The Unaccepted Self

“It is the unaccepted self that stands in our way.” – Thomas Merton

This is a bit of fairly radical grace. I understand Merton to say here that all spiritual growth and development ultimately comes down to failing to accept ourselves. At first this may sound self-help-ish or “New Agey,” but from my experience as a Christian, much of my own spiritual work has led me back to seeing myself from God’s perspective, as unconditionally accepted and loved. From the point of acceptance, the feeling I get is that I can then relax the guards of my ego, which keep me from being less than entirely open to the world and actively engaged in the lives of others.

Understanding this angle, with grace as the focal point of all spiritual development, has been something of a focus of mine for several years. As much study and spiritual work has gone into understanding grace, I am most certainly only at the very outskirts of understanding the vast expanse of unconditional acceptance.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

10 thoughts on “The Unaccepted Self”

  1. “From the point of acceptance, the feeling I get is that I can then relax the guards of my ego, which keep me from being less than entirely open to the world and actively engaged in the lives of others.”

    Such a good insight. I think Christianity in its popular sense never really gets past the “self-image” thing. It’s often seen to be more related to pop psychology than its own depths, that are not often explored. The whole self image thing has far more to do with ego than any genuine exploration of the, dare I say it, the true self. Thanks. Great post.


  2. Thanks Don.

    I’m interested in hearing you expand your thoughts on this, if you don’t mind. What are some specific examples where you see Christianity and pop psychology being connected? And maybe you could talk more about the “self-image” thing. I’d like to hear you say a bit more about this, from your experiences.


  3. In response, I have this Merton quote to share with you: “We are all too ready to believe that the self that we have created out of our more or less inauthentic efforts to be real in the eyes of others is a ‘real self’. We even take it for our identity. Fidelity to such a nonidentity is of course infidelity to our real person, which is hidden in mystery. Who will you find that has enough faith and self-respect to attend to this mystery and to begin by accepting himself as unknown? God help the man who thinks he knows all about himself.”


  4. Thanks, Vesper.

    It’s like one step is to accept the “self” that we find unacceptable. Another Mertonian step, as you point out, is to recognize that this self is a synthetic construct, and we can embrace the mystery of a self-less existence. In Christian terminology, this would probably be “walking with the Spirit,” “having the mind of Christ,” or even oneness with God.

    Interesting that you posted this quote, because I’ve been thinking about just this kind of thing very recently – the idea of not only accepting my “self” but also letting go of the notion of self, to not identify with thoughts, feelings, or actions. That’s so much easier said than done, of course, after spending the first several decades of life finding my identity in my thoughts, feelings, and actions. It’s kind of simple, right? I think my thoughts, but I am not identified by my thoughts. I feel my feelings, but I’m not defined as my feelings. I do certain things, but I am not the sum total of my actions. Easy, right?


  5. Much of what I feel about the “self” is expressed in the Merton quote given by Vesper. Pop psychology and its influence on aspects of Christianity has trivialized the self. It’s seen to be something we construct ourselves -so we create a good self-image. The problem is that this image is so permeated with ego that it’s anything but true and real. I sometimes feel there’s absolutely no understanding of the immense power of the illusions we build around ourselves. It’s only when we begin to truly see through these illusions and let go of them that we create space for the birthing of the true self which mysteriously happens, apart from us. Our part is the discerning. It’s been my experience that once we see these illusions for what they really are, they begin to lose their power and start to slowly fall away. Something new and mysterious is born. It’s egoless, but strongly rooted and aware and lives out of a new depth.. I’m sure this is something of what Jesus was speaking about when he spoke of denying oneself.


    1. I agree with Don. And from my understanding and interpretation of Merton, I think he believes that two selves exist. The constructed self, which we create to be acceptable to our friends, family, and society at large. This self is largely the domain of the ego. It can be fluid and easily changed, but it is illusory at best, devastating at worst. Merton would not agree to catering to or more fully accepting this self….unless the object were to accept it to a certain degree so that it can move on, or out of the way…..just as in meditation or contemplation we accept thoughts so that they can move along, so that we don’t begin obsessing with them. Additionally, and one point I had to learn, “guilting” oneself regarding this smaller self is not productive, and can even be counterproductive. Merton calls this self “unreal” due to its illusory and mask-like nature.

      Then there’s a deeper self, the real self, the Self in Christ, which we are to tend, fully usher in, and accept with open arms. As Don said, there’s nothing much we can do with this Self, except allow room for it to come forth. This is where contemplation and centering prayer come in. This Self is always there, and has always been there (and will always be there), but we are blind to it. Closeness and communion with God tear back the veils so that we can slowly begin to see what and who we are in Christ.

      Another Merton quote: “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self …. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.”

      And another: “According to the Christian mystical tradition, one cannot find one’s inner center and know God there as long as one is involved in the preoccupations and desires of the outward self …. Penetration into the depths of our being is then a matter of liberation from the ordinary flow of conscious and half conscious sense impressions, but also and more definitely from the unconscious drives and the clamoring of inordinate passion. Freedom to enter the inner sanctuary of our being is denied to those who are held back by dependence on self-gratification and sense satisfaction, whether it be a matter of pleasure-seeking, love of comfort, or proneness to anger, self-assertion, pride, vanity, greed, and all the rest.”

      Love this one: “The Devil is the exterior self.”


  6. Vesper,

    Do you still have the source of those Merton quotes? I’d like to look some of those up.

    Thanks for posting those, along with your thoughts. Both your comments and Don’s are very encouraging. I think most contemplatives have a sense of walking along, so I, for one, feel like I can’t get enough thoughts from kindred spirits….It’s just too bad that we all can’t sit down at a pub together and order a round of spirits!


    1. That sounds like heaven!

      The very first quote I left “We are all…” is from *The Seven Storey Mountain*.

      The second quote “Every one of us…” is from *Thomas Merton: Essential Writings*.

      The third quote “According to the…” is from *The Inner Experience*.

      The last quote “The Devil…” is also from *The Inner Experience*.


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