Self-Acceptance: Overview and Practice
THC Editorial Team June 15, 2021
- What Is Self-Acceptance?
- Importance of Self-Acceptance
- Causes of Low Self-Acceptance
- How Can You Tell If You Have Low Self-Acceptance?
- How Is Self-Acceptance Used in Therapy?
- How Can You Develop Self-Acceptance?
In part, people struggle with self-acceptance because it often involves a long-term commitment to self-understanding and nonjudgmental perspectives. But people also struggle to understand what, exactly, self-acceptance is.
So, how would someone know if they accept themself? The answer to that question is more important than many people realize.
What Is Self-Acceptance?
One of the classic definitions of self-acceptance was published in the American Educational Research Journal in the 1970s.2 It explains that self-acceptance is
- being cognizant of one’s strengths and weaknesses;
- being able to appraise (subjective as it may be) one’s talents, capabilities, and general worth; and
- being satisfied with oneself despite shortcomings and past behaviors and choices.
Although popular understandings of self-acceptance sometimes focus on passively acknowledging your traits or actions, psychologists suggest that genuine self-acceptance is a more active process: it involves embracing who you are in the present without conditions, exceptions, or qualifications.3 This practice is vital, and many health professionals consider self-acceptance to be a key component of good mental health and a prerequisite for anyone who wants to create positive change.3
Some people readily embrace their positive traits but struggle to accept their more negative characteristics. A common misconception about self-acceptance is that it involves acknowledging negative qualities without leaving room for future change.
Instead, true self-acceptance involves “seeing yourself as worthwhile, and valuable, because you exist, you are unique, with specific strengths and weaknesses” and “accepting yourself in spite of your achievements, flaws, and whether people approve of you or not.”4
Is Self-Acceptance the Same as Self-Esteem?
A popular topic for academic discussion among psychological researchers has been the comparison of self-acceptance and self-esteem. In general, self-acceptance has been viewed as having more positive mental and emotional health outcomes than self-esteem.4 Some researchers, such as Lora Park and Jennifer Crocker, have even suggested that pursuing self-esteem can be detrimental. In a 2004 study, they noted that “long-term costs often outweigh the short-term emotional benefits of pursuing self-esteem.”5 This makes self-acceptance a more worthwhile goal because reliance upon self-esteem indicates that a person is still judging and evaluating themself, as opposed to simply accepting themself.6
Why Is Self-Acceptance Important in Your Life?
Self-acceptance has long been seen as pivotal to mental and emotional well-being, and psychologists have found correlations between self-acceptance and the acceptance of others.7 For example, Carl Rogers and fellow noted psychologist Abraham Maslow placed substantial emphasis on self-acceptance, with Rogers suggesting that self-acceptance improves relationships between people.4
Writer and popular psychologist Brené Brown said, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”8
When people lack self-understanding or acceptance, they may feel out of place or fall into negative thinking more easily. A 1996 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants who saw acceptance as unconditional viewed both successes and failures with acceptance, while those who saw acceptance as contingent reacted to failure with terms of rejection.9
When someone with a low level of self-acceptance assesses a condition like their financial situation, they might only see extensive debt, low income, and limitations that arise from financial problems. As a result, they might berate themselves for being a failure.
However, people who exhibit high levels of self-acceptance understand that their perceived deficiencies, like access to or lack of material wealth or other conventional markers of success, do not define who they are as a person or affect their worth.10 Instead, they objectively assess their failures and faults and avoid value judgments. They can also better develop self-compassion and self-love, which help them enact positive change when they seek it. Once people can see and acknowledge their qualities, including their faults, they’re better equipped to make meaningful progress in life.
For instance, if the same person described above had a high level of self-acceptance, they might realize that the number in their bank account does not reflect their value in the world. Instead of berating themselves, they might simply acknowledge their present circumstances and then enact a plan to implement goals or habits that would lead to an outcome they consider more rewarding.
