WORK WITH WHAT YOU HAVE: Accepting Who You Are As Is

Our "Work With What You Have Project" is an exercise in learning how to live with less by making room for a whole lot more experience and interpersonal connection in our lives. Growing our ecological consciousness, however, also begins with growing an awareness of self. Herewith, Lily Myers of Shapes We Make shares her sage wisdom on accepting yourself exactly as you are right now. Says Lily, "we are all amazing and inherently imperfect."

WORDS: LILY MYERS

IMAGE: ALISON ZNAMIEROWSKI

I’ve always needed to talk to myself. Whether it’s for reassurance, brainstorming ideas, or encouragement, I need to literally speak out loud to myself in times of confusion or anxiety. When I’m nervous for a job interview, I will say something like, “I am capable, smart, and professional.” And it really helps! Hearing these words of encouragement from myself is a reminder that I can accomplish difficult things. It’s a reminder that I expect myself to succeed.

This self-encouragement has always been a way to boost my confidence when it falters. Looking in the mirror and saying “I look great today” or “I am capable of anything” is a way to negate self-doubt, to remind myself that I am smart, attractive--whatever the adjective may be. It’s the simple practice of affirmation, and it’s powerful.

Recently, though, I’ve found a problem with this particular kind of self-talk. I’m in a confusing phase of life right now; having just graduated and moved to a new city, everything feels up in the air. I’m trying to figure out jobs, money, goals, and a daily routine in a completely new environment—and it’s harder than I imagined. I keep feeling like I am falling short of what I “should” be doing. If I’m so “smart, capable, professional”, like I’ve told myself, then why is this so hard? Why don’t I know what I want to pursue, and why do I spend so much time floundering? This discrepancy between what I feel I should be capable of, and how I actually feel I’m doing, causes guilt. I feel guilty when I watch Netflix, or when I don’t work on my writing, or when I sleep in too late, or spend money, or eat unhealthily--all the ways I’m not living up to these things I’m “supposed” to be.

I spilled these feelings to some trusted confidantes, and an interesting pattern occurred. They all told me that I have a tendency to be hard on myself, and that I often expect too much of myself. And that perhaps, in this new life transition, I am expecting too much of myself too soon. I hadn’t thought of this before, and it hit a nerve. When one person told me not to “beat myself up,” I immediately started sobbing—which caught me completely by surprise.

It all made me wonder about this self-talk I engage in. Yes, it’s great to encourage yourself, and to verbally remind yourself of your positive attributes. But when does it become too much? When does telling yourself that you are smart, capable, attractive, productive, intelligent, etc., become expecting yourself to always be those things, and to never accept anything less? It’s one thing to remind myself that I am capable of many things. It’s quite another to expect myself to be accomplishing new and impressive things 100% of the time.  

So I began to change my mantra. Walking home after a day that doesn’t feel productive enough, fighting off a wave of anxiety, I tell myself, “I am not perfect, and I don’t need to be.” And I’ve found that that mantra feels so much better than saying “I am amazing.” Of course, these don’t negate each other—I believe we are all amazing and inherently imperfect—but reminding myself that it is okay to have flaws, to mess up, is so much more helpful than building myself up to standards that I can’t always meet.

To me, working with what I have means accepting myself exactly as I am right now. Yes, I have goals for self-improvement, goals for where I want to go—but I’m not there yet, and that’s okay. Expecting myself to never mess up tends to have the opposite desired effect; it tends to build up stress and anxiety that eventually burst.

To accept my mistakes with compassion is one of the hardest things for me to do. But that’s where this new type of self-talk comes in. Instead of boosting myself up to impossible standards, I remind myself that I am a work in progress. I remind myself to work with what I have. And that means meeting myself where I am every day—however I feel, whatever challenges I’m facing. It means having self-forgiveness. And when I truly feel this forgiveness, that’s when I can accept the past and move on to a better future. Yes, I messed up, and that’s okay, and I learned from it for next time.

So whether it’s entering a new life transition, or kicking a bad habit, or beginning a no-waste project, or any goal we might have, let’s remember that we are works in progress. We can be better, but we can never be perfect. We can achieve great things, but we can’t expect ourselves to get there immediately. We are working with what we have—our beautiful, flawed and messy selves. And that is infinitely more empowering than expecting perfection.