How do we accept our identities and differences to cultivate a healthy internal relationship with the self?
As someone with multiple marginalized identities, including long-suspected (though still officially undiagnosed) autism, I’ve constantly reflected on what “self-acceptance” means not just in my own life, but as an objective state. With countless identities, masks, and shadows present within each person of every neurotype, the core challenges lie in determining how we can define self-acceptance, and more importantly, how we can get there.
The most common way we conceptualize self-acceptance is by using the tricky tool of comparison, either to other people or to ourselves. If we compare ourselves to others as a means of validation then we can define self-acceptance as a series of levels that include pride, shame, or indifference.
Pride, in this case, is the result of feeling superiority when comparing the self to others, shame is the emotional outcome of inferiority from comparison, and indifference is the result of accepting reality, traits, and existence as compared to others without necessarily approving of it.
As a personal example, I’ve had times when I felt embarrassed for not meeting neurotypically encouraged standards like having a full-time job or not being restricted by menu options due to a limited palate. I’ve also used comparison to point out the strengths of my neurodivergence over neurotypicals, such as being able to hyperfocus or think in ways others may not. There were also times when I resigned in despondent acceptance of my abundant weaknesses and limited strengths compared to my peers, and as a result, I made no effort to improve my functioning or skills for that period.
Likewise, this comparison model can also be applied when comparing the self with the self. For instance, feeling proud of behavioral regulation improvements, experiencing shame from a decline in executive functioning ability, or being impassive about personal progress in general.
While these feelings of pride, shame, and to a lesser extent indifference, can occasionally be used as different motivators to overcome or excel at something like personal development, they can also be unsustainable and false ways of seemingly achieving self-acceptance.
To illustrate, pride and shame are both contingent on comparison as their source, and indifference presents as an apparent lack of desire for something that is believed to bring true satisfaction. Feigned indifference, however, can resemble acceptance, but much like pride and shame, it is not a genuine way of working towards long-term love and acceptance for the self.
So, if the commonly used comparison model doesn’t yield the answer to how to define and achieve self-acceptance, then what does? Additionally, how can autistic and neurodivergent people work towards a healthy relationship with their intersecting identities and personhood?
For me, I like to think of self-acceptance not as a fixed state or final destination, but rather as an ongoing process with highs, lows, and everything in between. The best way to visualize this process is using any variation of the popular Cycle of Acceptance model, the most common version being that of the Stages of Grief with phases including denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Depending on the source, there could be more or fewer phases in any order, but I’ve found that those core five phases resonate with me the most.
When applied to autism, this cycle can be ongoing for those who are diagnosed both earlier and later in life. It’s completely normal and expected to not feel immediately happy or ‘proud’ to have autism initially, or even daily. One day you may feel like cursing the world or your genetics for your neurotype. The next day you may feel like you’re “not really” autistic because of your level of functioning. Then the following day you may feel devastated by personal challenges that perhaps neurotypicals may not experience.
In my own life, I’ve had years where I hated my personality and wished that I was genuinely like my peers without it feeling like a forced mask to put on. There are times even now when I wish there was a magical way to function without the arduous and lifelong work required to combat my inherent challenges even if it would mean potentially sacrificing my autistic identity and neurotype.
On the opposite end, I’ve also experienced the joy of being around people who think like me and who wholeheartedly appreciate me for all my quirks. Some days I even love the way my brain works and how I can excel in certain domains, like recalling film details or making connections between two seemingly unrelated areas.
These shifts in attitude and self-esteem vary from day to day and even minute to minute, and I believe all of the emotions I feel about myself are valid as opposed to being “negative” even if they are not immediately helpful. I also remind myself that acceptance is not approval and that I can still continue to work toward self-actualization while going through the Cycle of Acceptance indefinitely.
Ultimately, self-acceptance and a loving relationship with the self looks different for everyone. In my life, I interpret it by thinking of it as an ongoing cycle filled with good days and bad days, which allows me to feel compassion for myself in ways that a tier advancement or comparison model may not.
What is your experience with self-acceptance?
Ama Asmad is a freelance writer with a degree in Rehabilitation and Human Services from Penn State University. She enjoys writing content for diverse brands using her formal knowledge as well as her lived experiences. Her ultimate goal is to continue learning about Neurodiversity and its larger intersectionality.