Some of the strongest negative emotions are those we feel when we are faced with our own inadequacy and failure. We cope with these feelings in a variety of ways from simple distraction to elaborate self-deluding lies. It is no surprise, then, that a whole self-help industry has sprung up centered around the notion that we have no real inadequacies or failures: You are perfect and beautiful just the way you are. After all, there is a large, highly-motivated, paying audience who desperately wants just this message.
The ability to truly believe this message, however, faces one major obstacle: the mere existence of actual excellence. As long as I’m listening to the audio book telling me to breath deeply and accept myself, I can hold back the feelings of failure. When I meet—or even learn about—a much better person, however, I am confronted by the fact that he has succeeded where I have failed. The reality of his success has a solidity that my self-talk does not, and I lapse back into the negative feelings that I am trying so hard to keep at bay. The mere existence of the excellent man, therefore, is a threat to the whole project of self-acceptance.
They have found a way to overcome this obstacle, however: “You must come to see that the excellent man, just by being excellent, is judging you. He is silently mocking your failures and internally criticizing everything you do. By coming to understand this, you can transform your fear of failure into resentment.”
The reality, of course, is that people who are excellent in some field are often excellent precisely because they are more absorbed in looking up than looking down. They care more about striving for further excellence than mocking those who have not risen to their level. Occupying oneself with the judgment of others is only evidence that one is not as excellent as one pretends.
The truly excellent man may not be judging me in my failures, but still, I feel judged by his presence. Why should this be? This happens because excellence itself, by its very nature, carries with it an implicit judgment. Every time we form the idea that A is better than B in some respect we are implicitly saying that it would have been better (at least in this limited respect) if B were like A, and hence we are saying that B is worse in this respect. Many times, B could not have been better than it is. It is as excellent as it can be in this respect. But often, B really could have been better, and it is regrettable that B is not more like A. The presence of A—or even the mere awareness of A—is therefore a painful reminder of what-could-have-been-but-is-not.
I have written the former paragraph using the abstract variables A and B to show that this is a general truth whenever we discriminate between better and worse. It applies to moral decisions, artistic achievement, or pizza places. Nevertheless, consider a concrete example: Emily has tried to study for her calculus test but she finds herself frequently distracted. Tara, however, studies diligently with more effective study methods and a better work ethic, and so, she performs better on the final exam than Emily. Tara may be kind to Emily; Tara may not even be aware of Emily’s lower score; Tara may do everything in her power to help Emily; but Emily still feels a silent condemnation by the mere existence of Tara’s performance. Tara’s excellence shines a light on the fact that Emily could have studied more effectively and it would have been better for her to be more like Tara (at least when it comes to this particular calculus test). This easily turns to resentment, but with a little virtue, it can also turn to admiration and imitation.
Emily should not accept herself as she is. If Emily embraced a little humility, she should be able to see that she really ought to be more like Tara in this respect, that she really could be more like Tara, and therefore that a change to her current study habits are in order. The decision to change, however, means rejecting rather than accepting the existing status quo. We call this decision repentance.
The therapy of self-acceptance, however, is appropriate in at least two situations. First, consider how we should think about situations in which the worse cannot change for the better. Suppose that Emily has genuinely done the best that she can. She has put in the effort, used the best study skills she has, and diligently devoted all her available time. In such a case, humility requires an acceptance of one’s limited abilities. Emily should accept that, try as she might, she has simply not done as excellently as Tara—on this one test. This kind of humility can be quite freeing. Someone who embraces it can simultaneously admit that others have really done better, that he has done worse, and that this involves no condemnation upon his own genuine best efforts.
Second, self-acceptance is an appropriate response when we realize that better performance in some limited respect is a lower priority than excellence in our lives as a whole. Perhaps Emily could do better on this one calculus test, but only at the expense of her relationships and health. In such a situation, it is again right for Emily to humbly accept that she has not done as well as Tara—without this requiring that she change her study habits. She has done as well as she can or should do all things considered. It may be abstractly true that it would be better for her to be more like Tara in this one respect, but it is not true that she should be more like Tara in the totality of her life. She can accept the fact that being more like Tara in this one type of excellence would involve a sacrifice of the total excellence that is properly her own.
This is the core truth of the self-acceptance philosophy when it is at its best. We all find ourselves in this world with a unique personality, a unique situation, and many limitations placed upon us. We should not strive to be exactly like anybody else because we must humbly accept the different circumstances of our own life. We should not infer from this acceptance, however, that we should never strive to change, never admire those who have succeeded where we have failed, never feel guilty, or never repent of our sins.