Accepting Ourselves, Accepting Our Lives

Our entire life — consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.

— Jean Anouilh

The Death of Self-Esteem

Helen’s face launched 1000 ships, and I used to think that was impressive.

But that was before I heard that a single bad idea — just one bad idea — had launched 15,000 scientific and scholarly studies.   Fifteen thousand?  According to some quick calculations, it would take over seven years to read a stack of 15,000  studies — assuming you could read one each standard business hour.

In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon published a paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”  He argued that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”  His ideas soon became the hot new thing in education, and they launched the self-esteem movement.

The now dead self-esteem movement.

Killed by 15,000 arrowsThose 15,000 studies show that high self-esteem (.pdf):

  • Doesn’t improve grades,
  • Doesn’t reduce ­anti-social behavior, and may even facilitate bullying,
  • Doesn’t deter alcohol drinking or drug abuse, and may even encourage it,
  • Doesn’t reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, and
  • Doesn’t make a person more likeable or attractive to others.

“In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly (source).”

The Most Significant Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance

If the reports are true that the self-esteem movement is dead — and I am only repeating here what I’ve read — then it will be interesting to see whether folks also reject a closely related concept.  The concept of self-acceptance.

Although self-esteem and self-acceptance are by no means the same thing, they seem to be closely entwined in a lot of people’s minds.  So if one of them gets thrown out, maybe the other one will too.   And that would be folly.

The biggest difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance is that, while self-esteem is not necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal, self-acceptance is necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal.  It’s possible for self-esteem to be out of whack with reality.  There is no rule that says you must be highly intelligent to possess wonderfully high esteem for your intelligence.

On the other hand, you can truly accept yourself only to the extent you are realistic about yourself.  If I accept that I’m a genius, but I’m actually the village idiot, then I am not truly accepting myself.  To genuinely accept myself, my acceptance must correspond to the facts.

That is quite a significant difference between the two things.

Who Are Your Friends?

If you want to know who your truest friends are, you should ask yourself who encourages you to accept yourself as you are.  For it is all but the very mark of true friend that he or she encourages that in you.   Yet,  most of us have few friends of that caliber.

We seem to need them, though.

One Reason Why We Do Not Accept Ourselves

There appear to be several reasons why we do not always accept ourselves as we are, but I will only discuss one here.

The single most forceful reason seems to be the one noted by Jung: Accepting ourselves can be terrifying.

Perhaps we now and then try to take advantage of those we love, or who love us.  Maybe we are arrogant, or maybe we are more foolish than we wish to be. Sometimes it is nothing others think we should worry about, but which disturbs us.  And sometimes it is something that would destroy our social standing with everyone but our truest friends — if it got out.  How often in our lives have we wanted to kill someone?  How often have we wanted someone’s possessions?

To completely accept oneself is like completely accepting nature.  You do not accept nature when you accept only the beauty and not the stench.  Nor when you take sides with the fly against the spider, or the spider against the fly.

A while back, my friend Don was on his way to work when he noticed a commotion in the timber beside the road.  He pulled over and watched as a doe frantically tried to distract a black bear from killing her fawn.  The bear had two cubs to feed, and the doe was unsuccessful — her fawn’s life ended that day.

When I asked Don what he thought of it, he didn’t say it was right.  He didn’t say it was wrong.  He said he felt awe, humility, and an acceptance of his own mortality.  To accept yourself is sometimes more difficult than watching a bear tear apart a fawn to feed her cubs, but the principle of refusing to condemn remains the same.

A Persistent Myth About Accepting Yourself

It is a myth that accepting yourself — even your so called darkest side — leads to acting on your every impulse.  We are taught that we must condemn certain feelings or impulses or we will end up acting on them.  But that appears to be nonsense, and we would see it as nonsense if we were not too afraid to look.

Humans sometimes use condemnation to control themselves — even though it is a relatively ineffective means of self-control (e.g. why are we so hypocritical?).   But more often we use condemnation to control others.  It’s one of our ways of manipulating people.

