The best thing about accepting that we’re all genetic beings is that we can finally stop waging war with the person that we are! Just as a Collie is a Collie and a Chihuahua is a Chihuahua, each of us is the product of our DNA. Knowing that we were born to be the person we are can help us to make peace with ourselves. Yet, just because we’re a genetic being doesn’t mean that we’re permitted a get-out-of-jail-free card: no matter what our individual temperament might be, we have a responsibility to manage our behavior such that, at the very least, we do no harm.
For each of us, trying to make sense of what we can and can’t change about ourselves is one of the hardest challenges we’ll ever face in life. The Serenity Prayer asks that we be given the serenity to accept what we can’t change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference. Unfortunately, there’s no way to ever really know with absolute certainty what we can and can’t change about ourselves. It’s probably fair to assume that the hardest traits to change are going to be the ones that were engineered by our DNA. As we try to figure out who we are genetically, the best place to start is with our temperament. In Chapter Three, I discussed how psychologists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess were able to divide inherited temperamental traits into nine categories:
2.The regularity and pattern of bodily functions (appetite, sleep, etc.)
3.Initial response to new people and situations
4.Ability to adapt
5.Intensity of response to various stimuli
7.Tendency to be distracted
8.Attention span and ability to persist at a task
9.Sensitivity to one’s surroundings
Exploring how our own temperamental traits fall into each of these categories can tell us volumes about ourselves: if we’re hyper-active or low energy; whether we’re shy or outgoing; if we’re overly sensitive to external stimuli or have a tendency to be oblivious to the world around us; whether we’re mostly happy or if we’re someone who’s prone to melancholy. All of these temperamental traits come from our DNA and, as such, they’ll define us for the rest of our lives.Temperament’s a lot like hair color: we might be able to dye our hair any color we want but we can’t ever stop the real color from coming back.
Self-acceptance requires three things:
(1) Being clear on the traits and behaviors (both positive and negative) that define us as an individual.
(2) Being able to accept that we can’t change the person that we are since who we are is a function of our DNA.
(3) Being able to make peace with what we consider to be the “negative” aspects of ourselves
None of us likes owning up to what we feel is “negative” about ourselves. Yet, if we’re unable or unwilling to embrace the totality of who we are, all we can hope for is a partial acceptance of ourselves. This is where thinking of ourselves as a dog can really save the day because we can’t help but feel more loving and compassionate towards ourselves when we think of ourselves as a dog since that’s how we feel towards our dogs!
There’s simply no denying how much we humans love our dogs. It doesn’t even seem to matter how many faults our dogs have because we love them anyway! That’s definitely not the way we feel towards ourselves! When it comes to our own faults, we don’t allow ourselves the slightest bit of leeway yet, we’ll make excuses for our dogs all day long!
It’s important to keep in mind that any trait or behavior that we consider to be “negative” concerning ourselves (or someone else) is unavoidably and invariably subjective. For example, a behavior or trait that’s considered completely “negative” in one situation or culture might actually be seen as being something quite positive in a different situation or culture. Many times, both positive and negative components can be present at the very same time in a particular trait or behavior. For instance, if someone’s born with a very distrusting and cautious temperament, it’s going to be hard for that person to make friends easily and to feel comfortable in social situations (something that’s considered to be negative.) Yet, at the same time, it’s going to be extremely difficult for that person to be scammed or to be taken unfair advantage of due to that same cautious and distrusting temperament (something that’s quite positive.)
Labeling our own or someone else’s behavior causes all kinds of problems because not only do we tend to simply believe the label without any real justification but we also fail to consider the context and circumstances surrounding the behavior. How many times have we thought that someone was unkind or rude only to find out later that the person was going through something extremely traumatic in their lives?
Labeling is something that every one does and we can be quite ruthless about it. When it comes to myself, I’m constantly cataloging all the things that I think are negative in myself. When I started thinking of myself as a Laberrier (part Labrador Retriever and part Jack Russell Terrier), I learned to look at my negative traits and behaviors in terms of those two breeds: my anxiety and need to be in control coming from the Jack Russell terrier while my lack of boundaries and overly outgoing, eager-to-please temperament coming from the Labrador. What’s confusing, though, is the way that people can respond so differently to what I consider to be a negative behavior. For example, some people seem to actually love my lack of boundaries and my desperate need to please while others get frustrated and annoyed by my tendency to butt in.
