“How often are you kind to yourself and think you're fine as you are?”
That’s the question researchers from the University of Hertfordshire posed to 5,000 people in an effort to measure how often people practice the 10 science-backed habits that lead to happiness.
This particular question measured self-acceptance, and its average answer led to a shocking discovery: Of the 10 habits, self-acceptance is the one most likely to lead to overall life satisfaction-but it is also the habit that people practice the least.
So if you weren’t able to answer that question with a hearty, “all the time!” you’re certainly not alone.
Self-acceptance is hard to practice, but it is not impossible. I combed through the research and spoke to therapists and coaches and found that you can improve your self-acceptance. That’s what we’ll go over below.
But first, let's make sure you and I are talking about the same thing.
The American Psychological Association defines self-acceptance as “a relatively objective sense or recognition of one’s abilities and achievements, together with acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s limitations. Self-acceptance is often viewed as a major component of mental health.”
To really understand self-acceptance, let’s further break down that definition.
It says it is a “relatively objective sense” of your “abilities and achievements” and your “limitations.” To gain an objective sense of yourself requires self-awareness. You need to be able to look at yourself and see what’s going on in there, both what you’re capable of and what you’re not yet capable of. You need to see your true self.
That brings us to the “acceptance” part. Once you’re aware of your abilities and limitations, what does it mean to accept them?
Well, the opposite of acceptance would be to deny their existence. For example, you might be aware that you struggle with ---, but you might then choose to push it away or pretend it isn’t there. That isn’t acceptance.
Acceptance also is not deciding that something is good, or even bad, for that matter).
Acceptance is simply seeing something that is there and saying, “Yes, this exists. This is a part of me. This is true.” You don’t have to love it, and you certainly don’t want to hate it-you just acknowledge its existence rather than suppressing it.
This is a great question! The main difference between self-acceptance and self-esteem is that accepting one’s self is a more balanced affair, while esteeming one’s self is about increasing positive perception.
In contrast with its definition of self-acceptance, the APA defines self-esteem as “the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person.”
Where self-acceptance looks at both the positive and negative aspects of the self, self-esteem looks only at the positive.
If self-acceptance involves looking at your limitations, while self-esteem looks only at your abilities and accomplishments, you might be wondering why self-acceptance is important at all. Wouldn’t it be better to focus only on the good aspects of yourself?
Well, no. If your goal is to improve (which, if you’re reading this, it probably is), then you need an objective picture of yourself.
On top of that, focusing only on the positive parts of yourself is to deny the very human part that all of us have. We all have shortcomings and blindspots. That doesn’t make us bad at all. That makes us human, and it’s a cause for great hope because it means we can improve.
Below are some scientific studies that prove why self-acceptance is important for mental health.
Psychological wellbeing is related to mental health and is about feeling optimistic and positive overall. Self-acceptance is a core component of psychological wellbeing.
In a study published in Psychological Reports, Marcus Rodriguez and colleagues found that self-acceptance was negatively related to perceived stress. This makes sense. When you accept yourself, you’re no longer fighting yourself, berating yourself or wishing you were someone else (all stressful things!). You’re okay as you are.
In a study of UK nurses, researcher D.L. MacInnes found that self-acceptance was linked with general psychological wellbeing. MacInnes went on to suggest that interventions that "encourage more unconditional self-acceptance... would therefore be helpful in raising the general psychological health of clients." This research was published in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing.
By the way, if you need help overcoming self-sabotage, boosting self-esteem and feeling more positive, F4S offers a free Vital Wellbeing coaching program. In this completely online program, you’ll receive personalized coaching and be able to track your progress.
While yes, having a healthy self-esteem is a goal we all would benefit from, self-acceptance is actually a step we must take before we can like ourselves. First, we must accept ourselves as we are, both the abilities and the limitations. Then, and only then, can we begin to like ourselves. Trying to like yourself before you even know what you’re made of, or trying to like yourself while denying your blind spots, will get you nowhere in the long run.
For anyone who’s ever binged on a box of cookies or gone on a shopping spree because you had a hard day at work-self-acceptance can help you. In a series of five studies, researchers Soo Kim and David Gal found that self-acceptance helped people cope with their shortcomings in healthier ways. If they were able to accept their deficits, they were more likely to work to improve them because they didn’t see them as indicative of their self-worth.