You’ll find it easier to accept yourself if you do not condemn others.  And easier to accept others if your do not condemn yourself.

Yet, it is possible that no one but your truest friends will accept that you do not condemn your “darkest impulses”.  The rest of the world is reluctant to give up that means of manipulating you.  Yet, if you are a healthy person, you will discover you have plenty of reasons not to act on that impulse to steal money from your aunt’s purse — even without condemning your desire to do so.  You will feel empathy for your aunt.  You will have compassion for her.  You will not wish to do an unkind thing to her.  And so forth.

Liberation

There can be a remarkable feeling of liberation that comes with simply accepting yourself.  It is not the liberation of one who has decided he or she is free to pillage, but the liberation of one who is no longer wrestling with him- or herself, who is no longer wasting energy on internal feuds.

I doubt self-acceptance ever catches on as a movement in the way that self-esteem did.  And if it ever were to become popular, then it would quickly be made into a slogan for why you should join the Army, buy this or that car, or vote for a scoundrel.

All the same, it seems to me that when someone says they don’t like life, then about half the time, the root cause of their dissatisfaction is an unwillingness or an inability to accept themselves as they are.

17 thoughts on “Accepting Ourselves, Accepting Our Lives

  1. I completely agree with you that “The biggest difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance is that, while self-esteem is not necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal, self-acceptance is necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal. It’s possible for self-esteem to be out of whack with reality.” But, does acceptance force us to live with the negative aspects of ourselves? By this I mean, if accept my flaws, does that mean that I cannot or should not try to change my flaws? Of course, some things can’t be fixed, but some things can?

    Thanks for another thought provoking post.

    • That’s an excellent question, Lisa!

      I suppose one way to address your question would be to ask what would make something a flaw? Is it a flaw because others feel it is a flaw? Or is it a flaw because we feel it is a flaw? Sometimes those are very hard to distinguish because most of us tend to internalize what others think — at least, others who have been important to us. Hence, we don’t always know whether we think something is out of place because others have told us it is a flaw or because we ourselves feel it is out of place.

      There’s a strange thing that tends to happen, though, when you understand something about yourself without judging it, without condemning it. If it’s something that’s out of place in you, it has a tendency to come to an end. But that’s not the case, so far as I’ve experienced, when it is merely something others have told you is a flaw in you.

      • Ah, interesting. So it is possible that we only perceive things as flawed in relation to outside perceptions, therefore our flaws may not really need fixing, unless we choose to change something because we want to. So, for example, I choose to work on losing weight for health and happiness reasons, not fit some ideal image of what society names as beauty.

      • Right. In my experience, it’s a bit like this. I accept myself as I am, without praise or condemnation. If there is a contradiction, the contradiction tends to resolve itself. For instance, if I am overeating out of boredom, then once I see that — see it without praising it or condemning it — I will tend to quit overeating out of boredom if that is incompatible with the real me, so to speak.

        It can be very difficult in practice to see yourself without praise or condemnation. Very difficult, but it can be done. I think it usually requires meditation, though.

    • Lisa, I think your question goes to heart of that distinction between accepting the existence of a flaw and accepting the flaw itself as something that does not require correction. Acknowledging a flaw is not always possible– because it’s not always bearable– outside the context of forgiving oneself for one’s imperfections. So, acceptance of the entire self, including that flawed part of it, is typically necessary before a person can decide what to do about that flaw.

      I also think that self-acceptance is what allows a person to say, effectively, “I have this flaw. I believe I will always have this flaw. Although I will make an effort to overcome it, I accept that I may not always succeed.” When a person cannot accept the possibility of occasional failure, the specter of failure may loom too large for that person to look beyond it and attend to the flaw in some manner that avoids many instances of failure. So, self-acceptance need not be an exercise in moral laziness. On the contrary, self-acceptance may be an indispensable prerequisite to self-monitoring, self-growth and self-control.

