In my work as a career and executive coach, I work with women of all ages, sizes and styles, and one theme has become very apparent: women are incredibly tough on themselves, full of self-rejection, shame, humiliation and doubt, particularly about their looks, their weight, intelligence and their worthiness.
I can count on one hand the number of women I’ve spoken with recently who feel “just great” about themselves. The vast majority of women I interact with are indeed brilliant, accomplished, talented and creative — in short, amazing — but feel somehow that they are not good or worthy enough. I call these women “perfectionistic overfunctioners” — doing everything for everyone around them and striving so hard to get an “A+” in every single endeavor and aspect of their lives. I should know — I’m a recovering one.
Since “getting an A+” is not possible in every activity or area, and — and constantly striving to achieve that level of success is damaging — women then fall short of their unrealistic expectations and feel even worse, seeing their “failure” as validation that they have to work harder and be better.
Know that I’m not judging here. I feel deep love and compassion in my heart for all these women, because I can empathize fully. I’ve done a lot of internal work around this (and continue to), and I’m happy to say that I now know how liberating it is to free ourselves from needing to get an “A+,” and how fabulous it feels to jump off of the never-ending hamster wheel of doing more than is healthy, appropriate, necessary, and hating ourselves in the process.
I’ve seen first-hand that once you close your power gaps, build appropriate boundaries and start speaking up and honoring what you want and who you are, you begin to operate very differently in the world and grow happier and more accepting of yourself and everyone around you. You begin to embrace your “imperfect, just-right” functioning rather than striving for an impossible goal of perfection. But I’m not always there — I sometimes fall down and forget to love and accept myself.
I experienced a real wake-up call on this several years ago, when I spent a day at a photo shoot in Connecticut for my then new website. The day’s experiences took me from self-rejecting, shameful and worried (once again) about my looks, my weight, my “worthiness,” etc., to loving it all — embracing myself, my foibles and flaws, my talents and who I am at my core. I saw how the right kind of experience (with the right kind of people who align closely with your values, your heart and your worldview), can help you move from self-rejection to self-acceptance in a few short hours (or in an instant).
After thinking about this experience in greater depth, I realized there are five key stages of transformation from self-rejection to self-love, and if we gain awareness of these stages, and have the courage to embrace them whenever we can and move through them, we can accelerate our own growth away from rejection towards self-love.
The five stages of transformation from self-hate to self-acceptance are:
Stage 1: “I don’t rate — I’m just not good enough.”
I started the day of my photo shoot afraid — afraid to share my wardrobe choices, reluctant to express what I really liked in terms of style, color, makeup, hair, jewelry and inhibited in my movements and physical presence. I compared myself in my mind to the thousands of other women my wonderful photographer Jacklyn Greenberg had shot before — young and older women and men I thought were beautiful and charismatic (so it seemed to me). Along with head shots, weddings and national events, Jacklyn does “risqué” photography as well, all of it stunning. Some clients are naked or are only partially dressed and from Jacklyn’s website, all of them seemed gorgeous, vibrant and unabashedly free.
I thought, Oh, no — this is going to be a very long day.
Stage 2: “Wait, maybe I’m not so bad.”
As the first hour progressed, with the help of Jacklyn and her great makeup artist D.D. Nickel, things changed and I changed. I moved from fearing everything about me was wrong and inferior to remembering that what I am — inside and out — is not terrible. Far from it. I started to see how my fears about my looks, weight, age, clothes, wrinkles, skin, tummy, etc. are universal and the only thing keeping me stuck in my insecurity was me.
Stage 3: “Hmmm… I guess I do have some unique, valuable qualities.”
Then, midway through, something interesting happened. I saw through their eyes that — as I let out who I really am at my freest — sharing my authentic personality, what I care about, my quirks, how I’m different, the shoot went much better, and the day became raucously fun. I forgot I was being photographed. We talked, shared, probed, guffawed and as I connected more deeply with Jacklyn and D.D., I saw how my qualities could be seen as unique and valuable — to the experience at hand, but also in relationship with these great new folks I was partnering with, and even in helping spread the word about their work and the stunning property, Winvian, we were lucky enough to be shooting on.