There are definitely consequences to being a people pleaser who lacks boundaries. One negative consequence is that I’m frequently getting used by people. As I love to be helpful, I’m instinctively attracted to people who’re needy. As a result, a majority of my relationships are extremely one-sided where I give and give and give (something Labs love to do) while the other people takes and takes.
The relationship I had with with my mom was one of these extremely one-sided relationships. My mom and dad had a horribly tumultuous relationship and, as a result, my mom was constantly upset. If she was upset while driving us kids around in the car, she’d start swerving all over the road, threatening to kill us in order to get even with my dad. Sometimes she’d go after my dad or the women he had affairs with in: punching or hitting them and even, on occasion, using a gun to scare them! It was completely insane. As an Italian, my mom refused to suffer in silence: in fact, she required an audience whenever she was upset. As I was conveniently available and would do anything to please her, I eventually became her pint-sized Dear Abby.
Looking back, it’s absurd that I thought, at the age of six or seven, that I could actually counsel my mom! What could I know at that age? I didn’t have a clue about men and women and their relationships. Somehow, though, I always managed to come up with something to tell her. What a joke! Yet, the joke was on me since my mom never once took any of my advice! All the effort and worry that I expended in my efforts to help her, trying to console and comfort her at all hours of the day and night, were completely for naught. The truth was she used me. All my mom ever wanted was somewhere to dump her feelings and, once she’d managed to that, she felt refreshed and invigorated and ready once again to jump back into the fray with my dad.
Though I eventually wised up to the fact that my efforts to help my mom made absolutely no difference at all, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from trying! It was pitiful and pathetic. What I kept telling myself was that, at least by listening to her, I was being a good daughter to her. And, of course, the Lab in me was thrilled to be going through the motions even if I was only chasing my tail.
Though the Lab in me was a big contributor to my one-sided relationships, the terrier part of me definitely added its two-cents worth. Considering that terriers are control freaks, I loved to tell people how to fix their lives. Like the Jack Russell terriers one sees on America’s Funniest Videos that jump straight up and down like they’re on pogo sticks, I loved doing that with the people in my life. I’d get so pumped up over the prospect of fixing someone, that if there’d been a speech bubble over my head, it would have said, “Pick me, I’ll fix you…pick me, I’ll fix you!” Terriers never have a moment’s doubt that they have all the answers. This cocky attitude served me well as my mom’s confidant. Though my mom never took any of my advice, I still remained convinced that, if only she had, her life would have been so much better! How naive can you get?
When it came to my friends, I’m sure that I had to have driven them crazy with all my butting in and they were saints to put up with me! Though it took me a lot longer than I care to admit, I eventually realized that, not only was my butting in inappropriate but it was down right insulting. How dare I assume that I could know what was best for someone else! Unfortunately, that’s just how it is with us terriers: we’re incorrigible know-it-alls! I couldn’t help but wonder how I was ever going to make peace with being a know-it-all terrier and a people pleasing Lab with no boundaries.
One reason it’s so hard to accept ourselves as we are concerns the fact that, as humans, we constantly say the meanest things to ourselves all day long! It’s something that all of us do. It’s as if we’re playing a vicious game of dodge ball and the person we’re trying to nail is ourselves! Over the years, I’ve managed to accumulate an impressive number of nasty remarks that I repeatedly say to myself day in and day out (especially whenever I look in the mirror!) As most of these remarks concern my appearance, it often sounds as if they’re coming from some bully on the playground: “Hey, Fatty!”, “Ew, you’re gross!”, “What a pig!”, “You’re the ugliest person in the world!” and in more recent years, “God, you’re old!”
Unfortunately, no matter how hard any of us may try, there’s no way to ever completely stop these internal diatribe as they’re automatic and involuntary. As far as my personal collection of nasty remarks is concerned, they’ve been with me for so long now that they’re like old friends (albeit not good friends), friends that I put up with simply because they won’t go away!
