We are all only human: beautiful but flawed creatures, simply trying to do our best.
Yet we too often hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and fiercely judge our failures while overlooking our accomplishments.
Self-acceptance involves taking a compassionate and more loving stance toward ourselves and accepting all parts of the self: the good, the bad… even the ugly.
Read on to learn more about the path to unconditional self-acceptance and how practicing self-compassion can help you to thrive.
This article contains:
What is Self-Acceptance?
Personality stays the same, and yet it changes over a lifespan. The ebb and flow of human experience come with social challenges and the development of a confident level of self-worth. Self-acceptance is a contributing factor in improved overall psychological wellbeing (Macinnes, Dl.L. 2006).
Self-esteem is more closely associated with psychological affect than self-acceptance. While it is an important piece in the global understanding of an individual, self-esteem does not alone create a psychological well human being.
Individuals are far too complex to be given a global rating. It has been found that humans who don’t rate themselves either with good or bad have a higher level of psychological wellbeing and move into lives that are flourishing.
Reactions to irrational beliefs result in negative emotions. Those seeking approval in a variety of areas may find discomfort when allowing feedback to fuel a self-rating. The Shortened General Attitude and Belief Scale is a test utilized for people experiencing psychological distress, as it illuminates the work of irrational beliefs.
Self-acceptance is the ability to see oneself as a whole human that includes virtues and flaws. It is valuing the self regardless of accomplishment or failure. It is the ability to effectively learn from mistakes, rather than allowing them to internally disrupt psychological wellbeing.
The ability to self-accept is essentially permitting yourself to be human. None of us is great at all things. None of us is terrible at all of them, either. Accepting what is, and not rating or self-punishing is a piece of emotional resilience that will improve wellbeing across ages, cultures, and genders.
Children need interventions in this area of emotional resilience more than most. With social media and society as a whole generating comparison and ratings for everything in their lives, no wonder rates of anxiety in children are soaring. Parents and teachers have an important role in guiding children toward a growth mindset, and to learn from their mistakes.
Adults living as models of self-acceptance is an excellent start to building children’s emotional resilience. Here are a few examples of ways to increase self-acceptance.
5 Ways to Build Self-Acceptance
Start with self-compassion. Kristin Neff’s research proposed that self-compassion was a healthy form of self-acceptance (Neff, 2003b). When you speak to yourself, imagine you are talking to your best friend. What you say to yourself matters. Self-flagellation is extremely harmful to your psychological wellbeing.
A good place to start practicing self-compassion is to practice forgiveness. Write yourself a letter to forgive those mistakes you’ve made, and forgive yourself for anything you’ve continued to punish in yourself. There are many more ways to work on self-compassion listed on self-compassion.org.
Learn from mistakes. Failure is a part of success. Adopting a growth mindset when facing errors and mistakes is a powerful place to learn. Understanding neuroplasticity and our ability to change our brains with effort, over time, can be very motivating.
The next time you make a mistake, have a look and say to yourself, “How fascinating. What could I have done differently?” Pay attention to the fixed mindsets that are present, as we all have them in different areas. Once you recognize the fixed mindset, you can then make the switch to thinking about learning differently.
Keep a list when you notice self-judgment and whole self-criticism. In two categories, see how these criticisms can later be shifted into acceptance. When you notice the habit, write it down. You may not be able to change in real-time until you’ve had the continued practice of doing so.
Healthy risk-taking is another way to build self-acceptance. To avoid humiliation, judgment, and negative personal feedback, many people make a conscious choice to “play it safe.” People with solid self-acceptance see opportunity in taking chances on unfamiliar things. What an adventure life can be when you gently nudge yourself in the direction of some new pattern.
Practice unconditional other acceptance as well. When interacting with others, try to see them as a whole human, as well. Permit them to mess things up once in a while too. Consider that most people are just trying to do their best—practice compassion.
6 Useful Tips and Activities
Self-awareness is one of the first steps in being able to self-accept. Getting in touch with the unique aspects that make you the special person you are is a great start.
Perhaps a look at VIA Strengths and qualities that are unique to your personality is a place to explore.
There are many aspects of ourselves that we can’t change. Tiny people will never be tall, and tall people will never be tiny. Fully accepting and even embracing these as gifts that are unique to you helps move you toward self-acceptance. Brown-eyed people will never be blue-eyed people, and that is fine. Letting go of what we cannot change is empowering.
Goal setting can be a helpful activity in which to engage for self-acceptance. Setting up realistic goals and celebrating when you’ve accomplished those goals is a booster for accepting what you can do with your whole self. Setting small goals and piling bigger goals on them as you progress is a pathway to personal progress (love that alliteration).
Find support in your daily life. You have fans. Embrace their helpful positivity and let their kindness fuel your positivity ratio. Every human can benefit from getting that ratio up to a 3:1 (Fredrickson, 2009). When positivity outweighs negativity, people can move toward lives that are flourishing.