Some research suggests that accepting yourself as you are (both the positives and negatives) is actually more likely to motivate you to improve than esteeming yourself (focusing on your positives and not your negatives).
In one experiment published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, participants were asked to recall a recent transgression that they felt bad about committing. Then, one group was told to write about that transgression in a compassionate way, “expressing kindness and understanding” (self-compassion condition), while the other group was told to write about positive qualities about themselves (self-esteem condition).
After that, the groups were asked to rate how much they agreed with certain statements that indicated how likely they were to commit the transgression again and how committed they were to improving themselves. The researchers found that the self-compassion group, the ones who are accepting of their errors, were more motivated to right their wrongs and avoid making the same mistake.
Perfectionism often comes from an inability to accept yourself as you are. Think about it: If you can’t embrace your imperfections, you’ll fight them tooth and nail by berating yourself for failures and trying to change yourself. Self-acceptance, then, can be an antidote to perfectionism.
Now that you’ve seen the amazing mental health and wellbeing benefits of self-acceptance, how can you work on increasing it? Let’s go over some ideas below.
Before you can accept yourself as you are, you need to see yourself as you are-and this requires the skill of self-awareness. F4S has a helpful article on how to increase your self-awareness that can be a great starting point.
As a health educator, Brooke Nicole, MPH, likes to use the acronym V.I.P. to help clients increase their self-acceptance. It works as follows:
A small study on people who stutter concluded that resilience seems to be a buffer against low self acceptance, as in, the most resilient you are, the more accepting of yourself you tend to be. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Fluency Disorders.
In the same way that self-acceptance is being nonjudgmental of yourself, mindfulness is being nonjudgmental of your thoughts and feelings. You notice, but you do not judge (just like you do with accepting yourself).
Mindfulness meditation can be a helpful practice for boosting your unconditional self acceptance. Cheryl Jones shares a helpful 15-minute guided meditation for self-acceptance on Mindful.org.
All of us have an internal dialogue going on throughout the day. Some of it’s positive and helpful, while some of it leads to negative thoughts and is hurtful. To boost your self-acceptance, start taking stock of your self-talk to see where you stand. Are you helpful to yourself more than you’re hurtful?
Life coach Karissa Singh has her clients do this exercise for two weeks: She paid attention to and wrote down what she was telling herself. By the end of the two-week period, her client was shocked to find just how critical she was of herself.
“She stated that she felt like a bully to herself and that she would not tolerate another person treating her that way,” Singh says. “It took a little practice to shift into self-talk that was nurturing. Writing down compassionate responses helped. Once she got used to it, she reported feeling more positively. She was able to hold space for her imperfections.”
Unsurprisingly, negative self talk leads to negative feelings. To try to gain self-acceptance, Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC, Ph.D., recommends using positive affirmations on a daily basis. She gives the following examples of affirmations:
She’s seen this exercise work for her clients in improving their self-confidence and self-acceptance. “They were able to replace their negative internal dialogue with positive affirmations and use that to feel worthy and valued,” Gulotta explains. “Practicing by adding visual reminders of affirmations around the home also has helped individuals to become more self-aware and consistent.”
Eventually, you can shift your negative thinking into positive self talk.
For some people, positive affirmations don’t work. If that’s you, Luis Maimoni, LMFT, has an exercise that might help: Instead of repeating affirmations, challenge your inner critic, which Maimoni refers to as “The Voice.”
“Do you feel embarrassed when someone says something nice about you? That's The Voice telling you you're not worthy,” Maimoni explains. “Do you ever feel like you're not qualified to do the things others consider you expert in? That's The Voice telling you you're an impostor. Are there projects you can't get started on? Or never finish? That's The Voice telling you that you have to be perfect.”
The key, then, is to start figuring out what the inner critic is telling you-and then find evidence that proves it wrong. “Once you know what The Voice is telling you, you'll know what to say back to it,” he says.
An example of this is a 20-year-old client of his who struggled with self-acceptance. “He didn't like the way he looked,” says Maimoni. “He didn't believe he was a good person. Despite his talents, he felt he was a ‘so-so’ performer.”
Maimoni worked with this man to identify what his inner critic was telling him.
