Much of the field of mental health seems intent on understanding self-image problems in terms of low self-esteem. It logically follows that a solution is to work toward increasing self-esteem. This makes sense on the surface. When people have high self-esteem, they usually feel better about themselves. From my clinical experience, however, increasing self-esteem is a temporary solution because it perpetuates the underlying problem: an irrational philosophy of self-rating. I suggest the key to a healthier self-image is self-acceptance, not self-esteem.
My first mentor, Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), pointed out that self-esteem doesn’t work very well because it is based on the conditional philosophy, “I like myself because I do well and I am approved by others” and, conversely, “I dislike myself because I do not do well and I am disapproved by others.” This philosophy might work fine if one were always successful and always approved of by others. But that’s not how the world works. Each of us is a fallible human being who cannot always do well and be approved. Nevertheless, humans not only rationally prefer success and approval but irrationally demand it.
How is it people buy into such a self-defeating philosophy? The short answer is because we are human. For good reason, human beings value success and approval. We get along better in life when we do well and are approved by important people in our lives, such as parents, relatives, friends, and teachers.
However, problems arise when we escalate our healthy desires for success and approval into absolute demands. Significant people in our lives, who have also adopted the demand for success and approval that is ubiquitous in our culture, explicitly and implicitly teach us these ideas. In the absence of those who have taught us these harmful messages, we indoctrinate ourselves through a process of self-learning whereby we internalize these beliefs and attach them to countless events in our lives.
Popular culture is replete with examples of the erroneous philosophy of self-esteem. The song “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” sends the erroneous message that self-worth is contingent on love from other people. In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”
In these and innumerable other examples, self-esteem rises and falls based upon externals. And you’re still likely to feel anxious even when you succeed so long as you are demanding approval and success because there is always the chance you might fail. Albert Ellis used to tell me that if the Martians came to earth and saw us humans, imperfect by nature, demanding perfection, they would die laughing.
The key to a healthy self-image is self-acceptance, not self-esteem, because we are all imperfect and therefore cannot always do well and win the approval of other people. Self-acceptance can help reduce self-defeating anxiety, guilt, shame, shyness, avoidance of social situations, procrastination, and other self-defeating emotions and behaviors. So, how does one go about working toward self-acceptance when our culture seems intent on boosting self-esteem?
A starting point is recognizing that we largely create our feelings. Much of psychology has erroneously taught us that the past as well as present-day events are mainly responsible for our feelings. Although these factors may play a role, it is largely our thinking about external events that contribute to our feelings.
This is a major insight, but perhaps the greatest insight of all is that insight is not enough to change long-held patterns. It takes hard work, persistence, and practice to change self-defeating beliefs and habits. This is especially true when it comes to changing the philosophy of self-esteem to self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance involves taking a profound philosophical stance against self-rating. While there is value in rating our traits, qualities, and performances, self-acceptance means not assigning a global rating to the one’s self. It could be said, then, that the healthiest ego is no ego. Do not give up aspiring to do well and winning the approval of others. Humans generally get along better in life when they succeed and are approved. Self-acceptance is about recognizing that you are a process, not a product.
Self-acceptance can also help individuals develop a capacity for healthier love relationships. We often hear the adage, “You can’t love someone until you learn to love yourself.” By applying the principle of self-acceptance to other people, we can learn to reduce anger and blaming. This does not mean stop holding others accountable. Instead, it means remaining sensitive yet assertive.
Adopting a philosophy of self-acceptance requires action. It involves replacing old patterns with new, more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. Again, significant change often requires hard work. Don’t be surprised if despite your best efforts you fall back to rating yourself. When this happens, remember that you can always choose to accept yourself.