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Rising Above Our Nature, Part One

May 8, 2009 | by Dr. David Lieberman

The power of self-acceptance.

During Passover the collective ego of the Jewish people is temporarily deflated, affording us the opportunity to accelerate our personal growth well beyond what we can accomplish throughout the year. God literally makes this time of the year the easiest for us to rise above our nature and make positive and productive choices.

In turn, we rise to a higher and healthier perspective, because self-esteem and the ego are inversely related; like a see-saw, when one goes up the other goes down. Self-esteem, though, is not an all-or-nothing proposition; rather, it runs along a spectrum with many shades of gray. And the more self-esteem we have, the more "reality" we let in, and so the more clearly we can see our lives and the impact of our choices.

Here's how it works:

When reality clashes with our ability to accept it, it creates an internal conflict called cognitive dissonance. Under this psychological weight, those who have low self-esteem feel the need to justify themselves. They have to make sense of their world and choices in the least painful way, where being right becomes more of an emotional priority than doing what is right.

To illustrate, imagine that you buy a watch for $500. Afterwards, you flip through a magazine and see what appears to be the same watch, but advertised for $300. This discovery produces an emotional inconsistency. We want to see ourselves as smart consumers and savvy shoppers, but the advertisement appears to provide evidence to the contrary. Either we were duped and overpaid, or the advertisement does not represent what appears to be the truth. Our level of self-esteem determines our thought process. If we have a healthy level of self-esteem, we will take note of the advertisement and, if we believe it to be accurate, will conclude that we made a mistake.


In the person who lacks self-esteem, everything is considered a threat to his psychological security.


When we lack self-esteem, we are often unable to look at ourselves as the cause of the problem, because we cannot afford to be wrong emotionally. Instead of conceding that we erred, we prefer to believe that "The world is unfair," or "People are crooked." Thus, the seedlings of neuroses and paranoia take root. Before our conscious mind is forced to accept an unpleasant reality, we may also realign values and decide quickly that time is more important than money, and that it's simply not worthwhile to shop for lower prices. Either way, something has to give. (While most people with low self-esteem will refuse to accept responsibility, those with even more extreme low self-esteem may beat themselves up and become angry and annoyed with themselves. Healthy self-esteem allows a person to recognize his mistakes, without condemning himself OR the world.)

Our instincts protect our psychological wellbeing in much the same way as we protect our physical bodies. When our physical welfare is threatened, a natural fight-or-flight response is engaged. Similarly, when our psychological wellbeing is threatened, we engage our accept-or-deflect response. When a mind is healthy and strong, a challenge to the self is usually accepted and confronted directly. A mind that is not strong may instead deflect the threat.

Just as a physically weak person will shy away from physical challenges, deflection becomes a conditioned response for the psychologically weak. A person who is emotionally unwell reacts to conflicts in the following ways: "You are wrong," or "This is just how I am." There is little room for, "I was wrong," the acknowledgment of personal responsibility. Such a person deflects the world and his own insecurities and, in the process, grows weaker, because the psychological self can only develop through acceptance. This is our emotional immune system. In the person who lacks self-esteem, the deflection response engages at all times. Everything is considered a threat to his psychological security.

Every time we refuse to acknowledge the truth about any aspect of ourselves (or condemn ourselves for being imperfect), we send the unconscious message, "I am inadequate." As an analogy, today's vehicles are designed so that in an accident, the vehicle absorbs as much of the collision's energy as possible. This absorbed energy cannot be recovered, since it goes into the permanent deformation of the vehicle. In the same way, when we collide with reality and refuse to accept it, we get dented.

Denying the truth does not make it go away. It makes us -- the real us -- go away. If we are completely honest with ourselves (and by extension, with others), then the ego does not engage. It only survives and thrives in a world of falsehood.


Unless we can accept ourselves, we cannot see past ourselves. We are too busy judging, blaming, and distorting our world.


Once we have fully accepted something about ourselves or our lives, we no longer need to hide from it. We don't care who knows about it or who finds out, and we don't allow the reality to hold us back. At this point, our fears dissolve, because there is no longer a threat of exposing ourselves. The only thing that can ever be rejected is an image.

The truth, once embraced, can never be bruised or injured, yet a delusion can be shattered by a whisper or a glance.

There is nothing wrong in seeing ourselves as less than perfect; it is honest and healthy. This is a far cry from the person who sees his imperfections and then condemns himself as worthless or lacking.

Unless we can accept ourselves, we cannot see past ourselves. We are too busy judging, blaming, and distorting our world.

Each moment of every day carries the potential for gaining perspective -- whether through observing a leaf fall from a tree or appreciating the wonders of the human body. Regrettably, we frequently ignore what is in front of our very eyes, and thus most of us only gain perspective through significant life experiences or extraordinary world events; and the more self-absorbed we are, the greater the experience needs to be in order to budge our attention away from ourselves.


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