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, limitations, and foibles, 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 (or getting on better terms with ourselves) 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. And it\’s precisely because self-acceptance involves far more than self-esteem that I see it as crucial to our happiness and state of well-being.

What Determines Our Self-Acceptance (or Lack of Shame) 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–that is, 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 totally okay and 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, identifying ourselves with these objectionable behaviors, we inevitably came to see ourselves as in many ways 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. And this tendency toward self-criticism is at the heart of most of the problems that, as adults, we unwittingly create for ourselves.

In other words, 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, chastised, or physically punished, we\’ll somehow contrive to continue this self-indignity. So when (figuratively, at least) 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. This is hardly to say that 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 positive, 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–and, especially, our peers, who (struggling with their own self-doubts) could hardly resist making fun of our frailties whenever we innocently \”exposed\” them. At any rate, 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 in some way defective. It\’s as though we all, to whatever degree, suffer from the same chronic \”virus\” of self-doubt.

. . . So How Do We Become More Self-Accepting?

Accepting ourselves unconditionally (despite our deficiencies) would have been almost automatic had our parents conveyed a predominantly positive message about us–and, additionally, we grew up in a generally supportive environment. But if that really 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.\”

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 till 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 (misguided or not) 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. And it\’s through this compassion that we can learn to like ourselves more, and to view ourselves as deserving of love and respect by very \”virtue\” of our willingness to confront (and struggle against) 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 (repeatedly and– hopefully–with ever-increasing conviction) 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.

The famous French expression, \”Tout comprendre, c\’est tout excuser\” (literally, \”to understand all is to pardon all\”) is a dictum that we ought to apply at least as much to ourselves as to others. For the more we can grasp just why in the past we were compelled to act in a particular way, the more likely we\’ll be able both to excuse ourselves for this behavior and avoid repeating it in the future.

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–and in most cases, should–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 (whether actual or perceived). In the end, we may even come to realize that there\’s nothing to forgive. For regardless of what we may have concluded earlier, we were, in a sense, always innocent–doing the best we could, given (1) what was innate (or hard-wired) in us, (2) how compelling our needs (and feelings) were at the time, and (3) what, back then, we believed about ourselves.

That which, finally, determines most problematic behavior is linked to common psychological defenses. And it almost borders on the 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 generally.

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by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.