Be mindful of perspective. Shift your thoughts to where a person is coming from when receiving feedback, whether positive or negative. A full view, or bigger picture, can then be obtained. If the focus remains inward only, emotional response will dictate behavior more than rational thought.
Popular Books on the Topic
1. The Strength of Self-Acceptance: Theory, Practice, and Research
It is incredibly useful to help others in building self-acceptance in various age groups. Backed by in-depth science, the book is a must-have for practitioners.
Available on Amazon.
2. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Her work on shame and vulnerability continues to mesmerize readers and motivate them to receive life wholeheartedly.
It has helped many overcoming “shoulding” and replacing it with accepting who they truly are.
Available on Amazon.
3. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha
The years of work by the author threads illuminating insight into the spiritual growth of its readers.
This work seeks to aid its readers in ending suffering by removing the personal unworthiness outlook.
Available on Amazon.
4. The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good” Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment
The book embraces the emotional agility it takes for self-motivation and full acceptance of the human experience. Negative happens, but it’s how we perceive the negative that matters.
Available on Amazon.
Find a list of the best self-compassion books here.
A Note on Teaching Self-Acceptance in Schools
Kids are under a great deal of pressure. Self-judgment, peer judgment, parent judgment, societal judgment…it is overwhelming, negative, and having a massive impact on our youth. Education is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and teaching kids self-acceptance should be part of the tapestry for teaching in all grades.
You can probably agree that we’ve all heard the messaging that we’ll be losers or failures if we don’t get the best grades, to compete for the best college, to compete for the best jobs. This route works for some. For others, getting stuck in a wheel of high achievement leaves them flat when they realize they’ve never learned self-acceptance.
Helping kids get into a true growth mindset will help them to realize that they are great in their unique way. Showing kids their strengths and guiding them on a pathway that maximizes those strengths, while also helping them to accept their flaws, will fuel resilience.
There is a noted difference in the attribution of a failure between males and females (Dweck, 1975). Boys tend to attribute a lack of effort to failure, where girls tend to attribute failure to lack of ability. This leads to the importance of teaching girls self-acceptance, though both will benefit from the message.
Teachers should create classrooms that embrace mistakes. When failure is an effective place to learn, less anxiety and self-judgment will be present in the classroom. When teachers offer ways for children to express their emotions fully, they will more likely be able to bounce back from setbacks. They are also more likely to communicate with others effectively.
Guiding kids in having less judgment toward themselves and others is a helpful note to bring into the classroom. Teaching kindness and compassion to replace judgment helps every student in showing up as a version of the higher self. Celebrating strengths and acts of kindness can help kids move into a different mindset when interacting with their peers.
5 Exercises for Students
Here are a few self-acceptance boosters to offer students (Benard, 2012b).
- Start the day with a positive mindset holding yourself in high regard and knowing that no matter what happens, you will accept yourself.
- Pat yourself on the back when you have completed something difficult. Do not take yourself for granted!
- Have a positive and open attitude about change – change of job, house, and friends.
- Think back to the last time you succeeded at doing something hard to do and remind yourself: “I’ve done hard things before; I can do this now!”
Self-Acceptance Self-Talk is a great exercise to help students increase their self-acceptance. Here are a few examples.
- “No matter what, I accept my whole self.”
- “It’s usually better to be liked by others, but I can accept myself even when facing criticism.”
- “I accept who I am, even though I may not like some of my traits or behaviors.”
- “My performance at school, perfect or otherwise, does not determine my worth as a person.”
Perfectionism leads to burnout. It would be awfully crowded at the top if everyone was the best. Self-acceptance of personal abilities reduces chronic stress. An interesting study in the UK (Jowett, et al., 2016) on elite soccer players showed the importance of self-set achievement standards. When the pressure to perform is weaved with self-worth, the failure to achieve leads to depression, anxiety, and burnout.
An exercise to ensure that the motivation to achieve is intrinsically motivated is by utilizing open-ended questions. Coaches, teachers, and parents using this exercise can come to a deeper understanding of the child’s experience. You’ll know how committed they are to their personal achievement. You’ll help them avoid burnout by reducing extrinsic pressure to achieve.
For children at a younger age, the Cool Corgi story (free PDF) is a great way to teach an impactful lesson about self-acceptance.
Once the story has been read aloud to the students, follow it with these questions. Emphasize the lesson of self-acceptance, which means accepting both positive and negative qualities.
About the story:
- What did Rusty like about himself?
- What didn’t Rusty like about himself?
- What did Mama Corgi suggest about accepting himself?
Make it personal:
- What are some things that you like about yourself?
- Is there anything you would like to change?
- If there are things that you don’t like about yourself, does that make you unlikable?
- What things can you tell yourself when you’re acting like Rusty?
