Blog: Ask Isa: Aging and Radical Self-Acceptance
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Question: When it comes to maintaining one’s aging body, where is the line between self-love and self-loathing?
Isa: I don’t consider maintaining your body an act of self-loathing unless you are doing it in response to some kind of negative view or thinking. You have to look at the motivation behind what you are calling “maintenance.” For example, if you are eating healthy and exercising regularly so that you feel better in your body and so that your body functions well, that is healthy self-care. However, since you have asked about self-loathing, I suspect that you may be trying to understand if what you are doing to maintain yourself is negative in some way. If your intention with respect to your body is to be different from who you are, or is in some way a rejection of who you are, then you may be loathing yourself on some level.
For instance, if you think “Oh, I’ve got gray hair; time for color,” then ask yourself how you feel about having gray hair. By coloring your hair, are you trying to make yourself more acceptable than you would be if your hair were not gray? Why is gray hair worse than, say, brown? This is not to say that you can’t enjoy something like having a certain hair color or body size, but if it causes you to feel a strong preference and loss if you are not able to maintain it then you may need to examine your motivation and also how you view yourself.
When you compare two things and find one better than the other, that is judgment. From a Buddhist point of view, the activity of preferring one thing over another leads you to attachment and aversion. If you have an attachment to youth and an aversion to old age, that could create suffering for you.
Who are you if you have gray hair? If you are judging the process of aging as negative, and you are in the process of aging, that means you see yourself negatively as you get older. There’s no way around that. Then, what you call “maintaining” yourself is not really a way to maintain yourself. It is an effort to see yourself less negatively.
I have heard people say “when I look better, I feel better” or, “when my body changes, I don’t feel like myself and I want to stay the way I am.” It can feel like self-love to take action to make yourself feel better, or to make yourself feel at home in your skin. The measure likely lies in what is actually not making you feel good. For instance, I think a lot of plastic surgery is a way to avoid self-deprecation, those negative things we tell ourselves when we are in judgment of ourselves.
The lengths we go to in order to feel better about ourselves are actually the lengths we are going to in order to keep ourselves from being as we are. In fact, we are not as we once were; we are aging. If our hair is graying, letting it be gray cannot make us someone other than ourselves. Our hair color is changing. Our bodies are changing. Everything changes. If we did not feel we need to look different, we could accept ourselves as we are.
The best way to become your best self is to learn to love yourself unconditionally. Radical self-acceptance is the most important place that a person can arrive at. Self-love is only really possible when we accept ourselves for the way we are. Radical self-acceptance doesn’t mean you can’t do something that makes you feel good or more maintained. It is the intention behind the effort that is more important than anything else.
Sometimes, instead of fully holding ourselves in self-acceptance, we resign ourselves to the fact that we are aging. But resignation is not the same as radical self-acceptance. In resignation, there can be anger and sadness and other difficult emotions. If you want to be different from how you are or feel resigned to rather than accepting of how you are, I would suggest examining the emotions that come up that make you want your body to be different. Often, we try to change things externally so we don’t have to feel our difficult emotions. But the more we are able to tolerate our feelings, the more we are able to understand our feelings, and the easier self-acceptance becomes.