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 arrows. Those 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.
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.