Unconditional Self-Acceptance: The Core of Elevating Your Sense of Well-being

You can’t walk down a bookstore self-help aisle without seeing the words self-esteem plastered across flashy covers. It’s become a catch-all phrase that lands somewhere between “confidence” and “self-respect”, and we all hear adages and quips about what we should base it on and where it should come from. The way many use the term — “Increase your self-esteem!” or “He has low self-esteem” — makes us wonder, how do I increase this, or why is it so low? And based on who’s metric? Where’s the esteem-o-meter we can use to look at ours?

But what if there was something flawed about the way many look at self-esteem? What if these assumptions come from a warped understanding of what being confident and comfortable with yourself can look like? I think that is, many times, the case.

The truth is, I don’t believe its healthy to “increase self-esteem” through many of the ways people recommend. It’s not a high score, and it doesn’t work like a thermometer does. Self-esteem shouldn’t go up when you buy a new skirt or car, or when you do well on a test, or when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and like what you see. Self-esteem shouldn’t go down when you slip up or perform poorly. Confused? Let me make my case.

The Dangers of Self-Esteem

At first glance, it may seem harmless for a compliment, new purchase, or accomplishment to serve as a self-esteem booster. But deeper, a problem persists. Look at what that line of thinking implies. If I accomplish something, I deserve to be confident in myself. If I am complimented, I can feel positively about myself. If I buy something new, that has societal value, I am valuable. And, what about the flipside? Do you not deserve to feel confident, positive or see value in yourself if you don’t do those things? Are you less valuable or have less worth if you don’t do those things, or do them less often?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s these hanging questions, these implications, that make the idea not just flawed, but dangerous. Instead of a concept of self-esteem that slides and derives its strength from accomplishments or other external factors, I stand behind the usefulness of a concept popularized by Albert Ellis and his contemporaries.

Unconditional Self-Acceptance

Let’s explore the validity of determining our, or anyone else’s “worth”. That’s essentially what we’re doing when we’re using external factors to affect our self-esteem. We’re evaluating how we feel about ourselves, and what we’re “worth” and how much “value” we have, when we feel assured in ourselves only after an accomplishment and crummy after failures. However, without removing the happiness of a win or the disappointment of a loss, we can understand that our external happenings don’t really determine our worth — because it truly is impossible to wholly put a value on someone. This kind of thinking is also painful, because as humans, we all make mistakes, and when we inevitably do so, it will make us feel like we’re worth less.

Instead, we can accept, unconditionally, that we have value just by merit of being human. And this value doesn’t change based on our perceived wins and losses. It would just be flawed if that were the case, and on top of that, it would make us feel crummy for no good reason because it is inevitable to make mistakes. Giving ourselves permission to self-accept, all of the time, unconditionally helps us relieve the pain of living captive to an overbearing mindset of avoiding mistakes at all costs. Accepting ourselves fully doesn’t mean delusion or hellbent stoicism; we can feel proud after our victories and disappointed after losses, but the concept of our “worth” or “value” being measured is thrown out the window to our benefit.

Photo by Chela B. on Unsplash

So, if you’re currently struggling with what others may call low self-esteem, explore why you feel that way? Are you attaching the way you see yourself to some yardstick that doesn’t need to be there? Do you think you’re valuable? In my eyes, you are, by merit of being human!

For more information about unconditional self-acceptance, check out this great piece by Dr. Kate Siner here: https://katesiner.com/the-path-to-unconditional-self-acceptance.

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Marissa Abram, PhD

Educator, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Addiction Researcher and Founder of Strategic Wellness Management.