Recently, I made a concerted effort to see if I might be able to decrease the number of times I say these nasty things to myself. I even went so far as to come up with some rebuttals, making sure that these rebuttals weren’t too overly frou frou so that I wouldn’t be able to get myself to say them! Now, whenever I dare to look at myself in the mirror, I’m actually able to make myself laugh sometimes when I say one of the following:
1). “Hey, Missy, you need to calm yourself down! Things in your life could be so much worse! I know that you’re not the prettiest girl in town but you’re not the ugliest so, back off! The truth is you’re average and that’s not so bad, is it? You might even be a bit better than average so, repeat after me: things could be worse!”
2). ”I can’t believe that you’re just soooooooo you!” (Said like you’d say, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”)
3). “True, you’re an obnoxious and neurotic terrier but guess what? Terriers get things done! “Terriers are the doers, terriers are the doers…of the world! “ (Sung to the melody of “We Are the Champions” by Queen)
4). “Hey now, who doesn’t love a sweet and goofy Lab?”
Admittedly, these statements are lame but they’re a lot better than the rotten things I usually say to myself! Since there’s no way for any of us to ever escape the nasty things we say to ourselves, I decided that it was time to sass myself back!
The main time these nasty remarks might let up a bit is when we’re having a moment of self-acceptance. Unfortunately, self-acceptance is a lot like disappearing ink in that it tends to vanish right before our eyes! Self-acceptance isn’t something that we can typically sustain for long since there’s always going to be some self-deprecating thought or some hurtful situation that kicks our self-acceptance right out the door. It could be something as simple as looking in the mirror and completely hating what we see. Or, like the flu, we might come down with a bad case of self-doubt from a cold shoulder or an unkind remark from someone we love. Sadly, there’s always going to be some internal or external event that makes our self-acceptance disappear as deftly as a rabbit from a magician’s hat: one moment it’s there, nestled all nice and cozy inside of us then, poof, it’s gone. Though we’re fated to scratch and claw for any moment of self-acceptance we ever get, self-acceptance is easier to lose than a set of car keys.
For as long as self-acceptance lasts, though, it’s definitely its own reward as it lets light into our lives as dramatically as if every closed window inside of us has been opened wide at the same time. And, just like Dorothy, whose black-and–white world in Kansas is magically transformed into a world of vivid technicolor when she awakens in Oz, self-acceptance turns our confused and murky outlook into something that’s as clear as crystal.
One of the nicest things about self-acceptance is that we can quit trying to change ourselves punitively. So, instead of trying to blame and guilt ourselves into changing, we’re able to accept and be at peace with the person that we actually are: no guilt, no judgement, no blame. And, with our defensiveness momentarily gone (since we’re no longer fighting the person that we are), we’re able to assess ourselves calmly for the first time in our lives. In the same way that a dam can tame a river, our self-acceptance quiets the more turbulent aspects of our temperament so that, instead of raging, we flow. And, though we’re still the same person that we’ve always been, we now accept ourselves instead of spending our lives being at war with the person that we are.
If I were to imagine how it might look if the Lab in me were to experience a moment of self-acceptance, the first thing I’d probably notice is that I’m quite calm as concerns my perceived faults. For example, I wouldn’t feel the anxiety and shame that I normally feel about being a buttinsky. That I have a tendency to “butt in” would be something I accept in the same way that I accept that the sun rises in the morning. Being a buttinsky would become a fact of life that’s totally devoid of judgement, guilt and blame.
The most amazing thing about being able to accept myself without judgement is that I’m given the freedom (for the first time in my life) to choose to behave differently than I normally do: to choose to not butt in! The instant that I quit making myself wrong, I’m able to monitor myself (calmly and unemotionally) for the moments when I’m getting an urge to butt in. And since I’m no longer fighting and resisting the person that I am, I can look at these moments when I’m getting the urge to butt in and make a choice to not to butt in. In doggie terms, my self-acceptance gives me an option to “sit and stay” instead of mindlessly charging full speed ahead like I typically do!
Yet, no matter how hard I might try to control my tendency to butt in, there’s no way to ever escape the fact that butting in is in my blood (my DNA) and I’ll never be able to eliminate it from who I am as a person. The fact is: I’m a Lab and butting in is simply what I do! So, whenever the Lab in me sees an opportunity to butt in, something inside of me is going to be triggered (like a dog when it sees a bone) and I’m going to instantly want to run over and put my muddy paws all over someone else’s life. The urge to butt in will always be a part of who I am.
