Find Contentment in Life Through Self-Awareness and Radical Self-Acceptance
As human beings, we all long to feel unconditionally loved. To feel like we are good enough just as we are.
When we meet ‘the one,’ we ride high on the feeling that someone who we feel is so amazing sees something worthy in us.
We (for a time) unconditionally accept them. We are blind to any flaws or imperfections.
After a brief time, the cloud of euphoria lifts. Little things start to bother us about one another, and feelings of dissatisfaction slowly creep into our relationships.
This article elaborates on how, through self-awareness and self-acceptance, you can cultivate or find contentment in life by making a conscious effort to control your body’s mental and physical responses to various situations in your relationship.
A matter of biology
The euphoria we feel at the start of a relationship is the result of a short-term influx of hormones and biochemicals that are designed to ensure that our species survives.
These hormones keep us attracted to one another. They influence our feelings and our thoughts, which is why we see certain idiosyncrasies as adorable in those early months but later find them irritating.
As a matter of keeping the species alive, these “love chemicals” keep those all too familiar critical, and self-sabotaging thoughts quiet for a while.
But once our bodies settle back to the status quo, we are left to navigate through the range of human emotions that feel so difficult to us and keep us feeling unsettled.
We’re all familiar with feelings of guilt or feeling responsible, and the heaviness in the chest that accompanies it.
Almost everyone knows the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach that accompanies shame. The red hot burning in our chest when we feel angry or resentful is no less uncomfortable.
We don’t want to feel these things, and we look to outside sources to make them go away and to help us “feel better.”
Very often, we rely on our partners to be the source of our comfort and become angry when they fall short or are “the cause” of our feelings in the first place.
However, due to a lack of self-awareness, what most people don’t realize is that these emotions and the body sensations that accompany them are actually memories.
That is to say that long ago when being connected to our primary caregivers was actually a matter of life and death, our body learned to respond to any sign of displeasure, rejection, disappointment, or disconnection from our care providers with stress.
These moments of perceived disconnection and the responses of our body are remembered and recalled as a matter of survival. But what does stress have to do with emotions?
Stress, survival, and emotions
When the body activates the stress response, it also sends hormones and biochemicals through the body, but they are very different than the ones pumped through our body when we are falling in love.
These molecular messengers are deployed by the survival response and create discomfort in our bodies that are designed to signal danger and initiate an action to save our lives—namely, fight or flee.
But in the case of childhood, when these responses are first experienced and remembered, we can’t do either, so we freeze, and instead, we adapt.
The process of adaptation is a universal human experience.
It begins in the earliest moments of life, is helpful to us in the short term (after all, if daddy tells us not to cry or he’ll give us something to cry about, we learn to suck it up), but in the long term, it creates problems.
The basis of this is our neurobiological stress response, which is part of the basic operating package with which we are born (right along with the beating of our heart, the function of our lungs, and our digestive system).
While the triggering of this response is automatic (any time it perceives danger or threat), our response to that trigger is learned and remembered.
Throughout childhood and into early adulthood, our body’s learned responses to perceived danger begin to partner with our minds (as they develop).
So, what begins as a simple stimulus/neurobiological response (think of a startled reptile that runs for cover), picks up self-critical and self-condemning thoughts along the way, which also are learned and remembered—and also meant to maintain some sense of safety by way of control.
For instance, over time, it becomes less vulnerable to decide we are unlovable than to trust that we are and feel rejected and broadsided. Think of these childhood body memories like a jar of blue marbles.
By the time we are adults, and the euphoria of new love wears off, we are left with a full jar of blue marbles (outdated and less than useful body memories).
Each person in any relationship brings a full jar of outdated visceral/emotional/thought memories to a relationship.
The idea is to create more self-awareness and be more in tune with what we are feeling and why we are feeling that way.
The practice of radical self-acceptance starts by becoming more self-aware or gaining self-awareness.
Which is to say that you can gain happiness through self-awareness by accepting what is happening in your body at the moment.
Think of a time when you felt feelings of fear, responsibility, shame, or resentment in regard to your partner or relationship.
It likely had to do with feeling rejected, or misunderstood, or unloved or that you did something wrong or just confused and broadsided in general.
Admittedly, all of these moments feel crappy. But in childhood, the body responded with an alarm that our very lives were at risk.
So, when your partner expresses displeasure at something that was perhaps an innocent oversight, the memories in our bodies call out the life-saving brigade (those hormones and biochemicals that create unpleasant body sensations).
With self-awareness of how this works, we can have new experiences, which form new memories (let’s say green marbles) to replace old ones.
This can happen because you have a new relationship with difficult body sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
Radical self-acceptance is the by-product of meeting each and every moment with this new perspective, a suspension of judgment, and the ability to pause before responding.
To develop this new perspective, we must commit to focusing on the sensations in our bodies and acknowledge them as a memory (a blue marble).
It is not necessary to remember anything; in particular, it’s enough to acknowledge that your body remembers, and it is responding with an old memory—as if your life were at stake.
The body sensations we feel are not the source of human suffering. Suffering is created by the thoughts in our minds.
This is why when we accept the sensations for what they are—a mechanism of our neurobiological survival response, we can begin to unravel our own suffering.
We can acknowledge that our thoughts are also learned and remembered response that is no longer serving us (part of our blue marble jar).
When we practice radical self-acceptance, we have a new experience, and this new experience creates new and more curious and compassionate thoughts.
Each time we do this, we create a new memory (green marble) for our jar.
This takes time, but over time as our memory jar becomes more full of green (new) marbles, reaching for a new/updated response becomes more and more automatic.
Our lives feel less weighed down, we feel more confident and resilient, and our relationships are positively impacted because we no longer look for answers outside of ourselves.
If you make a commitment to meeting each moment with this new perspective, it will add up to lasting change. The most important thing is that you create a pause between your body’s response and your (automatic) thoughts and actions.
One of the most helpful ways to create that pause is to add a simple practice into your life each time you feel stressed. I’ve provided one such practice below:
The next time you get into an argument with your partner, or feel broadsided, misunderstood, or responsible for your partner’s emotional state try the following:
- Talk directly to your body, telling it that this feels real (the body is telling you your life is in danger), but it is not the truth.
- Take at least ten deep breaths as instructed here: inhale through your nose and feel your chest and belly inflate. Pause. Exhale out your nose, feeling your chest and belly deflate. Pause.
- If you find your mind is wandering, visualize numbers (think Sesame Street style) in your head and count down from ten to one in one breath.
- Commit to doing nothing until the system of your body has calmed down, and your mind feels centered and grounded.
Over time, your jar will be filled with new memory marbles, and you can go on to help those you love to find a new sense of freedom, just as you have.
Self-awareness is the first step to finding contentment, which in time can lead to self-acceptance, thus helping us find more happiness in our lives.
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