10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 8 - Self Acceptance

Welcome to the eighth step of your 10 steps to self esteem.

ACTION POINT! Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start.

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Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.

Søren Kierkegaard

At the heart of good self esteem is self acceptance. And self approval.

If you can’t accept yourself, you certainly can’t approve of yourself.

But if you can and do accept yourself, you shouldn’t always approve of yourself (unless you are some kind of paragon who never does anything wrong and never ever makes a mistake – which is unlikely).

In a nice mix of metaphors, I’m stepping out on a limb and flying in the face of the mainstream self help ideology out there that proclaims that we must all ‘love ourselves unconditionally’. I think that this ‘dogma’ confuses acceptance and approval, and this confusion is actually harmful.

Approval needs to be conditional – whether directed toward yourself or others.

‘Self approval’ can really only come about as a ‘by product’ of both

  • striving to live up to your own standards of behavior and

  • being reasonably tolerant and accepting of your ‘humanness’.

The idea that we should ‘love ourselves whatever we do’ (meaning without criticism) might be alright for deluded tyrannical dictators, but not for civilised people.

It really contradicts all common sense.

The right dose of self approval

In Step 6 I talked about how everything in life needs to have the right dosage. I said that it’s the height of simplistic thinking to assume that, just because a bit of something some of the time has a good effect, then lots of that something all of the time must be desirable.

A healthy dose of self approval, some of the time, can help make you a rounded, motivated, realistic and stable person.

Too little self approval can make you unrealistically down on yourself.

Too much self approval can render you tyrannically arrogant and self-important!

You might have heard of ‘affirmations’. Maybe someone’s recommended that you repeat to yourself daily how wonderful you are, over and over, as a way of brainwashing yourself into ‘loving yourself’. Unfortunately for those who advocate this approach, it doesn’t work for low self esteem. In fact, repetitive, mechanical self approval in the form of the self-affirmation actually makes people with pre-existing low self esteem feel worse about themselves.

The pitfalls of positive affirmations for people with low self esteem

Use of self affirmations was first popularised back in the 1920s by the French psychologist Emile Coué. He recommended people repeat to themselves daily the phrase:

Every day in every way I’m getting better and better!

Many self help gurus still recommend we use such affirmations to bolster our self esteem. But a major research study published by the American Psychological Association in 2011 found that those who try to boost their self esteem by telling themselves they’ve done a fantastic job, when they haven’t, risk feeling more depressed and dejected instead of better about themselves.

In another study, both high performers and low performers felt fine when they assessed themselves accurately.

If we think about why this might be, we can immediately see that

  • the high performers could feel good about how well they’d done

  • the low performers could feel good because they could recognise that they had room for improvement

“Across all the studies, results showed that those who rated their own performance as much higher than it actually was were significantly more likely to feel dejected,” 

co-author Chi-Yue Chiu, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

A separate Canadian study found that those with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. They found that phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people who already had high self-esteem, and then only slightly. The psychologists then asked study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves. They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The need for calm when raising self esteem

When we are too ‘full of ourselves’, whether through

  • unrealistic self aggrandisement or

  • unrealistic self chastisement

Our constructed sense of ‘who we are’ gets so far removed from reality that it prevents all objectivity, and we fail to see ourselves accurately.

So improving self esteem isn’t a superficial exercise in chivying ourselves along with lots of praise.

Calm, objective, self assessment is better for genuine self esteem than deluded ‘bigging yourself up’.

True self esteem needs to be grounded in reality. And true self esteem includes a level of tolerance of one’s own weaknesses that allows for – and actually encourages – the possibility that, by our own efforts, we can sometimes turn those weaknesses into strengths.

To raise self esteem so that you can naturally feel more approving of yourself, you need to develop some very real skills.

The avoidance of shame

Low self esteem often generates a sense of shame in people. Shame just for existing.

Of course, to feel shame when we have done something genuinely shameful isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having a sense of shame over bad behavior can help us avoid such bad actions in the future.

The occasional burst of embarrassment or flush of guilt demonstrates that we

  • care about our effect on others

  • are capable of empathy and

  • have standards for ourselves.

But if we allow shame and self disapproval to run riot, fixing the negative focus exclusively on who we are rather than what we do, or attaching itself to actions that in reality are reasonable and forgivable, then we are ‘using’ self disapproval in the wrong way.

Self approval needs to be based on reality; you need to know when you have done well. You need to have your own interests at heart.

Self disapproval should be attached (appropriately) to what you do, not to what you are.

What is self approval really for?

Nature has endowed us with a strong desire to learn, and when we learn and master something new our brains reward us with a feel good sensation.  This natural reward makes successful learning satisfying, even fun.

Once we have mastered a skill, however, the pleasure centres of the brain no longer offer the same level of reward for that particular activity unless something changes, like we progress to a higher level of skill, or acquire a new technique. It’s as if the brain is pushing us to continuously learn and improve.