The only way that any of us can ever hope to control our genetic inclinations (such as jumping up and butting in) is to:
1. Own up to our inclinations
2. Watch out for the circumstances that trigger us
3. Make a choice to not do what we normally do
Controlling our inclinations lovingly is key and the best way to do that is to think of ourselves as a dog. As millions of dog owners will attest, it’s much easier to love a dog than it is to love a person. People are too complex, too self-centered and too unpredictable. We can’t help but be more compassionate and forgiving towards ourselves when we start thinking of ourselves (and others) as dogs because our deep and abiding love for dogs rubs off on us. In other words, the love and affection we have for our dogs is transferred to us once we think of ourselves as a dog! If I simply think of myself as a flawed human being that can’t keep herself from butting into other people’s lives, I’m going to be much more judgmental and critical than I would if I were to think of myself as a lovable, jump-up-and-lick-your-face Labrador. Picturing myself as a Labrador not only softens my judgmental tendencies to the point that I can laugh at myself but, most importantly, I’m actually able to forgive myself for being such an uncontrollable and goofy Lab!
Self-acceptance is complicated by the fact that, as humans, we hate to admit that most of what happens to us in our lives is completely beyond our control. As humans, we absolutely crave transformation and, more than anything, we desperately want to believe that, with hard work and persistence, anything is possible. Once the “anything’s possible” mindset has dug its roots inside our minds, self-acceptance is no longer possible. That’s because, if we’re constantly trying to change ourselves into something that we aren’t, we can’t accept ourselves as we are. Self-acceptance necessitates that we abandon (at least temporarily) our compulsion to constantly change ourselves. What we need to do, instead, is surrender to the fact that our DNA is going to keep us from ever being able to change ourselves to any significant degree.
Yet, even though we don’t like to accept that we’re genetic beings who can’t really change ourselves that much, we don’t seem to have a problem accepting the genetic limitations of our dogs! Most of us would agree that a dog’s temperament is a definite consequence of it’s breed and that, no matter how hard we might try to train or discipline a crabby Chihuahua, we’re never going to turn it into a friendly and outgoing Golden Retriever! Despite the fact that we accept the genetic input of our dogs, we refuse to abandon the belief that we can change ourselves in anyway we so desire: that someone who’s always been shy can turn himself into someone who’s outgoing and bubbly; that someone who’s naturally grumpy should be able to transform himself into someone who’s cheerful and carefree; that someone who’s always been hyperactive and anxious possesses the ability to become someone who’s laid back and mellow. Those kinds of transformations aren’t going to happen anymore than a Chihuahua’s going to be trained and disciplined into a Golden Retriever. This isn’t to say that we can’t change ourselves in certain small and minor ways but, due to our DNA, we’re not going to be able to change ourselves into something that we’re not.
The truth is that it’s actually quite destructive for us to constantly wish and hope and demand change from ourselves (or someone else) when the change that we’re hoping for isn’t possible. It’d be the same as chastising someone for the color of their eyes, height or IQ. Inherited traits and behaviors cannot be changed and to continually hope for a change that can’t happen is something that can truly destroy our lives.
As we try to accept and make peace with the person that we are, it’s critical to remember that all of us feel flawed in one way or another. As was mentioned above, the definition of what’s positive and negative can be extremely relative and subjective. It’s possible to find something positive or negative in almost anything, including our behaviors and temperamental traits. What might be considered positive or negative in any given moment is totally dependent on one’s perspective. For example, someone who’s born with the high energy of a terrier might be able to brag about how they always get so much done because, as we now know, terriers are the doers of the world! Yet, at the same time, terriers are frequently so wired and anxious that it’s practically impossible for them to ever relax or be mellow. Terriers thrive on control and, as such, they hate relinquishing that control to anyone else: a trait that can be extremely annoying to anyone who’s in a relationship with a terrier! In contrast, hounds (the couch potatoes of the world) love nothing more than letting someone else take charge: that way, they can be left to their own devices (i.e. lounging and taking life easy.) At the same time, hounds are horrible procrastinators since they don’t have a lot of get-up-and-go (except when they’re in pursuit of a rabbit: metaphorical or otherwise.) This inevitably results in very long to-do lists that very rarely get done. Of course, these undone to-do-lists don’t bother the hounds in the least but they will definitely drive any terriers in the hound’s life absolutely crazy!
