Self-acceptance – A Life of One’s Own


Landscape with Woman Walking, Vincest van Gogh, 1883


The psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner wrote ‘A Life of One’s Own’, published in 1934 under the pseudonym ‘Joanna Field’. In it, Milner set out to find what kinds of experience make her happy. So, she picked out the moments of her daily life which had been particularly positive and wrote about them. It was a form of free association writing, where she gradually began to realise there are different levels to what is going on. She describes these as ‘facts’ from which she could draw a final conclusion about when and why she felt happy. An early discovery was that there was all ‘the difference in the world between knowing something intellectually and knowing it as a “lived” experience’. She began to see that much of her thinking was from what she calls the narrow focus of reason, where she was seeing life as if from blinkers, and with the centre of awareness in her head. It’s easy as she writes: ‘to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people’.

Another finding was to question the general assumption that the only way to live was a male way – what she describes as ‘objective understanding and achievement’. The realization of the masculine and feminine aspects within each person, and her acceptance of what she calls ‘a feminine aspect to the universe … just as legitimate, intellectually and biologically, as a masculine one’ where mythological and religious symbols are given validity and reverence, opened up both a greater sense of herself and of the world. From this came the breakthrough realization ‘there are two entirely opposite attitudes possible in facing the problems of one’s life. One, to try and change the external world, the other, to try and change oneself.’ The need is to hold some sort of balance rather than become one sided.

Milner saw that the very looking at an experience changed how she felt about it. She had thought she’d be happy when she was having what was generally considered ‘a good time’. However, her detective work showed her that there were moments that had a special quality of their own, and were almost independent of what was actually going on, often on trivial occasions, where she felt happy:

‘… far beyond what I had ordinarily meant by “enjoying myself” … These were moments when I had by some chance stood aside and looked at my experience, looked with a wide focus, wanting nothing and prepared for anything.’

These moments only happened when she had learned how to move beyond the blind thinking – which she saw as the enemy of unconscious wisdom, and to silence ‘a perpetual self-centred chatter which came between me and myself.’

‘By keeping a diary of what made me happy I had discovered that happiness came when I was most widely aware … my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension….by finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness.’