Self-Esteem versus Self-Acceptance
A common misconception is that the assessment of a person's competence and ability is equivalent to a value judgment of the worth of the actual person. Any self-esteem that results from such an identification is a house built of cards that may instantly collapse, when the next action is judged as wrong, incompetent or stupid, and the person therefore as "less worthy".
A more logical, realistic and beneficial approach to the individual is an unconditional acceptance of the core Self. The essential worth of an individual is unarguable, but the personality, the adaptive ego, may carry along maladaptive behaviors like tin cans trailing behind it.
The individual and his learned and practiced behavior patterns or beliefs, are not the same thing. Every person is fallible and prone to make mistakes, indeed that is the only way to learn from experience, and every person is trying to achieve goals in life, whilst surrounded by all the difficulties and struggles that survival necessarily entails.
To accept this about oneself is then to be immune to demands upon others' approval, and gives a greater freedom to act in a way that has reason to be right, rather than because a way is approved of by others.
Unconditional self-acceptance is therefore a more realistic and aware form of self-regard, than self-esteem based on peer approval. And this awareness brings with it the corollary: an unconditional acceptance of the essence of others, friend or foe alike.
To consider the essence of a person as "unacceptable" is to insist that somebody should or must be different from the way they actually are, and that is essentially irrational.
The behavior of self and others, as demonstrated by competence and ability, then remains to be criticised or admired and esteemed, according to the ethics and aesthetics manifested, and this judgment may be rational (when it involves preferences) or irrational (when it involves musts and intolerances). When that judgment is rational then it is a valid criteria for esteem and for self-esteem.
The following is a list of beliefs that are irrational, superstitious, or "senseless" but which are universally inculcated in Western Society and would seem inevitably to lead to widespread neurosis, when used compulsively and blindly, to make the self right and others wrong, or by projecting, to make the self wrong and others right:
- It is essential that the person be loved or approved by everyone he or she knows.
This is irrational because it is an unobtainable goal, and if the person strives for it, the person becomes less self-directed and more insecure and unhappy. Even those who basically like you, will be turned off by some behaviors and qualities. The rational person does not sacrifice his or her own interests and desires in order to be admired, but rather strives to express them, with outflowing creativity.
- A person must be perfectly competent, adequate and achieving to be worthwhile.
This again is an impossibility, and to strive compulsively for it results in a constant fear of failure, and paralysis at attempting anything. Perfectionistic standards quickly alienate partner and friends. The rational individual strives to be fully alive: to do well for his or her own sake rather than to be better than others, to enjoy an activity rather than to engage in it solely for the results, and to learn rather than to try to be perfect.
- People who do wrong must be bad.
"Wrong" or "immoral" acts are the result of stupidity, ignorance or emotional disturbance. All people are fallible and make mistakes. Blame and punishment do not usually result in a less stupid, better informed and less neurotic personality. If a rational person makes a mistake, he or she accepts that it happened and attempts to understand the cause of the behavior, and does not let it become a catastrophe. He accepts responsibility and learns what the mistake can teach him. He does not seek to justify or blame. At the same time, behavior and ethics can and must be judged, if law and order are to prevail.
- It's unacceptable if things aren't the way I want them to be.
This is the spoilt-child syndrome. As soon as the tire goes flat the awful-ising self-talk starts: "Why has this happened to me? I can't take this!" The result is intense irritation and stress. The rational person avoids exaggerating unpleasant situations and works at improving them, or accepting them if they cannot be improved.
- Unhappiness is caused by external circumstances.
When someone is unkind, rejecting, annoying, etc., this is considered the cause of unhappiness. Ascribing unhappiness to events is a way of avoiding reality. In practice, unhappiness comes largely from within, from self-statements interpreting the events. While you have only limited control over others, you are capable of enormous control over your emotive evaluations. Many believe they have no control over their feelings and that they are helpless; the truth is that we can control how we interpret and emotionally respond to each life event.
- Anything that is unknown or uncertain is cause for great concern.
Fear or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, imagining a scenario of catastrophe, makes coping more difficult and adds to distress if things do turn out to be threatening. Saving the fear-response for actual, perceived danger allows you to enjoy uncertainty as a novel stimulation, or exciting experience - all part of the game of life.
- It's easier to avoid life's difficulties and responsibilities than to face them.