  2. Is it self-esteem or self-entitlement? Well meaning parents &/or teachers that push self-esteem may do so out of balance, forgetting to teach that self-esteem does not indicate self-entitlement. How many young adults do we meet who think they are the cats meow and because they are a bag of chips and all that, deserve what they want, when they want simply because it’s not self-esteem they’ve been taught but self-importance &/or self-entitlement? Just thinking out loud.

    • I think that’s a fascinating distinction between self-esteem and self-entitlement, Zoe. I am not sure how much difference there is in practice between teaching someone an inflated view of themselves and teaching them a sense of entitlement. But I’m short on sleep — which might be why I don’t immediately grasp it.

  3. The e.e. cummings quote is one of my favorites. I agree with you about self-acceptance, Paul. But it can be very difficult for some people to know who they are, much less accept it if they are trapped in a manipulative environment. Thanks for the deep thoughts this morning!

    • People trapped in manipulative environments can wind up extraordinarily confused about who they are. My second wife was abusive, and it took me several years after I left her to sort out everything.

  4. I think both you and Zoe are onto something here. When the push for self-esteem began it was meant to teach people that they had value. Having value as an individual and feeling all of your importance are two entirely different things. Self-importance says, “I deserve this or that just because I am”. Value says, “I’m not worthless, I have two hands and a brain, and I can use them to get somewhere in this life”. That smug sense of entitlement is unattractive and arrogant. Self-worth is confident and self assured that one can make a positive contribution. Self-acceptance is an important factor in the latter. Entitlement rejects the negative aspects of your personality, whereas self-worth demands full acceptance of who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. Just my two-cents worth.

    • Entitlement rejects the negative aspects of your personality, whereas self-worth demands full acceptance of who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are.

      Very well put. I’m in full agreement with that.

  5. Great, thought provoking post, Paul.

    Alas, the self-esteem movement is not completely dead. As early as yesterday, I heard an advertisement about a product which could teach your baby to read, with one of the benefits being that your child would have improved self-esteem. That just goes to point out how right you are in saying that if self-acceptance caught on, it would be used in sales pitches.

    As Lisa touched on a little above, I think there can be a dark side to self-acceptance, to where it becomes almost better described as self-settling. That is, an acceptance of the way you are without any drive to improve yourself or your conditions. For example, “my dad was an abusive alcoholic, and his dad was an abusive alcoholic, so I am just going to accept that I will be an abusive alcoholic. I accept that about myself.”

    I am thinking that the key to healthy self-acceptance is an acceptance of your strengths and weaknesses, yet stopping short of defining yourself as “this is the kind of person I am.”

    As Ophelia said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
    “Lord we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

  6. Something else that Jung discussed was the human proclivity to project whatever we do not accept about ourselves onto other people — and then beat those other people up, attitudinally and verbally if not in physical reality.

    I see people who have bags of self-esteem, at least on the surface, but zero self-acceptance; writ large, this is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, one of the “abusive disorders” as it has been phrased by another survivor of a severely abusive ex-wife.

    I’m beginning to think that everyone should experiment with writing fiction. I don’t know if I’m a model of mental health, but as far back as my junior high school years I remember writing a nasty, manipulative, ruthless character into a bad piece of fantasy fiction and thinking lucidly: “She is me.” I had just been treated rather meanly by someone whose friendship I wanted, and a desire to punish them for it was pretty vivid in my mind, which went directly into the character and her role int he story. But several of the nicer characters were clearly also me, to an extent, so I shrugged at said, “Okay, so she’s me. Whatever.” I regret to report that satori did not occur instantly, but it made me think at an early age about how many people we actually are in our apparently unitary bodies and lives, and how we have to achieve a truce between them all to remain capable of our best.

    I also got whacked with a strong dose of American Puritan Ethic, sufficient to make me feel “self esteem” had to be earned by accomplishing something worthwhile, or as I used to articulate it, “justifying having been born.” I admit to being pretty damn hard on people who don’t seem to be making an effort in that direction. But, oh well, work in progress.
    .

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