Ultimately, a nonjudgmental perspective is healthier than constant self-appraisal and can help prevent lower self-esteem from affecting one’s self-worth.11
Psychologist Tara Brach urges people to pursue this approach as soon as possible and notes that “we don’t have to wait until we are on our deathbed to realize what a waste of our precious lives it is to carry the belief that something is wrong with us.”12
Causes of Low Self-Acceptance
There are numerous reasons that a person might experience low self-acceptance. A low socioeconomic status can cause low self-acceptance for adults, and women tend to have slightly lower self-acceptance and self-esteem than men. The most considerable influence, however, is parents. Parents who make acceptance seem contingent on certain factors lead to children, and later adults, who struggle with unconditional self-acceptance.13
Working too much can also lead to low levels of self-acceptance in both people described as workaholics and their children. A 2009 study of 347 college students conducted by Christine M. Chamberlain and Naijian Zhang found that workaholics experience lower self-acceptance and psychological well-being. Those who perceive their parents to be workaholics experience the same.14
How Can You Tell If You Have Low Self-Acceptance?
Many individuals struggle with low self-acceptance. If you feel this way, you are far from alone.
Although “low self-acceptance” is not an official diagnostic category in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition; DSM-5), it can still be evaluated. John M. Chamberlain and David A. F. Haaga developed the Unconditional Self-Acceptance Questionnaire (USAQ), which asks people to rank how often certain statements surrounding self-acceptance are true on a scale of 1 (almost always untrue) to 7 (almost always true). Some of the statements are listed below: 6
- Being praised makes me feel more valuable as a person.
- I feel worthwhile even if I am not successful in meeting certain goals that are important to me.
- When I receive negative feedback, I take it as an opportunity to improve my behavior or performance.
- I feel that some people have more value than others.
- Making a big mistake may be disappointing, but it doesn’t change how I feel about myself overall.
If someone determines that they are struggling with self-acceptance, they may wish to seek support from psychological therapy.
How Is Self-Acceptance Understood and Used in Therapy?
Professionals generally agree that self-acceptance is important and closely linked to both well-being and mental health conditions. It can even affect your brain—those with low self-acceptance have been found to have less gray matter in the parts of the brain that control emotions and stress. As such, they tend to experience more stress signals in their brains.3
Within therapeutic practice, therapists often focus on helping their clients develop self-acceptance. In particular, they help clients identify, acknowledge, and accept their positive and negative attributes. They also help clients separate understandings of their traits from notions of their self-worth. For example, a 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Muria Kudus in Indonesia determined that cognitive behavioral therapy helped the participants, adolescent orphans, achieve greater self-acceptance. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps clients change their perspectives about themselves, reframing the negative, false views they hold about themselves to more positive views to increase self-confidence. In this study, participants reframed statements such as “I cannot succeed” into “I’ll be successful because everyone has a right to if we just make an effort.”15
How Can You Develop Better Self-Acceptance?
Therapy is a highly effective tool to help foster self-acceptance, but it is not the only method; you can work on your own to cultivate it. The pursuit of self-acceptance is not something that can be accomplished overnight. Because our psyches are formed over time, any attempt to undo or correct negative patterns and mindsets may take a while as well.16 However, specific actions, including those that listed below, may help you cultivate higher levels of self-acceptance.
A key component to learning self-forgiveness is realizing that people cannot move backward in time and change past failures or mistakes. Instead, one healthy way to approach thinking about the past is to simply accept it, learn from it, and move forward.17
People typically make the best decisions they’re capable of making at the time. While they might make a different decision now, it’s essential to realize that even mistakes can result in a positive lesson.
Notably, forgiveness is not a free pass for problematic behavior. Rather, it means accepting and owning past mistakes, embracing the freedom to make new choices, and shedding self-defeating attitudes when mistakes are made.
Tune Out the Noise and Practice Mindfulness
Busy moments in life can overwhelm us and prevent us from recognizing how much self-talk occurs in our thoughts all day.
Mindfulness, however, offers us a way to pay attention to the thoughts that pass through our minds regularly while tuning out unnecessary cognitive noise. The key to mindfulness is to simply observe and allow thoughts to pass by—without judging them. Additionally, mindfulness enables us to consider and shift between multiple perspectives, allowing us to reframe a position of low acceptance (e.g., “I am a failure”) to one of high acceptance (e.g., “I made a mistake, but I am still a worthwhile person”).18
Mindfulness meditation can be a helpful practice to develop. Try downloading an app that teaches mindfulness or finding a guided meditation video online.
In time, we may realize that some of our persistent thoughts are hurting our life and that self-awareness—a core component of self-acceptance—is more beneficial than we probably realized. Becoming aware of these negative thought patterns is the first step to changing them.19
Welcome Any Feelings That Arise
Some people try to avoid uncomfortable realities and negative feelings. However, avoiding feelings does not necessarily dispel them.
