By Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Acceptance
Though related, self-acceptance is not the same as self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem refers specifically to how valuable, or worthwhile, we see ourselves, self-acceptance alludes to a far more global affirmation of self. When we're self-accepting, we're able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more "esteem-able" parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification. We can recognize our weaknesses or limitations, but this awareness in no way interferes with our ability to fully accept ourselves.
I regularly tell my therapy clients that if they genuinely want to improve their self-esteem, they need to explore what parts of themselves they're not yet able to accept. For, ultimately, liking ourselves more has mostly to do with self-acceptance. And it's only when we stop judging ourselves that we can secure a more positive sense of who we are. Which is why I believe self-esteem rises naturally as soon as we cease being so hard on ourselves. It's precisely because self-acceptance involves far more than self-esteem that I see it as crucial to our state of well-being.
What Determines Our Self-Acceptance in the First Place?
In general, similar to self-esteem, as children we're able to accept ourselves only to the degree we feel accepted by our parents. Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, we lack the ability to formulate a clear, separate sense of self—other than that which has been transmitted to us by our caretakers. So if our parents were unable, or unwilling, to communicate the message that we were acceptable—independent, that is, of our hard-to-control, sometimes errant behaviors—we were primed to view ourselves ambivalently. The positive regard we received from our parents may have depended almost totally on how we acted, and unfortunately we learned that many of our behaviors weren't acceptable to them. So, by identifying ourselves with these objectionable behaviors, we inevitably came to see ourselves as inadequate.
Additionally, adverse parental evaluation can, and frequently does, go far beyond disapproving specific behaviors. For example, parents may transmit to us the overall message that we're selfish—or not attractive enough, smart enough, good or "nice" enough, and so on. As a result of what most mental health professionals would agree reflects a subtle form of emotional abuse, almost all of us come to regard ourselves as only conditionally acceptable. In consequence, we learn to regard many aspects of our self negatively, painfully internalizing feelings of rejection we too often experienced at the hands of overly critical parents. This tendency toward self-criticism is at the heart of most of the problems that, as adults, we unwittingly create for ourselves.
Given how the human psyche operates, it's almost impossible not to parent ourselves similarly to how we were parented originally. If our caretakers dealt with us in a hurtful manner, as adults we'll find all kinds of ways to perpetuate that unresolved pain onto ourselves. If we were frequently ignored, berated, blamed, or physically punished, we'll somehow continue this self-indignity. So when we "beat ourselves up," we're typically just following our parents' lead. Having to depend so much on them when we were young, and thus experiencing little authority to actually question their mixed verdict on us, we felt pretty much obliged to accept their negative appraisals as valid. They constantly put us down. But, historically, it's well-known that parents are far more likely to let us know when we do something that bothers them than to acknowledge us for our more pro-social behaviors.
In fully comprehending our current reservations about ourselves, we also need to add the disapproval and criticism we may have been received from siblings, other relatives, teachers, our peers. It's safe to assume that almost all of us enter adulthood afflicted with a certain negative bias. We share a common tendency to blame ourselves or to see ourselves as defective. It's as though we all, to whatever degree, suffer from the same chronic "virus" of self-doubt.
How Do We Become More Self-Accepting?
Cultivating Self-Compassion, Letting Go of Guilt, and Learning to Forgive Ourselves
Accepting ourselves unconditionally would have been almost automatic had our parents conveyed a predominantly positive message about us—and we grew up in a generally supportive environment. But if that wasn't the case, we need on our own to learn how to "certify" ourselves, to validate our essential OK-ness. And I'm hardly suggesting that independently confirming ourselves has anything to do with becoming complacent, only that we get over our habit of constantly judging ourselves. If deep within us we're ever to experience, as our normal state of being, personal fulfillment and peace of mind, we must first rise to the challenge of complete, unqualified self-acceptance.
As Robert Holden puts it in his book Happiness Now! "Happiness and self-acceptance go hand in hand. In fact, your level of self-acceptance determines your level of happiness. The more self-acceptance you have, the more happiness you'll allow yourself to accept, receive and enjoy. In other words, you enjoy as much happiness as you believe you're worthy of[emphasis added]."
Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating self-acceptance requires that we develop more self-compassion. Only when we can better understand and pardon ourselves for things that earlier we assumed must be all our fault can we secure the relationship to self that till now has eluded us.
To adopt a more loving stance toward ourselves—the key prerequisite for self-acceptance—we must come to realize that until now we've pretty much felt obliged to demonstrate our worth to others, just as initially we concluded that we had to submit to the judgmental authority of our caretakers. Our approval-seeking behaviors since then have simply reflected the legacy of our parents' conditional love.
Undertaking such a heartfelt exploration of what I'd call our well-nigh "universal plight" almost inevitably generates increased self-compassion. It's through this compassion that we can learn to like ourselves more, and view ourselves as deserving of love and respect by very "virtue" of our willingness to confront what previously we've found so difficult to accept about ourselves.
In a sense, we all bear "conditional-love scars" from the past. We're all among the ranks of the "walking wounded." And this recognition of our common humanity can help inspire in us not only feelings of habitually withheld kindness and goodwill toward ourselves but toward others as well.
