People fear accepting all aspects of themselves and others. They worry they’ll get complacent, accept mediocrity, and lack the motivation to change and grow. From my experience, the acknowledgement along with the acceptance has the opposite effect. Once individuals genuinely accept themselves, they can work toward building their confidence and focus on more self-love and self-compassion.
The benefits of self-acceptance
Self-acceptance and self-forgiveness have been correlated with overall improved physical health and well-being. Those who practice self-acceptance have lower rates of anxiety and depression, despite external circumstances and stressors. Low self-acceptance increases oxidative stress. This increases free radicals in the body and possible imbalances regarding antioxidants, which in turn may cause cell or tissue damage which promotes disease and premature ageing. Practising and implementing self-acceptance is critical to satisfaction and stress reduction, which reduces anxiety and depression and helps mitigate physical challenges related to psychological stress.
Self-acceptance has been linked to an increase in positive emotions as it focuses us on our strengths and reframes our point of view. Kristen Neff, a premier researcher on self-compassion, shares that the practice of self-compassion can increase our well-being as well, by cultivating ‘greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behaviour, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.’ If instead of ‘I really messed up this time. I can’t do anything right,’ when someone doesn’t do well on a task, they practice self-acceptance, and the monologue becomes, ‘I tried my best. I’m disappointed, but I’m also human. I know I’m smart and capable of doing well in the future regardless of this less-than-ideal performance.’
Self-acceptance not only includes accepting what we like about ourselves or consider favourable attributes but also imperfect or less favourable attributes. It’s easy to fall into the self-criticism trap, to be hyper-focused, hung up on our ‘less-than-ideal’ parts and previous mistakes, or blame ourselves for misgivings. Self-acceptance says we are born enough, and as part of being human and having human experiences, we are perfectly imperfect.
In my new book ACE Your Life: Unleash Your Best Self and Live the Life You Want, I have developed the ACE Method for behaviour change to facilitate being our best selves and living the life we want based on the pillars of Acceptance, Compassion, and Empowerment. Acceptance is the first pillar by which to strive toward living the life we want.
12 Steps towards self-acceptance
There are productive steps to take to work toward self-acceptance.
- Step 1: Recognise your mind’s protective and nurturing nature. Acknowledge and observe that your mind is generally driven toward the negative. It’s a highly protective mind that keeps you hypervigilant and prepared for anything and everything that’s uncomfortable or dangerous. If it highlights the negative and is highly critical, then you’ll take extra precautions and secure your safety.
- Step 2: Identify when your mind is avoiding, denying, and cutting off. Notice that your mind may be proactively working toward blocking you from seeing the potential upside or positive results to avoid possible negative outcomes. It doesn’t want you to risk experiencing negative or uncomfortable emotions or self-perceptions. It makes strides to avoid disappointment, frustration, and sadness. It will also try to protect you from perceiving yourself as a failure, not good enough, and ineffective.
- Step 3: Notice the propensity to keep returning to the negative. Observe that when you’re willing to see things more flexibly and positively, your mind has a hard time holding onto it and draws you back to the negative, no matter how hard you try to stay open. That’s why, although challenging, it would benefit you to make concerted efforts to reel your mind back to being more expansive and hopeful. It doesn’t consciously mean to give you a hard time. It’s self-protective, and it takes its job seriously.
- Step 4: Be aware that you hold onto patterns of thinking and behaviour that are familiar and comfortable. This doesn’t mean they’re helpful or healthy. Our thinking and behaviours get etched into our neural networks and become part of our mapping and the way we function. Over time, there also may be secondary gain from holding onto certain patterns which reinforce the behaviours. For example, if I react angrily/aggressively, people respond to me, and I feel stronger and more effective.
- Step 5: Set an intention of being more open and curious about yourself, others, and the world around you. Shift paradigms to reflect curiosity, openness, and acceptance, rather than doubt, blame, and a need to be defended. This becomes the lens you see through, inhabit, and behave from in your everyday life. For example, with curiosity, instead of expecting and predicting negativity, you may ask, ‘What did she mean by that,’ ‘How did she reach that conclusion,’ or ‘When he acted that way, what could have compelled his reaction?’ By being open, you’re prompted to question and explore rather than defend against, judge, and criticise.
- Step 6: Be present with all the thoughts and feelings that show up. All your thoughts and feelings have value and deserve a space to just be. Our humanness dictates that we have an array of emotions and experiences. That’s what makes life unique and rich for each of us.
