Center for Conscious Living

Unconditional Self-Acceptance: Beyond Self-Esteem

The debate rages:

  • Should a therapist help her clients to achieve high self-esteem?
  • What is self-esteem?
  • Must one have high self-esteem to flourish?
  • Is there a better way to achieve lasting happiness?

The answer to the above questions lies in determining what will work for you to promote euphoria and happiness. At the Center for Conscious Living, we believe the answer is Unconditional Self-Acceptance.

Self-Esteem vs Unconditional Self-Acceptance

Social scientists have been struggling for years to measure self-esteem. It turns out to be a rather elusive concept. In some measures, people high in narcissism, an immature form of self-love that essentially does not allow for the needs and feelings of others to be taken into account, score high on self-esteem. In other measures, people who pretend to have high self-esteem while actually harboring serious self-doubt and a sense of insecurity or worthlessness may score quite high in their attempt to defend their egos from insult. When we look instead at the concept of "unconditional self-acceptance", not only does the measurement become simpler, but the concept turns out to be highly useful in therapy. It turns out that seeking self-esteem can be a life-long pursuit and that changes in one's circumstances tend to lower one's self-esteem, whereas unconditional self-acceptance (USA), once defined and achieved, is stable over time. Thus, it is my contention that pursuing unconditional self-acceptance is a heartier and more useful concept than pursuing high self-esteem.

Acceptance Precedes Change

It is important to question whether this represents taking the easy way out. Am I selling my clients short by encouraging them to accept themselves as they are? Are they likely to stop growing and changing as soon as they accept themselves with those extra 20 pounds or the fact that they sometimes yell at their kids or the fact that they are chronically unemployed? Interestingly, no. It turns out that accepting a situation is the first step in achieving power over it. Thus, until you are able to look in the mirror and accept that holiday weight or confront the fact that you yelled at the kids again today or that you lost your third job this month, you are powerless to make a lasting change in your behavior. Unconditional self-acceptance does not mean resigning yourself to the status quo, but rather accepting things as they are with an eye toward improving what you can. Unconditional self-acceptance means accepting your SELF, though not necessarily condoning every behavior you perform. YOU are the same human being, fallible, imperfect, unratable, whether you weigh 140 or 160, though you might prefer the behavior of controlling your intake of food to the behavior of overeating. You are not in any way "bad" for choosing overeating over self-control, nor will you be "good" after you have lost the extra weight. Many people indeed end up engaged in self-hatred when they fail to achieve a goal or series of goals. Amazingly, when individuals stop rating themselves, but only their behaviors, they become less afraid to take responsibility for their choices and behaviors, since each behavior does not condemn them to some global label of "badness" or "worthlessness". They become much more able to change and grow.

Rate Behavior, Not People

Thus, in addition to the problem of clearly defining and measuring the concept of self-esteem, a more serious and practical problem is that it implies a form of self-rating. It is indeed logical and useful to rate one's behaviors as good-- "I did a good job on that paper", "I lost 4 pounds last month", I kept my temper all day today" or bad-- "I lost another job this week", "I gained 5 pounds over the winter", "I hit the dog yesterday", in order to determine which behaviors might be valid targets for improvement or deserving of encouragement. It is not, however, either useful or valid to rate oneself as good or bad. You are not a horrible PERSON because you hit the dog, though you might certainly prefer to find another means of discipline. You are not a good person because you lost that extra weight, though it is good that you chose a healthy behavior. People are never all good nor all bad. Thus, by avoiding rating them, we can discuss more accurately their behaviors and their potential for improvement.

Helping Children Develop Resilience

Yet another area in which the self-esteem concept runs into trouble is the application of self-esteem enhancement theory to education. The results of worrying ourselves more over the self-esteem of school children than their academic achievement are clear in ever-falling test scores. It is high time we looked at returning to the concept of schools as places for the enhancement of intellectual pursuits and home as the place for the development of self-image. If parents teach their children, via unconditional other acceptance, to accept themselves, and if parents focus on rating their children's separate behaviors when discipline is required, then children will have the resilience they need to survive poor grades or being bad at arithmetic. It is clear that the application of self-esteem to education has failed miserably, so it is time to return to a paradigm that worked well in the past.

USA in Therapy

Dr. Carol B. Low of the Center for Conscious living has been applying the concept of unconditional self-acceptance to the process of psychotherapy for years with promising results. It is indeed the case that when clients learn to stop rating themselves, but judge only their behaviors, they find the power and the motivation to change the problem behaviors. Dr. David Burns once said "I spent years finding my self-esteem, then I lost it while jogging one day." Indeed, once found, what good is self-esteem? Self-acceptance can be a structural support for growth and change for a lifetime.

Suggested Readings

Chamberlain, J.M., Haaga, D.A.F. (2001). Unconditional self-acceptance and psychological health. Journal of Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 19, 163-176.

Edelstein, Michael R. & Steele, David R. (1997). Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

Ellis, Albert (2005) The Myth of Self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever

Franklin, Richard L. (1993). Overcoming the Myth of Self-Worth: Reason and Fallacy in What You Say to Yourself

Hauck, P. (1991). Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond Self-Love, Beyond Self-Esteem

London, T. (1997). The case against self-esteem: Alternative philosophies toward self that would raise the probabiity of pleasurable and productive living. Journal of Rational Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 15, 19-29.

 Eat food, mostly plants, not too much!  -Michael PollanIn Defense of Food