man stares out window, by Ivana Vasilj - CC

I live with someone who’s difficult: strong-willed, obstinate, opinionated and even argumentative at times. You know the type: they want what they want, and they fuss with you if they don’t get their way. No, I’m not talking about my mate. I’m talking about myself.

For years I denied that this part of me existed. That just made it impossible to deal with the selfish behaviors that would rear their ugly head. Then, after shamefully acknowledging that I could be self-centered, I tried to stamp out that part of me. Failing in that effort, I began to ruminate on those times when I was painfully aware that I had misfired.

I’m a psychologist, yet I was willfully recalling moments that made me feel badly about myself. I got so good at self-recrimination that I could easily recollect unpleasant incidents from 40 years ago. I’m supposed to know better than to behave like that.

The problem with fighting the pig-headed part of me is that nothing changed. When consumed with shame, I felt so badly about myself that it was hard to believe I had the capability to improve my behavior. Shame for all people has the same effect that kryptonite has on Superman.

Nowadays, I really do know better. No, I still do things that I regret. I’ve just learned to accept the fact that I can be self-absorbed at times. The diagnostic label for people like me is “being human.” We are all hardwired to think about our own needs first, that’s our evolutionary programming.

That fact makes me, like billions of other people, an imperfect person. Sadly, it can never change. What can change is my ability to be much more accepting of myself. Not of my behavior, but of myself. I am much more than the sum of everything that I have done wrong in my life.

Accepting myself actually makes it much easier to change my behavior, I’ve discovered. Self-acceptance permits me to acknowledge, however begrudgingly, the parts of me that can contribute to creating painful experiences. It also allows me to own the extraordinarily good parts of me that are able to produce some meaningful moments of love, caring, and triumph in my quest to help others transform their lives.

sq-jumping-businessman-with-briefcase-joy-happy-CC-MiiiSHI have been blessed with some exceptional strengths: intelligence, compassion and gratitude to name a few. Yes, I can say that out loud as well. That’s how it works, you see. You get to feel good about yourself sometimes. In fact, a lot of the time.

When you’re struggling with your weaknesses, you can’t see your positive qualities. But self-acceptance opens the door to all of who you are as a human being. And when you’re aware of the great attributes you possess, you can harness them to help you make your life work well.

No one can always do things right, but we can always figure out how to make things right. When stressful situations strike, especially when we’ve had a string of them occur and we’re low on energy, we automatically lapse into fight, flight or freeze reactions. That doesn’t justify our bad behavior, but it does explain the biological basis for it. These moments inform us that we need to take a time out and replenish our resilience resources.

Step away from the stress when you feel yourself misfiring. The first rule regarding what to do when you find yourself standing in a hole is to put your shovel down. Walk away, take a time out, or simply ask for time to think about how to handle the problem. Give yourself time to think about what strengths you could deploy.

There’s an old Cherokee tale about a chief who’s telling his grandson about a fight that’s going on inside himself. He said it’s between 2 wolves. One is evil: anger, envy, sorrow, regret, fear, worry, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thinks about the story for a minute and then asks, “Which wolf wins?”

The chief simply replied, “The one I feed.”

Dr. Tom Muha is a psychologist practicing in Annapolis. Previous articles can be found at To contact him, call 443-454-7274 or email [email protected]

(First published in the Capital Gazette)
Photo credits: (top) Ivana Vasilj – CC (bottom) Michael Connors — CC

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