Would you chop down an orchard if you found one apple that wasn’t perfect? That’s what we do to ourselves when we don’t live up to our own rules about who we think we ought to be or how we should be. When you’re struggling in life, you may find yourself wishing you had ‘better self esteem’ or that you could be more confident. The real answer to this question is not to cut yourself down or pretend that everything is great, but to develop what we call self acceptance in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and REBT (rational emotive behavioural therapy).
Depending on where you are at, the idea of self acceptance can range anywhere from being something that eludes you from time to time, or may at another end of the scale even seem incomprehensible. People often come to therapy with the goal of raising their self esteem. I’ve written this article as it can be tricky to explain that seeking self esteem is not one and the same. I hope to explain why self esteem may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and why self acceptance through a practice of self compassion thinking and acting is a preferable way forward.
What is self esteem?
For many years, self esteem was seen as the positive way to boost feelings of confidence and wellbeing. However, researchers have found there are downsides to the pursuit of self esteem. Self esteem literally means ‘rating the self’. How do we rate the self? Well, naturally, we can and do rate ourselves positively or negatively depending on any given situation. But there are problems with this. When we rate ourselves, we subject ourselves to volatile fluctuations by basing our worth on the back of how well we have achieved or not. What happens when you don’t manage to achieve what you wanted to and you rate yourself as a total failure on the back of this? Your mood and confidence plummet.
Self esteem is conditional therefore as it relies on your performance and this doesn’t entirely add up. As early 20th century philosopher Alfred Korzybski described, “The map is not the territory”. Your performance is not the whole of you. An individual is so much more than the sum of their parts, and so rating our whole selves on the basis of an action, ore even a series of actions, is an unhelpful way of reassuring ourselves that we are worthy and good enough.
We are neither a totally unworthy person because we haven’t done something as well as we had hoped, nor are we a totally good person because we have done something well. We just are.
What’s self acceptance?
If seeking ‘high’ self esteem isn’t the preferred option, what is? The answer is unconditional self acceptance. Self acceptance begins with learning to accept yourself for being you, accepting you for who you are with your unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, your history and experience, the good, the not-so-good and the bad, your thoughts and feelings, and learning to see that in all of this heady mix, you have value, you are worthwhile, you are good enough. In spite of what you may have thought, felt or been led to believe through past experience, you are a complex, worthwhile and unique human being. While your actions may be rate-able, you are not. Unconditional self acceptance is a no-strings attached acceptance of your whole self.
This is a key concept in CBT. It is the expression of compassion towards yourself. It is understanding the human condition of fallibility and deeply acknowledging with compassion where you are at right now, and reaching the conclusion that wherever that is, you have done the best that you can. You have this in common with all human beings, struggling as best you can in the face of adversities in your individual life. Some of it you did not choose.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you will necessarily like everything that you find, but how does it help you when you struggle against this? Berating yourself for your mistakes or perceived failures keeps your threat levels high, and can lead to ongoing problems with anxiety, anger, depression. By all means you can change and improve on what you do, but essentially rating your self based on your actions is not too sustainable. Even if it works temporarily, it won’t work for long. It’s unstable and, when you think about it, not entirely logical. Rating your whole self in a positive or negative way is too subject to external circumstances which may be out of your control.
Albert Ellis, one of the early front-runners of CBT, describes acceptance as follows, “Accept that acceptance is largely compassion – for you and your self, for others and their self, and for the troubled world and itself.” He advocated compassion in global terms: compassion for self, others and the world. Acceptance of others’ differences or perceived ‘weaknesses’ doesn’t mean we like it, but that we are willing to meet people where they are with a willingness to understand. It leads us to feel emotionally better equipped to talk and resolve differences in a healthy way. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we can begin where we are. If we really want to change the world, we can start with ourselves by practising compassionate self acceptance.
How can we develop self acceptance?
What have you got to lose? Certainly if you believe that berating yourself and labelling yourself in a negative way gets you results, then you may fear self acceptance and compassion. But rest assured, self acceptance is not a soft option. Accepting yourself requires compassion. This in turn needs strength and wisdom and a desire to relieve your human suffering. Compassion means allowing yourself to feel difficult emotions and face up to difficult situations. Nobody said this was easy.
Perfectly imperfect, flawed but faultless
Self acceptance is a lifelong attitude to develop. You can make a start perhaps by thinking deeply on the fact that no human is perfect, every human makes mistakes, every baby is born with equal value. No baby is born thinking that they are not worthy or good enough, this is learned and what you come to believe through circumstance. You may begin to learn to accept yourself through remembering this. Perhaps the following thoughts will get you started…
Author, Alice Walker once wrote: “In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways and they’re still beautiful.” Imperfection is acceptable, beautiful even.
The Japanese have developed a craft known as ‘Kintsugi’ which means golden joinery or golden repair. Broken ceramics are repaired with a lacquer that is mixed with precious metals. The result is that the flaws in the pots become just a part of the history of the object, rather than something to be discarded or rejected.
There is a type of wood known as ‘Burr oak’. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The ‘burr’ that you find in this type of wood is actually a flaw in the wood caused by disease, but in reality many people find this imperfection in the grain to be the most attractive. Instead of the expected wood grain, there are unexpected variations in pattern which give unique texture and appearance.
In the end you have a choice. You can choose to develop a compassionate and nurturing relationship with yourself, or you can continue to give yourself a hard time, only conditionally accepting yourself. It takes a concerted effortful approach to changing your attitude to yourself. It may not be a goal you ever reach 100%, but a direction you can choose to take. As long as you are headed in the direction of self acceptance, you will begin to feel better about yourself. What is one small step you could take today towards accepting who you are?
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath, UK.