- Step 7: Identify the elements of change. Opportunities for growth exist even within difficult and stressful situations. Perhaps not exactly how you want things to be, but you have no choice but to cope with what is, not what it should/ought to/must be or how you want it to be. Your mind will often paint a bleak picture, suggesting you’re hopeless, helpless, and should just relent. You, not your mind, get to decide the direction you want to take.
- Step 8: Notice and celebrate you. We’re quick to identify our ‘flaws’ and all that is ‘wrong’ with us. It becomes confusing when we’re taught to not be too boastful or full of ourselves. We’re also not directly taught how to acknowledge, appreciate, and accept ourselves. It’s uncanny, if you search for love songs, you’ll find songs representing our love toward others. What about love songs directed toward loving ourselves? We’re just not conditioned to understand its importance. There’s a critical need to notice what’s wonderful and wholesome about yourself. Pay attention and notice it all. Throughout your day, you perform acts of kindness (including opening the door for someone, calling a sick friend, etc.), and expect it from yourself. Every single moment you lean into your best self is pertinent, and noteworthy, and helps you get better at accepting and appreciating who you are.
- Step 9: Forgive yourself for missed dreams, past mistakes, and failures. Part of self-acceptance is recognising we grow on every level – physically, psychologically, socially, and emotionally through our development. We do the best we can with the information we have at the time we make those mistakes. We understand ourselves better by examining the conditions at that time – what was instinctive/automatic (our thoughts, feelings, and actions), what our needs were, and what we believed about ourselves (such as lazy, mean, selfish, etc.). Our past regrets can help us learn so that we have a greater understanding of ourselves, our needs, and what we want for our future. Becoming more self-accepting necessitates recognising who we are and that our actions have been influenced by our background and biology. While we can take personal responsibility for ways we might have hurt or mistreated others, we also realise, given our internal programming, we behaved based on where we were during that time. It’s our task to construct a more fulfilling life going forward.
- Step 10: Cultivate a nurturing life and relationships. If you’re surrounded by perpetually pessimistic others who put you down or don’t support your ambitions, you’re likely to feel discouraged and not be your best self. Willingness to accept this behaviour is a clue to your mindset. If you’re around self-confident others, practice healthful behaviours, and live a valued life, then those are the meaningful characteristics you appreciate. Their positive influence promotes your personal growth and development. It brings out your best self and supports your healthful behaviours and aspirations. Create a support system based on the premise that you’re worthy, valuable, and deserving. An individual able and willing to interact with you from that premise is likely to enhance you and be a better influence.
- Step 11: Speak and behave on behalf of your best self. You are your most important ally. I always tell my patients, ‘The longest relationship you’ll have is with yourself, and it’s one you should take the most seriously.’ We need to nurture ourselves the way we want to be supported throughout our lives, the way we’d love and encourage our children or loved ones. Use encouragement. Be self-encouraging in your self-talk and behaviours. Act as if you were speaking and behaving toward someone you love. If you accept that you’re human, you’ll recognise you’re imperfect, and that you’re going to make mistakes. We all do. Our goal is to try our very best.
- Step 12: Commit to practising and not giving up no matter what. You deserve unconditional love. Recognise the need to demonstrate actions on behalf of your best self for your own sake. Because you’re fundamentally whole and worthy, despite your imperfections and humanness, commit to striving, to never giving up, no matter what. Commit to consistently questioning yourself as to whether you’re being led toward your values or away from them, and by the actions you’re taking, are you increasing or taking away from your confidence? In every circumstance, you can make mindful decisions, facilitate your personal growth, and be more self-accepting.
Invest in practising self-acceptance by bringing up thoughts, memories, or anything else that evokes uncomfortable emotions and incrementally learn to sit with it all. You want to work on acceptance all the time, even when you’re not particularly sad, anxious, angry, or stressed. This will benefit you so that you can apply it when you do feel any or all of those things.
There’s no end point to improving ourselves and our circumstances. It’s a lifelong process requiring effort to be made indefinitely. It is a state of mind and a state of being. We give up on anything we think of as having an endpoint once we reach our destination. But if you want to be engaged in a connected relationship, maintain good health, or continue learning, effort and commitment remain ongoing. You’re undoubtedly worth your time, energy, and effort.
Michelle Maidenberg, PhD is the founder of Thru My Eyes, a nonprofit that offers free clinically-guided videotaping to chronically medically ill individuals who want to leave video legacies for their children and loved ones.