4. I sometimes have trouble accepting myself for who I am. What can I do?
The self-evaluation machine: a metaphor
Think of us as having an evaluation machine in our heads. We constantly evaluate or ‘judge’ everything, including ourselves and our experiences. To illustrate this point, take a look around you. Look at different things in the room. As you look at each thing, evaluate it negatively (in other words, find something wrong with it). Notice how easy it is to find something wrong with absolutely everything, even things we may have strong positive feelings for. There is almost no thing in our life that has not been negatively touched by our "evaluation machine."
This machine was built for a good reason. We need to evaluate the outside world to survive. The machine is constantly trying to answer questions such as, "Is that a threat?" "Is this piece of fruit poisonous?" Evaluating things in the outside world can keep us safe.
The only difficulty with the self-evaluation machine is that it often gets turned upon ourselves. It generates brutal self-criticisms such as "I am not good enough," "I am broken", "I am worthless." And, it often evaluates our experiences very negatively as well: “this feeling is unbearable”, “my situation is hopeless”, “this is too hard”.
Going through very difficult experiences like receiving a cancer diagnosis turns the self-evaluation machine on overdrive. Look to your own experience.Take a moment to think about the sorts of negative self-evaluations that occur to you when you think about cancer.
To illustrate, complete the following sentences with whatever comes to mind.
1) Since I have been diagnosed with cancer, I believe am ___________________(evaluation)
2) Since I have been diagnosed with cancer, my situation is
3) Since I have been diagnosed with cancer, my life is
These self-evaluations are normal and expected. Humans just don't seem to be able to turn off their evaluating minds.
What can we do about it?
Remember the last section: We discovered that it is often difficult to control what we think.
Do we have to do anything?
Here is a possibility. Maybe we don't have to take the self-evaluations seriously. Maybe we can carry them with us. They may not feel pleasant, but do these words, these thoughts, really have to stop you from doing some things that are important to you?
One of the difficult things about our negative thoughts is that they seem at times to define us, to perfectly describe who we are and what our experiences are. But remember back to the descriptions-evaluations exercise you did. Evaluations are fishy, not solid like a description. To help remind us of this, it can be helpful to step back from your thoughts a bit and observe them, as in the image below.
Figure: Making contact with the observer-you
Something interesting happens when you’re able to sit back and ‘notice’ your thoughts, your evaluations, from a distance. You realize that you are something separate from those thoughts, that you are the one doing the noticing—and that you are not defined by those thoughts. These thoughts are something you have, not something that you are.
The same goes with pain. If you are observing yourself in pain, then you are not the same as the pain. You have the pain, but it does not define you. There is an observer you and there is your pain.
The observer-self can be a great source of power. It can allow you to step back from your self-evaluations and not be pushed around by them.
Lets do an exercise now that will help you connect with this observer self.