To become more self-accepting, we must start by telling ourselves that given all of our negatively biased self-referencing beliefs, we've done the best we possibly could. In this light, we need to re-examine residual feelings of guilt, as well as our many self-criticisms and put-downs. We must ask ourselves specifically what it is we don't accept about ourselves and, as agents of our own healing, bring compassion and understanding to each aspect of self-rejection or denial. By doing so, we can begin to dissolve exaggerated feelings of guilt and shame, based on standards that simply didn't mirror what could realistically be expected of us at the time.
Becoming more self-accepting necessitates that we begin to appreciate that, ultimately, we're not really to blame for anything—whether it's our looks, intelligence, or any of our more questionable behaviors. Our actions have all been compelled by some combination of background and biology. Going forward, we certainly can take responsibility for ways we've hurt or mistreated others. But if we're to productively work on becoming more self-accepting, we must do so with compassion and forgiveness in our hearts. We need to realize that, given our internal programming up to that point, we could hardly have behaved differently.
To take ourselves off the hook and gradually evolve to a state of unconditional self-acceptance, it's crucial that we adopt an attitude of "self-pardon" for our transgressions. In the end, we may even come to realize that there's nothing to forgive. Regardless of what we may have concluded earlier, we were, in a sense, always innocent—doing the best we could, given:
That which, finally, determines the most problematic behavior is linked to common psychological defenses. It almost borders on cruel for us to blame ourselves, or hold ourselves in contempt, for acting in ways that at the time we thought we had to in order to protect ourselves from anxiety, shame, or emotional distress.
Embracing Our Shadow Self
As a kind of P.S. to the above, self-acceptance also involves our willingness to recognize and make peace with parts of the self that until now may have been denied or shunned. I'm referring here to our illicit or anti-social impulses—our shadow self, which may have spooked or sabotaged us in the past. Still, it represents an essential part of our nature and must be functionally integrated if we are to become whole. As long as we refuse to accept split-off segments of self, full and unconditional self-acceptance will remain forever out of reach.
When we're able to sympathetically understand the origin of these darker, recessive fragments, any self-evaluation rooted in them begins to feel not only uncharitable but unjust as well. The fact is that virtually everybody harbors forbidden impulses and fantasies—whether they entail brutally injuring someone we find obnoxious, exercising unbridled power over others, or running naked in the streets. When we're able to recognize this, we're also well on the way to accepting ourselves without conditions. Appreciating that however bizarre or egregious most of our "evil imaginings" are, probably little more than fantasized compensations for indignities, hurts, or deprivations we experienced in the past, we can now reconceive our "aberrations" as rather normal.
Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement
It should be apparent that self-acceptance has nothing to do with self-improvement. It isn't about "fixing" anything in ourselves. With self-acceptance, we're just affirming who we are, with whatever strengths and weaknesses we possess.
The problem with any focus on self-improvement is that such an orientation inevitably makes self-acceptance conditional. After all, we can't ever feel totally secure or good enough so long as our self-regard depends on constantly bettering ourselves. Self-acceptance is here-and-now oriented, not future-oriented. Self-acceptance is about already being okay, with no qualifications, period. It's not that we ignore or deny our faults or frailties, just that we view them as irrelevant to our basic acceptability.
Finally, we set the standards for our self-acceptance. And once we decide to stop grading ourselves, or keeping score with ourselves, we can adopt an attitude of non-evaluative forgiveness. In fact, once we refrain from our lifelong habit of assessing, and reassessing ourselves—striving rather to compassionately understand our past behaviors—we'll find that there's really nothing to forgive. Certainly, we can vow to do better in the future, but we can nonetheless accept ourselves precisely as we are today, regardless of our shortcomings.
I can't emphasize enough that it's possible to accept and love ourselves and still be committed to a lifetime of personal growth. Accepting ourselves as we are today doesn't mean we'll be without the motivation to make changes or improvements that will make us more effective, or that will enrich our lives. It's simply that this self-acceptance is in no way tied to such alterations. We don't have to actually do anything to secure our self-acceptance: We have only to change the way we look at ourselves. Changing our behaviors becomes solely a matter of personal preference, not a prerequisite for greater self-regard.
It's really about coming from a radically different place. If self-acceptance is to be "earned," a result of working hard on ourselves, then it's conditional. The ongoing "job" of accepting ourselves can never be completed. Even scoring an A+ in whatever endeavor we're using to rate ourselves can offer us only temporary respite from our strivings. For the message we're giving ourselves is that we're only as worthwhile as our latest achievement. We can never finally "arrive" at a position of self-acceptance because we've inadvertently defined our quest for such acceptance as everlasting.
In holding ourselves to such perfectionistic standards, however, we may inadvertently be validating how our own conditionally-loving parents dealt with us. But we're certainly not validating ourselves—or treating ourselves with the kindness and consideration our parents failed adequately to provide for us.
Only when we're able to give ourselves unqualified approval—by developing greater self-compassion and focusing much more on our positives than negatives—can we, at last, forgive ourselves for our faults, as well as relinquish our need for others' approval. No doubt we've made mistakes. But then, so has everybody else. And in any case, our identity is hardly equal to our mistakes.
Finally, there's no reason we can't decide right now to transform our fundamental sense of who we are. And we may need to remind ourselves that our various weaknesses are part of what makes us human. If all our faults and failings were suddenly to disappear, my pet theory is that we'd instantly turn into white light and disappear from the face of this planet. So in the pursuit of unconditional self-acceptance, we might even want to take a certain pride in our imperfections. After all, were we beyond criticism in the first place, we'd never have the opportunity to rise to this uniquely human challenge.
© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.