The second exercise involves staying in the state of passive receptivity and continuing to pay attention to your sensory experience, visual, auditory, or feeling, while attending to spontaneous thoughts and impulses. Spontaneous thoughts and impulses are the ones that just pop into your awareness out of the blue. If you find yourself thinking of what you need to do when you finish the process, you have left the self-accepting state. If so return to Betty Erickson’s exercise or simply acknowledge that you are thinking instead of following the flow, by saying the word “thinking” internally, and then returning to being receptive. Allow yourself to be guided by whatever comes into your awareness. Refrain from trying to steer this process in any particular direction. Let the process guide you. You can acknowledge your experience with your inner voice, e.g. “now I’m aware of seeing an image of my friend Joe,” or whatever you happen to be experiencing. The important thing to remember is not to use judgment or force in the experience. If you find yourself becoming critical or using your will, simply acknowledge that and return to your ongoing flow of sensory experience.
Many of you may realize that I am offering you a mindfulness practice, the practice of attending with your awareness to your on-going experience of being alive. With practice you will find that you have opened a pathway to deeper understanding and appreciation of who you truly are. This is an experience of being a fully sentient being, unencumbered by the cravings, illusions, and aversions of the ego. With consistent practice of experiential self-acceptance, you will find that you develop deeper acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others. This can be of great help to you in your therapy, in your meditative practices, and in the ongoing creation of your life.
In my next column I will discuss a healing process known as the Inner Source that evolved from Sigmund Freud’s method of “free association.” What you have learned in this installment will prepare you for using this new tool in ways that will nourish your body, mind, and spirit, and foster connections to lost parts of yourself.
ARTICLE BY THOMAS GOFORTH
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.