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I Love You Just the Way You Are: Why Self-Acceptance is The Key to Mental Health

07/03/2016 09:45 GMT | Updated 07/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Is it true that God is the only one who accepts us as we are? Or can we learn to do this for ourselves?

Some days I look in the mirror and hear, 'urgh, not today'. My hair isn't right, my face looks dull and carries the marks of yesterday's mask, the one I have worn to face the day. Other days I take a peek and say, 'yeah, bring it on!', and for sure the day goes better. I might look the same, but I'm more self-accepting, less critical. Yesterday's 'flaws' are today's opportunities. With this mindset my plans unfold as I want them to, and crucially I accept them when they don't. I either take the unexpected in my stride or, I get off my butt and do something else, something different or better. And all of this is OK because I am an adult, and can choose to reframe my thoughts, and decide when to get off my butt! I understand the difference between head and heart narrative, and have tools at my disposal to help me make these internal and external shifts in my thinking and planning. But what if I'm not an adult with access to these tools and external support? What if I'm a 5 year old child struggling with the whole world of self-acceptance? Without words to attribute to my confusion and ambivalence? With a simmering pot of feelings that threaten to overwhelm me? Make me lash out at my parents and friends, become labelled as 'disruptive' in class, an "outsider", "anti-social", "difficult". What then? Who do I turn to then to help me to understand and accept myself?

Dr Virginia Axline was an American Play Therapist whose bestselling book, DIBS In Search of Self was about a boy who was transformed from being labelled as "mentally retarded" to "gifted" through his weekly play therapy sessions. The book led to Axline's other classic, Play Therapy, which set out her groundbreaking 8 principles for practising play therapy, of which self-acceptance is one.

Nothing was structured during Dibs's weekly play therapy sessions. From the outset, Dr Axline made it clear to Dibs that his one hour session every Thursday afternoon was his and only his, and that in the room he set his own agenda: he would use the time as he wanted to - he could play with the sandbox and toys available in the room, talk, move around or, simply sit and do nothing. He was under no obligation to do anything he didn't feel like. No-one was going to expect anything from him. He didn't have to live up to anybody's ideas of what he should or shouldn't be. He was accepted as he was. The child who showed up each week and played out his dramas was accepted. After three months of these weekly one hour play therapy sessions, Dibs started to reveal himself to be not a "retarded" child but a gifted one, who had virtually taught himself how to read and write, who had a truly poetical vision of the world and who was only too painfully aware of everything that went on around him.

Dibs represents the thousands of children who feel misunderstood. We all know a Dibs. The question is how do we stop them from becoming invisible, lost to themselves and others? Play therapy enabled Dibs to understand himself by discovering his own voice and inner resources, and to reveal his gifts and talents that led him to self acceptance. We can't accept what we don't understand.

What really heals us is to be welcomed by another human being in an atmosphere of total acceptance, recognition and confirmation. Welcoming the other person as he/she really is and not as he/she might appear to be. One of the hardest things to do as a Play Therapist is to accept the child 'as is', as they are playing out their painful feelings, and not step in and rescue them. Instead we allow them the space to nobly struggle with their shadows until they find their own resolutions, inner resources and resilience, which they do. Only when they begin to understand themselves do they accept themselves.

The masks we wear may protect us from our wounds, but the gift of self-acceptance is to be able to say, 'I love you just the way you are.'

Amanda Seyderhelm is the author of, 'Isaac and the Red Jumper'.