An alternative way to deal with emotional difficulties is to welcome all feelings, good or bad. It might be uncomfortable dealing with unpleasant emotions at first, but it’s a necessary part of the process. When someone represses negative emotions, it requires emotional effort and resources that leave them depleted and unable to dedicate those resources to other tasks.20
Thought-provoking questions such as the following may be helpful for this activity: What can I learn from these feelings? How can I turn these negative emotions into positive ones?
Perfection is a fruitless pursuit and an unattainable goal, and chasing it can harm one’s mental health. A 2003 study involving 94 students found that both perfectionism and depression were negatively associated with unconditional self-acceptance. The authors noted that because perfectionists’ self-worth is contingent upon their perceived successes and failures, they are prone to “psychological distress” when they fail or perceive themselves as having failed.21
Let the reality that no one is perfect sink in and reflect on this question: If no one is perfect, why should anyone attempt to hold themself to that standard?
One helpful way to cognitively reposition supposed imperfections is to view them as characteristics that make each person unique. Another option is to internalize the idea that imperfections do not define a person’s success.
Letting go of the pursuit for perfection will allow you to breathe and to let go of some of the pent-up stress you have been holding while thinking you can never make a mistake.
Although comparisons are a recipe for disaster, they are a trap that is easier than ever to fall into in a world full of social media. A 2016 study of 267 Facebook-using college students found that those with low self-esteem were more likely to compare themselves to other Facebook users and more likely to perceive more social comparison on the site.22
Rather than looking at others and comparing ourselves, we must look in the mirror and realize that our lives are our own and inherently valuable—uniquely ours and incomparable to anyone else’s. Try taking a break from social media for days or weeks and see how it makes you feel.
Practice Relaxed Awareness
Relaxed awareness is the state of consciously considering the thoughts that pass through your mind rather than pushing them away. This can involve not focusing or being attached to certain thoughts. Be aware of how you respond to yourself, but don’t hold on to these observations too tightly. You can practice this by closing your eyes and noticing your thoughts without dismissing or altering them, even if they are negative.23
Make a List of Strengths and Weaknesses
Take some time to sit down and think deeply about your qualities. As you do this, start to list what you consider to be your strengths in one column and your weaknesses in another. Once you’ve written as many as you can recall, practice looking at the list without judgment. Instead, read each list item and simply acknowledge it for what it is. This information will help you develop a nonjudgmental perspective of your qualities and character.
Continue Your Work Through Journaling
Keeping a journal may help you continue to get to know yourself. Simply writing down your feelings and thoughts can help foster honesty and intimacy within yourself.24
Additionally, there is a strong correlation between self-acceptance and gratitude. Starting a gratitude journal, where you put conscious effort into writing down the things you are thankful for, can help improve your self-compassion and self-acceptance.25
Build a Support System
A network of supportive people to be there for you can make a considerable difference in developing self-compassion. Support from your social circle can help protect you from stress and, according to research, can lead to less likelihood of exhibiting depression-like symptoms.26 Your friends and loved ones who accept you unconditionally can mirror the self-acceptance you are working to achieve.
Practice Positive Self-Talk
Positive affirmations, or statements and mantras that are motivating and uplifting, can help cultivate self-acceptance. They encourage happiness, hopefulness, self-esteem, and positive attitudes.27
Repeat statements like “I have the power to change my mind”; “I love myself for who I am”; “I forgive myself for any past mistakes”; “I am capable and strong, and I will get through this”; and “I’m a deserving human being.” Self-criticism and self-hatred can be overcome by positive self-talk.
Perform Charitable Acts
Volunteering in your community to help others can have a substantial effect on your self-image while helping someone else at the same time. The act of helping others can improve one’s mental health and life satisfaction and increase healthy behaviors.28 Consider volunteering at a nursing home or signing up to coach a children’s soccer team.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and each person is encouraged to do further research to get more information on self-acceptance practices, but implementing these tips is a good start. The key is starting sooner than later.
There’s a good reason that self-acceptance has been called “the foundation of mental health and well-being.”29 The lens through which we see ourselves is the lens through which we see the world, and self-acceptance can determine whether that lens will be positive or negative.
Trying some of the self-acceptance practice tips listed above will undoubtedly be beneficial, but if someone feels like they need more assistance or information, they should always feel able to ask for help. An experienced therapist can help individuals identify problematic issues, build healthy solutions, and better understand themselves.