A powerful lesson for kids of all ages is countering self-downing. This is a habitual pattern of thinking that happens when facing adverse events (e.g., humiliation, rejection, failure). A natural instinct for children is to think, “Because I failed, I’m a loser, or I’m a failure.” when encountering negative events.
To help kids avoid their own negativity bias, you can help them set a new path toward self-acceptance by adopting new thinking habits through choice.
Start the lesson by having the kids close their eyes and ask them to raise their hands to this question, “How many of you have made a mistake in your lifetime?” If you don’t have a smart aleck in the group, all hands will be up. Have them open their eyes to notice that all humans make mistakes.
Have them close their eyes again and ask, “How many of you enjoy feeling down?” You should have no hands raised. Again have them open their eyes and look around.
Explain what self-acceptance means. Explain that your lesson is about having confidence, even when having a rough day.
Have the group come up with a definition of confidence. (Things like not being afraid to fail, not judging oneself harshly, having self-trust that success is possible.) Have kids self-identify their positive and their not-so-awesome characteristics.
Reinforce the fact that positive characteristics do not get erased when something negative happens. Describe an emotional scale, degrees of feelings. Using a bit of humor, come up with a scenario that made you feel down. (eg. I got called a jerk by four students this morning, and that made me feel….)
Something happens, you think about what has happened and attach negativity to your character; the result is feeling down. The scale gives you a measure of how far down the feelings have gone, the bottom being a loss of confidence.
Have kids create three separate lists:
The first is what happened (examples of negative scenarios).
The second is what they were thinking about themselves after what happened (e.g. “I’m dumb” “I’m a failure etc.).
The third is giving the “feeling down” a measure from the scale.
The purpose is to show them that thinking about their whole self and allowing the loss of confidence can be countered.
Hopelessness doesn’t make logical sense, just because not-so-awesome characteristics are present. Our whole selves require both the positive and not-so-awesome. Self-acceptance requires both.
Explain the complexity of the whole self. Replacing irrational, negative thoughts is hard work but results in increased confidence. Have the kids fill in the blanks in the following questions for themselves. Instruct them that “I don’t know” and “nothing” or any derivation thereof are not acceptable answers.
I am good at…
I could use some improvement in…
One of the best things about me is…
One thing I would like to change about myself is…
Other people tell me I’m good at…
Other people say I need to improve at…
One very good thing I’ve done is…
One mistake I’ve made is…
Have kids self-develop a radar for self-downing, and an antidote for when they notice it occurring.
“Even though that thing happened, I am still capable and likable because…”
Here we share 25 different ways to increase self-acceptance. It’s adaptable for adults and children. Applying this useful information helps improves confidence.
This tool for Embracing Your Humanness can help overcome self-criticism and move people into a healthier space of self-compassion.
This tool for Non-Judgmental Reflection helps to move people from irrational thoughts into more rational and self-accepting thoughts.
Most people are more cruel to themselves than they would be to any other human. This tool helps get you replacing your inner critic with your inner best friend.
This helpful tool gives practitioners the ability to reframe self-criticism in real-time.
When your negativity bias is too strong, it might be hard to accept compliments graciously. Here is a tool to help step into receiving compliments.
Self-rating is detrimental to your psychological wellbeing. This tool helps to constructively evaluate behavior instead of rating the self.
So many people struggle with worthiness. This tool helps to clarify that self-rating is an illusion that can be incredibly unhelpful to the whole self.
This tool helps to unravel the importance of personal standards in how we understand ourselves. Our lifetime experience created these rules and fully understanding which personal standards actually serve us, and which no longer do, is incredibly helpful.
In addition, The Science of Self-Acceptance Coaching Masterclass introduces a new, science-based method for understanding and applying positive psychology to effectively help people to create a more accepting and satisfying relationship with themselves.
A Take-Home Message
Self-acceptance is freedom from suffering. Giving yourself the full and unconditional permission to be human opens you up to thoughts and feelings as adventures, rather than self-punishing patterns.
Irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions are limiting to personal development and achievement of the good life.
Thanks for reading!
- Bernard, M. (2013) The Strength of Self-Acceptance. Australia: Springer Science & Business Media
- Dweck, C. S., & Gilliard, D. (1975). Expectancy statements as determinants of reactions to failure: Sex differences in persistence and expectancy change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(6)
- Fredrickson, B. (2009,) Positivity. New York: Random House.
- Jowett, G. E., Hill, A. P., Hall, H. K., & Curran, T. (2016). Perfectionism, burnout and engagement in youth sport: The mediating role of basic psychological needs. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 24, 18–26.
- Macinnes, D. L. (2006). Self-esteem and self-acceptance: an examination into their relationship and their effect on psychological health. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 13(5), 483–489.
- Neff, K. (2020, Feb 5). Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/.
- Neff, K. D. (2003b). Self-compassion: an alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102.