“One by one, we challenged The Voice's messages,” he says. “Gradually, over time, he came to understand that they weren't true. As his belief in himself recovered, he found it easier to be motivated, easier to follow through, easier to stay focused. He found time to start working out again. He's making new friends. Best of all, he's looking for a new job and getting solid interviews.”
On your journey to self-acceptance, you may come across something you see as a weakness that you want to improve. But you don’t want to let that perceived weakness cause you to spiral into negative self talk. To keep yourself motivated, Toronto-based Registered Psychotherapist Jhanelle Peters, who is the Mental Health Clinician for the Toronto Raptors, suggests asking yourself the following questions:
“Our mind has a way of running to the negative side that makes us doubt ourselves or brings forth a great deal of judgment,” Peters says. “These questions help you challenge those thoughts to explore how you care for yourself, love yourself and most importantly, accept yourself.”
Another way to ensure you don’t let your areas of improvement turn into shame-inducing weaknesses is to focus on more positives than negatives. Carrie Krawiec, LMFT, recommends using a 5:1 ratio: For every one negative aspect of yourself that you find, identify five positives about yourself.
“Negatives weigh us down and make us feel guilt, shame, inadequate or imperfect,” says Krawiec. “Positives and acceptance make us feel light like feathers, which is why you need more to offset the negativity.”
So the next time you identify a blind spot, before you begin thinking of a way to work on it, identify five strengths that you have. In fact, you can even use those strengths in your plan for improvement. Leaning into your strengths will help you feel empowered, rather than helpless.
If you want to be more accepting of yourself, clinical psychologist Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., recommends asking yourself the following: “What do I want? What do I prefer? How can I take care of me?”
“As we become clear on wants and preferences, we are respecting ourselves, self-validating, and therefore, increasing self-acceptance,” he explains. ”Getting clarity on what you want increases psychological antibodies and makes you more self-accepting.”
So take out a notebook (or a laptop!) and start writing down your wants and your preferences.
Of course, we can’t discuss self-acceptance without discussing the physical aspect of it. Many people struggle with body image, and our society’s obsession with celebrities and altered Instagram photos certainly doesn’t help.
“In the age of social media, it is easy to create ridiculously unrealistic standards for what we think we physically should look like,” says personal style mentor and confidence coach Yolandie Hamilton.
In her line of work, she is all too familiar with this problem. “I have had clients tell me that they were putting off working with me because they wanted to wait until the number on the scale was smaller, for example.”
So what self-acceptance exercise does she give her clients? Hamilton tells them that the next time they see a photo of someone who has a physical feature they want-fuller lips or smoother skin, for example-redirect their attention to something they have in common with the person.
“For example, seeing a woman with smooth skin, focus on the similarities in eye color instead,” Hamilton suggests. “Then, stand in front of a mirror and say, ‘She has beautiful eyes, and I have beautiful eyes. I like my eyes and how they help me see the wonderful world around me.’ This puts them mentally on the same level as the person they have pedestalized.”
In your journey to more self-acceptance, you don’t have to go it alone! Consider working with a life coach who specializes in helping people accept themselves where they are. With an outside, objective party, you’ll be able to see from a new perspective and realize strengths you didn’t even realize you had. Plus, it helps to be able to bounce your ideas off of someone who has professional experience and who won’t judge you.
Coaching isn’t cheap, and because of that, it’s, sadly, not accessible to everyone. F4S hopes to make that easier by making coaching free through our AI-powered app, Coach Marlee. We’ve got a Vital Wellbeing program that can help you work on your self-acceptance. Through nine weeks of pointed questions and accountability check-ins, Coach Marlee can help you feel better about yourself and live your best life. Give it a try today!
Perhaps after reading about self-acceptance, you can take that trite truism to heart: “You’re only human.” Being human means having incredible capacities and inevitable shortcomings. Being able to say, “I’m okay with that, and I love myself anyway” is huge.
Imagine not beating yourself up for honest mistakes (which we all make) or comparing yourself to someone else (which we all do, but it never gets us anywhere good).
Imagine being able to look at yourself and see areas for improvement and not feel bad about it, but excited to get started on doing the work.
Imagine feeling inner peace.
With unconditional self-acceptance, you’ll be unstoppable. But most importantly, you’ll be the most you you could possibly be. And that is something worth celebrating.
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