So when you first play a tune all the way through on the piano, or bake a successful cake, it feels pretty good. But when you do it all the time, the pleasure centres of the brain are no longer stimulated as much. Now you need new challenges, new things to learn.

So self approval for what we have done well is fine, as long as we can move on from it and keep making progress. It’s there to inspire us to do well again, at another level, or in a different area.

Low self esteem can disrupt this useful feel-good feedback by making us:

  • question it too much: “Anyone can do that – it’s nothing special!” or

  • apply perfectionism: “Yeah, but... I can’t play it perfectly... and it’s just one piece!”

To be fair to ourselves, we need to be able to register when we have done well. Link doing well to what you do. Actions make you who you are.

Exercise • The register

Do you know how to tell when you have done well? Think of things you have done, recently or in the past, which you can recognise were well doneMake a list in your notebook.

If you find it hard to think of examples, ask yourself questions like

What can I do now that I couldn’t do before I did X...?

What can I do better now than I was able to before I did Y...?

What do I know now that I didn’t know before I studied Z...?

What have I done that has made a positive difference to someone else?

What have I done that has made a positive difference to me?

Don’t play your achievements down, or pretend they were ‘really nothing’, or compare what you’ve done with others (see Step 5).

Give yourself the approval you have honestly earned.

Improving emotional intelligence and other life skills

A healthy brain needs to be stretched and therefore to have lots of opportunities for you to feel you’ve done well.

Perfectionists often come to avoid learning new activities because of the discomfort they feel of not doing something ‘perfectly’ straight off.

This is a trap.

Learn with humility.  Expect not to be able to do everything perfectly straight away. This will develop your resilience and determination. Learn as much as you can. Take classes – read, use your brain and acquire all kinds of knowledge.

Think about this: Self esteem and self approval should be the healthy result of real effort and progress in the world.

What are your core strengths?

When you accept yourself, you look at yourself as you are.

Low self esteem makes us see ourselves through a distorted lens, so that we fail to see and appreciate our good qualities, our strengths.

People with low self esteem often think they must be ‘the worst person in the world’. If you think about this properly for even one minute, you know that it’s ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as thinking that you are ‘the best person in the world’.

When you accept yourself, you can see that you have strengths and positive qualities, and you also have weaknesses and failings.

You may have been concentrating pretty exclusively on your weaknesses up until now, but now it’s time to pay attention to your strengths...

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You have core strengths as a person, whether you know it or not. Perhaps you have some of these strengths:

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It can be a little hard to think about these things in the abstract. For example, if you think about ‘practicality’, you might tell yourself that you don’t have that strength. But if you look at stuff you do, that you never labeled before, you might see that you’re good at fixing things – mending plugs, doing repairs – or organising things – sorting out things or making plans at home or at work to make life run smoother. These kinds of activities would show that you do have practicality.

Another example might be that you feel very shy and reserved in company, and so not likely to say much, which might seem to you a negative quality. But someone who is talking to you might find you an excellent listener who is sensitive and sympathetic. So you would be demonstrating ‘empathy’.

So one way to check out for yourself what ‘core strengths’ you may have is to just reflect on the ordinary things you do, the ordinary situations in which you find yourself, and to ask yourself what positive attributes show up in your actions and behaviors.

Those positive attributes point to your core strengths, and show you the kind of qualities you can develop in yourself.

Exercise • Core strengthening

Pick a few strengths that most closely match what you are like from the list (or from ‘off list’)

(1) Recall a time when you demonstrated each strength and write a sentence or two linking what happened with the core strength.

For example, you might recall a time you felt bad about something but still managed to do what you needed to do. So you might write a sentence like

When my uncle died, my mum wanted me to speak for the family at the funeral. I was terrified I would make a mess of it, but I knew she was counting on me. I used my courage to get up and do it.

In this way you will be practicing self acceptance and self approval based on real events.

(2) Imagine a future time when you’d like to use your core strengths. Write a sentence about such a time.

For example

I plan to use my physical strength and my determination to take part in a charity fun run next month.

(3) Identify one or two qualities you want to develop in yourself. Write a sentence or two about how you would use those qualities.

For example

I’d like to develop my powers of imagination more, so I can make up great stories for my kids.

Progress indicators

  • you can recognise your strengths as well as your weaknesses

  • you acknowledge when you have done well

  • you don’t down play your successes to yourself

  • you use shame or guilt appropriately, to help yourself ‘do better next time’, and no longer wallow in them

  • you actively start to focus on learning new skills and knowledge (including mastering the contents of this course)

  • you feel able to feel a fair pride in what you do

I think you’ll agree that this has been a ‘corker’ of a step. It has been a long one, but important and worthwhile.

In Step 9 we’ll be looking at developing your identity so that you feel strong (or even stronger) in who you are.

Until next week.