‘Self-Acceptance is not a Solo Activity’ is a sentence that first found its way into my notes for a virtual workshop entitled Kink and Spirituality. The session was one I had the pleasure and privilege of running with Caritia for Karada House. I was making a point about BDSM and self-actualisation – about the way that being witnessed, celebrated, and loved in response to the aspects of ourselves that kink allows us to inhabit can contribute to a sense of our intrinsic OK-ness in our own skin. I wanted to speak to the role that being seen and welcomed in different aspects of ourselves has to play in our journey towards being able to accept and include our whole selves.
Outside of the conscious flavour of kink Caritia and I were discussing in that talk, I see this play out in so many areas of my work. Indeed, the extraordinary transformations that I’ve witnessed in someone who is experiencing an aspect of their self – usually one that they have experienced shame and/or judgement around – being seen and welcomed by someone else… It’s one of the gifts that keeps giving, that keeps me wanting to do this work. From my psychosexual coaching, to the sharing circles in a workshop, to the rites of passage I craft in my ministry, being seen – in the sense of being witnessed, and having what is witnessed welcomed – reveals itself to be an intrinsic part of the path to feeling whole. This is perhaps most visible in those aspects of my work that take the form of ceremony – in that the purpose of ceremony is to carve out time and space and to acknowledge: This is happening. And whatever your particular “this” happens to be, the other people present, your witnesses, have a vital role to play in that acknowledgement. One of my particular areas of ceremonial interest has been rites of passage for gender transition, and when I think about the relationship between being seen and self-acceptance, I always think of the words the recipient of one of those ceremonies shared with me:
As I stood in the middle of that circle, I felt more love than I have ever felt before. I felt held, seen, and respected in ways that I did not know could be possible, and also so grateful for the many wonderful beings that I have in my life. I experienced a sense of belonging and appreciation that will stay with me for many years to come. That will offer me strength in darker times and help me remember that, however lonely I may feel, I am never really alone.
So much of the literature and advice around self-acceptance makes it seems like that lifelong task is all on the individual, all on me or all on you to do for ourselves – preferably privately and with perfect poise, so as not to bother anyone else with our messy emotional innards! And if you’re looking for tips on how to do that inner work yourself, they are easily found – including in much of my own writing. I’m not trying to argue that inner work is not an essential aspect of self-acceptance, but I don’t believe it’s the whole story. We are a people hardwired for connection, and like so many of the challenges that being human presents, this is not one we are equipped to take on entirely alone. In the rest of this post, I want to explore some of the reasons why this particular experience of being seen, this particular gift of loving witnessing that we have the power to bestow on one another, has a key part to play in unlocking out capacity to wholeheartedly accept ourselves.
First up – trauma is relational. So is its remedy.
We don’t come into this world with a sense that we are less than acceptable. With our wide pupils and high-pitched cries, as babies we demand not only acceptance, but also care, and initially we expect nothing less. The possibility – which for many of us becomes a deeply felt reality – that we are somehow less than, whether because we are “too little” of this or “too much” of that, is inherited or inflicted by the carers, close family, communities and/or culture we are surrounded by as we mature. Sometimes our encounters with other people and their expressed beliefs about us, about who and how we are, cause trauma that, when unprocessed/unexpressed, becomes lodged in our bodies and psyches. Trauma happens not in a vacuum, but in relationship. It might seem contradictory to then suggest that healing also happens in relationship with other people – and certainly there are vital moments and practices to build self-acceptance that need to happen in relationship to self, as well as in relationship to nature, or perhaps in relationship with the god/dess of your respective understanding. But being heard by other humans as we tell our stories; being seen in the parts of ourselves that were once rejected or punished; being held as we explore all that our bodies are holding – and, crucially, being received in all of these instances with acceptance, perhaps even with those hallowed words: me too… These moments are both a vital source of relief, release, and regeneration – and an invaluable source of alternative information to that which lead us to believe that we were less than in the first place. In short: Unworthiness is taught; worth is best learned in good company.
Second, we all experience shame. Seeing the aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of through someone else’s loving eyes can help us to reclaim, re-integrate, even learn to love them.
To refer back to those Kink and Spirituality sessions, one of the reasons why this subject came up for me in relation to BDSM practices is because those practices extend explicit permission to inhabit and express aspects of ourselves that are not necessarily valued by the culture(s) we live in. Not only are we permitted to explore and embody our deviant (see: deviating from the norm) selves within BDSM – but those very selves are often what render us most desirable, most lovable, most welcome. This in turn can allow us to reclaim and celebrate those parts of ourselves, leaving us feeling a greater sense of wholeness and self-acceptance.
This is particularly the case for non-conforming folks, for whom being seen is necessary medicine in the face of marginalisation in its many forms. For those of us who, for whatever reason, do not conform to the characteristics valued and the categories prescribed by the cultures we live in, our very existence can feel like a constant act of resistance. When our experiences, identity, desires, personhood are not reflected by the world around us, or when the only representations of them are negative, it corrodes our capacity for/access to the “safety, belonging, and dignity” all human beings need to thrive. The greater the marginalisation or oppression we are subject to, the harder it is to create those feelings for ourselves – which is where being seen and accepted by others has an invaluable role to play in our surviving and our thriving. And I’m not just talking about the multiplicity of possibilities that is BDSM here, because it’s entirely likely that is not where you personally get to inhabit the different/deviant/diverse aspects of yourself. Perhaps you bring those parts of you to a creative outlet, or a physical activity, or only to the most precious and private of moments with your beloved(s). If you’re reading this, I hope you have found your avenue to being seen, to seeing your OK-ness reflected back at you, to feeling whole – and if you haven’t, may that avenue reveal itself to you in the coming year.
Third, the greatest gift we can give each other is permission.
This message was instilled in me when I first set out on the journey that is Urban Tantra. That core value of permission has inspired and shaped so much of what I’ve made since then – and I believe it is a key to self-acceptance as well. How many times have you listened to, or read, people you admire describing the moment when they stopped giving a fuck about what other people thought of them, and heaved a sigh of relief? What self-care practices have you already adopted from friends or loved ones, and which ones could you pilfer in the new year? What is the purpose of the kinds of workshops folks like myself run, or the books we write, if not to be a permission slip – for pleasure, for empowerment, for your biggest, brightest-shinning self? I wonder whether you yourself know the seeds of permission you have planted in others by speaking your truth, by showing up or setting that boundary – or by simply choosing to get an early night when you needed one. In our airbrushed world with its tight tucks, narrow values, and high prices, every exhale, every small act of self-acceptance, has the potential to dance like a pebble down a mountain side, and cause an avalanche of self-love. So as we journey into the dark heart of the year, let’s take a luxurious breath or two together, and commit to more moments of just letting ourselves be – as we are, with all that we bring, and all that is moved and moving within us – over the holidays, so that in doing so we may continue to inspire each other. And let’s look out for those moments that afford us the opportunity to look up, look deeper, and offer that gift of seeing beyond our preconceptions and frustrations, and welcoming another – just as they are, with all that they bring, and all that is moved and moving within them this wintertide.