So, whenever we catch ourselves starting to pass judgment on our own or someone else’s behaviors or temperamental traits, it’s good to remember that most positive traits have a negative component while most negative traits contain a kernel of positive somewhere inside.
Despite the fact that most behaviors and temperamental traits have both positive and negative components, what always tends to stand out in our minds, though, is the negative. It’s almost impossible for us humans to ever see the positive in ourselves. The only time we can ever see the positive is when we’re seeing it in someone else: someone who either has power, wealth, beauty, talent or some other kind of status. We instantly put on blinders whenever we’re contemplating someone we envy: fixating on the positive we see in them that we can’t help but believe is woefully lacking in ourselves. The truth is none of us can ever know what goes on in other people’s lives: what their struggles are, if they’re heartbroken or lonely, to what degree they feel like a failure. The only thing that we can ever say for certain is that all of us hate ourselves at one time or another.
There are some very good reasons as to why that is:
1). The unrelenting pressure of unrealistic societal norms and ideals that invariably cause us to feel that there’s no way for us to ever measure up.
2). The egocentricity of humans that causes each of us to inappropriately blame ourselves for the bad things that happen in our lives (i.e.-how children of divorced parents believe that they’re to blame for their parents getting divorced, that we’re somehow to blame for all the various misfortunes that come our way.)
3). The fact that certain individuals in our lives (parents, teachers, siblings, friends, fellow students, etc.) make hurtful and hateful remarks to or about us that we take to heart and believe to be true.
So, not only must we deal with all the horrible things that we say to ourselves each and every day but we’ve also got to deal with the horrible things that are said and done to us by other people. Trying to survive all the internal and external slings and arrows of life isn’t easy and it’s bound to cause us to doubt our worth and purpose. The only way to ever counter this internal and external negativity is to remember that even though we may feel that we’re alone in our experience, we’re most definitely not: all of us feel unloved and unworthy throughout the majority of our lives. This is simply the way that the human experience goes and it’s been this way since we first came into being. Even though there are clearly huge differences between us as a result of our different genetics and our different individual circumstances, all of us struggle, all of us suffer, all of us die. In the ways that really matter, we’re more similar than what may be apparent on the surface of things. If we fail to remember this, we’ll constantly feel as if everyone else’s life is better than our own and that, in and of itself, will suck the joy right our of our lives..
Ultimately, it’s up to us (and us alone) to find a way to curtail the external negativity that’s going to come our way as well as all the internal doom and gloom that’s constantly bubbling up from inside ourselves. This need to constantly cope with all the negativity in our lives is something that we’ll have to deal with for all of our lives. But, if we can learn how to think of ourselves and others as dogs, the negativity that we see in ourselves and in others won’t seem quite so bad.
The fact is each of us is blessed and each of us is cursed in some way or another. Of course, knowing that doesn’t change the fact that life ISN’T fair. Life is a bell shaped curve and, by definition, that means that a very small percentage of us will be blessed with extraordinarily wonderful lives, a very small percentage of us will be cursed with extraordinarily tragic lives while the majority of will be somewhere in the middle. That’s not fair by any means but, unfortunately, there’s nothing that any of us can really do about it. The best that any of us can ever hope for is to try and make the most of what we’ve been given in our lives and that process starts with trying to accept who we are as a person (que sera sera.)
Self-acceptance is an extremely personal affair and no one can give it to us or take it away from us other than ourselves. Though self-acceptance is always going to be an on-again-off-again affair, thinking of ourselves as a dog will help us to be less judgmental towards ourselves. One of the very best things about having a dog is their ability to make us laugh. With all the negativity in our lives, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves as often as we possibly can. It’s also important for us to remember that if a dog can be loved in spite of its flaws, so can we!
In the next chapter, we’ll examine the hurdles that we’ll need to manage if we want to ever be at peace with ourselves. Woof!