Stage 4: “It’s ridiculous (and an utter waste of precious life) to hide — I’m going let it all out.”
Towards the end, the idea of hiding was long gone. I wasn’t afraid, shy or reluctant — I was excited, energized and inspired to be even more of myself. I saw clearly how stepping up and powering up to share myself in the most authentic, vulnerable way possible was the ONLY way this whole thing would work (in a photo shoot and in life).
Stage 5: “Ok, I can honestly say — I love and accept myself.”
Finally, at the end of the day as I was driving home, tired but exhilarated, I felt a flush of self-acceptance (dare I say self-love). I had done something that was scary and challenging for me. I had stepped up to a very high vision for where I want to go — in my life, in my career, in my professional pursuits — I held out high hopes for I wanted for and the outcomes I’d dreamed of, and I pushed myself to be real and courageous enough to make this happen. Not just because I went to a cool photo shoot, but because I believed in myself and the idea that I’m worthy of putting myself out there in the world in a bigger way.
At the end of the day, I was able to utter to myself exactly what my spiritual psychotherapist years ago implored me to state as an affirmation every day:
“I thoroughly love and accept myself.”
In the past, I had coughed up a hair ball every time I said that. Now, with each day, it’s much easier.
Years later, I’ve pushed myself far out of my comfort zones and done things that the old me would have run from. And I continue to commit to moving away from self-rejection.
To move through these five stages of transformation, start with these steps:
#1: Begin to recognize just how amazing you are.
Take the time this week to understand more deeply who you are, what you have to offer, and what you’ve already done in the life and work that is helpful, important and valuable. (For professionals, feel free to download my free Career Path Self-Assessment to get in touch with the important accomplishments and achievements you’ve made that have made a difference in the world). And watch my TEDx talk “Time to Brave Up” to learn how to articulate who you really are and the “20 facts of you.”
#2. Identify your biggest fears in the way of sharing more of your authentic amazing self in the world.
Some women might read this and think, “I just don’t love myself so how can I fake it?” in part because women are culturally trained to think that if we love ourselves, we’ll be self-involved, selfish and self-absorbed. And also because many of us have experienced childhoods that trained us that we’re not good enough unless we behave in ways that are not in alignment with who we really are.
If this is you, take the time (and get outside help if you need it) to understand the beliefs, mindsets and fears that keep you from sharing the real you in the world, and loving that honest version of yourself. Understand exactly where you got those beliefs and mindsets that you’re not good enough as you are.
Most likely, it’s damaging messages you received in childhood that told you you weren’t living up to the crazy, unrealistic expectations your parents and society had. (And growing up with narcissistic parents damages even further our self-esteem and self-worth in ways that most people don’t understand.)
#3. Stop holding back and start going for the things you really want. Keep moving through the rejection.
In a powerful Forbes interview I conducted some time ago with the inspiring bestselling author Harriet Lerner on What Selling 3 Million Copies of ‘The Dance of Anger’ has Taught Renowned Psychologist Harriet Lerner, she shared this about rejection:
“In truth, there’s only one way to escape the pain of rejection: sit mute in a corner and take no risks. If we live courageously, we will experience many rejections that will make us want to fold up in a corner and never put ourselves “out there” again.
Don’t let yourself stay in that dark corner for too long. Get out and accumulate more rejections. You can take some time out, but don’t ever let rejection stop you.”
I’ve learned that self-love, and dealing with rejection in a powerful, self-affirming way, is vitally important and needed in the world today.
You simply can’t build a wonderful, rewarding and happy life and career — and you can’t be of service to others fully — if you don’t learn how to move through rejection (from yourself and others), and find new ways to love and accept yourself more fully — flaws, gaps, foibles and all.
Are you ready to find brave and walk through the five stages of self-hate to self-love today?