This is irrational because avoiding a task is often more difficult than performing it and leads to later complications and problems, and probably loss of self-confidence. An easy life is not necessarily a happy one; on the contrary, a challenging, responsible, achieving life is an enjoyable one. Life is not necessarily "fair"; pain and suffering are an inevitable part of human life, accompanying tough, healthy decisions and the process of growth.
- You need someone stronger than yourself to rely on.
Dependency results in loss of individuality and self-expression. Your independent judgment and awareness of your particular needs are undermined by a reliance on a higher authority. This propitiative attitude leads to insecurity as the person is at the mercy of the other's whim. This is enacted in the need for a guru or religious father figure. The rational person does not refuse to seek or accept help when necessary but strives for independence and responsibility, recognizing that risks, while possibly resulting in failures, are worth taking and that failure itself is not a catastrophe.
- Good relationships are based on mutual sacrifice and a focus on giving.
This belief rests on the assumption that it is better to give than to receive, that it is bad or wrong to be selfish, or that one does not deserve fulfillment. It is expressed in a reluctance to ask for things, and the assumption that your hidden needs will somehow be devined and provided for. Unfortunately, constant self-denial results in bitterness and withdrawal. The truth is that no one knows your needs and wants better than you, and no one else has a greater interest in seeing them fulfilled. Your happiness is your responsibility.
- The influence of the past cannot be eradicated.
The presumed influence of the past may be used as an excuse for avoiding changing behavior. Just because you were once strongly affected by something does not mean that you must continue the behavior patterns you formed to cope with the original situation. Those old patterns and ways of responding are just decisions made and enacted so many times that they have become automatic. You can identify those old decisions, solutions that seemed valid at the time, and start changing them right now. You can learn from past experience but you don't have to be the effect of it.
- Other peoples' problems and upsets are disturbing.
Feeling responsible for others' hardships implies that you have power to control them and the duty to do so. This is an imposition on the others' freedom to experience and control their own lives and feelings, and their freedom to learn from their own mistakes. If requested to do so, the rational person will attempt to help in a way that will improve the situation and preserve the other's self-determinism. If nothing useful can be done, he accepts that as the reality of the situation. By being too protective over other peoples' feelings (because "people are fragile and should never be hurt"), relationships become full of dead space, where conflicts develop but nothing is said. Honest communication of current feelings need not be taken as an attack upon the personal worth and security of others.
- There is always a "right" or "perfect" solution to every problem.
This is obviously not necessarily the case but the insistence on finding one leads to anxiety, panic and often dissatisfaction.
A problem can be looked upon as a worry or as a challenge (at which point it is no longer really a problem). The obvious solution may require a confront that reactivates fear (the real problem) resulting in worry. The "perfect solution" is then one that avoids facing up to the challenge. It is more rational to attempt to find various possible solutions to the problem and accept the most feasible one, doing one's best to carry it out effectively and facing up to what has to be confronted.
An accompanying belief is that there is "perfect love" and a perfect relationship. This is expecting people to be infallible and is unrealistic. Subscribers to this belief often feel resentful of one relationship after another - no one matches their expectations.
- When people disapprove of you, it means you are wrong or bad.
You may have done something wrong or bad, and this should be taken note of and if necessary, corrected. But preventing this objective viewpoint is the fear of disapproval, which sparks chronic anxiety in most interpersonal situations. The irrationality is contained in the imagined generalization of one specific fault or unattractive feature, to a total indictment of self. It is a by-product of low self-esteem (based on a lack of self-acceptance) and the belief that if you don't please others, they will abandon or reject you. You usually run less risk of rejection if you offer others your true unblemished self. They can either take it or leave it, but if they respond to the real you, you don't have to worry about letting down your guard and being rejected later.
These fallacious ideas are almost universal in our society, unwittingly installed from earliest childhood from parental and other authoritative influences. They are frequently accompanied by traumatic circumstances that empower their imprinting in the mind, and this results in their repression, so that the source of such beliefs becomes hidden and unknown.
When they have been accepted and re-enforced by continual self-indoctrination, throughout life, they lead to emotional disturbance or neurosis, since they cannot be lived up to. People become inhibited, hostile, defensive, guilty, ineffective, inert, afraid and unhappy. All dissatisfaction in life is because individuals cannot life up to their installed unreasonable "shoulds", "oughts" and "musts".
Return to Transforming the Mind - Contents
Continue to the next article, Towards, Against & Away