How I Discovered the True Meaning of Self-Acceptance
People meet me now, and they probably think things like, ‘what a nice girl!’ Or, ‘she’s working hard for her dreams.’ Or, on occasion, ‘the dogma lives loudly within her.’
And I would accept most of those comments as compliments. I do try to be nice. I do work hard. And, yes, my faith is of huge importance to me.
I got married at 25. I go to church on Sundays. I donate my time and money. I pray. Friends come to me for advice.
Most people who meet me now assume this has always been the case. It hasn’t.
When my husband and I reminisce about our college years (although we didn’t know each other at the time), I jokingly say that most people who met me in college probably hate me. This is a bit too extreme, to be sure. But I was a very different person back then.
It took me a long time to get to where I am now. A hard part of that journey was slowly forming habits to be a better version of myself. An even harder part of that journey was learning to forgive myself, be compassionate toward myself, and learn to love myself again.
When people meet me now, I love that they can see who I am today. But I believe that you can’t truly know me without knowing where I came from.
I am proud of the person I have grown into and am excited to think about continuing to grow as a person. But I couldn’t be who I am today without the parts of my past that will always make me a little sad to think about.
From being a victim to hurting people I loved — things have not always be easy. It’s true, life is messy. My life has given witness to that reality.
If you want to know why I love Jesus so much now, you need to understand how I loathed myself before.
Mine isn’t a story about “being saved” — it’s about realizing that I always was.
When I finally stumbled back into Mass and discovered the gift that is confession, a priest — who is now a good friend of mine — drew my attention to the last words of the sacrament. The priest says, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is Good.” And you respond, “His mercy endures forever.”
Something about those last four words pierced my heart.
A lot of people think of “forever” in the futuristic direction. But if you think about it, its temporal meaning extends both ways — to the past and to the future. When I think about God’s mercy enduring forever, two powerful things stand out to me.
First, that in my years of self-destruction and addiction, His mercy was there. He gazed on me tenderly and sorrowfully — longing that I stop hurting myself and others.
Second, that no matter what mistakes I make (and I am sure to make many!), His mercy will be there — waiting for me to turn back to love.
Today, when I want people to know the real Emily, I need them to understand my whole self: who I am today, who I hope to be in the future, and, yes, who I was in the past.
But that doesn’t mean that I need to outline the details of my mistakes for them. I don’t need them to judge my sins, and I really don’t need them to be ashamed for me about my poorer choices. So that’s not how I talk about my former self anymore.
What I really need from people in my life is for them to see my past through the lens that I learned to: the way God does.
It’s a work in progress, but I’ve learned to talk about myself with a more merciful heart. Instead of saying, “I used to be a horrible person,” I try to say something more like, “I’ve made mistakes and learned from them.” I frequently remind myself that the struggles and suffering I overcame in my early 20s helped form me into the strong, beautiful woman I am today. My past doesn’t define me, because I’ve learned to be a better version of myself.
We don’t need to glorify our sins, nor crucify them. What we all need, truly, is to learn to gaze on them with love — the way that God always has and always will.
“It is mercy which changes the heart and the life, which can regenerate a person and allow him or her to integrate into society in a new way.” —Pope Francis