- People holding themselves accountable for their decisions is healthy; beating themselves up for them is not.
- Self-acceptance doesn’t just allow people to feel better about themselves; it makes them more resilient.
- Self-acceptance makes it easier, not harder, for people to change things about themselves they don’t like.
- Self-acceptance makes one capable of greater intimacy with others.
Last week, I got the following message from a reader:
“Everyone tells me I am too hard on myself, and my therapist has suggested that some of my continuing unhappiness can be pinned on me… That I make myself feel lousy. What’s your take on that?”
Well, my initial take is that there’s probably a kinder and gentler way of telling someone that she’s too hard on herself than suggesting she’s responsible for her own unhappiness, but putting that aside, a lack of self-acceptance is a real problem for many women.
What do we mean by self-acceptance? Just what it sounds like: accepting and being at peace with who you are, taking into account both your strengths and weaknesses, the positives and the negatives, that are part and parcel of the complex organism called “you.”
Of course, self-acceptance covers a lot of territory, including our physical appearance, which entails specific difficulties for many when there are cultural standards at play and tough standards at that. (This also applies to men, but I am focusing on women in this article.) For many women, self-acceptance stops at the mirror with the jiggly parts that don’t fit the ideal of thinness or the toned bodies the culture tells us we ought to have, the head of hair that doesn’t conform, or anything else.
I have looked through photos of all the years I was always on a diet, looking for the “fat” girl I supposedly was, and somehow I cannot find her. I know for sure I am not alone in this.
What Stops Us From Fully Accepting Ourselves
Not surprisingly, our childhood experiences—and whether our parents accepted us as we were—play an important part. Mind you, parental acceptance and validation don’t mean that a child is never criticized or disciplined or, for that matter, always being showered with gold stars; the accepting parent sees the whole child. But a childhood filled with demands that you always have to be perfect or statements from a mother or father that you are essentially lacking or not good enough become internalized as so-called “truths” about ourselves and, yes, become the wall we have to tear down before we can begin to accept who we are.
The habit of self-criticism—generalizing mistakes or missteps and making them emblematic of deeply rooted character “flaws”—is another maladaptive behavior learned in a hypercritical or controlling household and makes self-acceptance impossible since it involves owning our nicks and dents.
Our need to impress or present a façade of perfection to the world can also make self-acceptance impossible because there are inevitably missteps and mistakes in life. If you are someone who thinks that holding yourself to a high standard all the time is healthy and productive, and you beat yourself up the second that façade shows cracks, you need to rethink that posture.
What Are the Benefits of Self-Acceptance?
Being comfortable in our own skins and with who we are allows us to open up to people and form close relationships; if you accept yourself, it’s remarkably easy to see those who don’t accept you as you are and want to turn you into someone else. (Conversely, that is the downside to not accepting yourself; you’re vulnerable to the manipulations of the Pygmalions of this world who seek to make you over.)
Being self-accepting makes us more resilient because we’re able to put mistakes we’ve made in context; this gives us tools to do better the next time rather than devolving into catastrophizing or just beating ourselves up for being “stupid.” Self-acceptance also makes it easier to learn from our mistakes and to reframe our experiences in ways that can be enlightening and energizing.
Being able to accept ourselves permits us to accept others as they are as well. Needless to say, it is a game-changer if you are parenting.
7 Things You Can Do to Build Self-Acceptance
The first step is figuring out where the impediments to being accepting and compassionate toward yourself are coming from; some may be historical, but others may be rooted in the present as well. (Working for a hypercritical boss, for example, or being married to someone high in control or highly critical.) Even those of us who are reasonably self-accepting can get rattled when we’re under fire. If you are dealing with issues from your family of origin—being hypercriticized, bullied by a parent or siblings, marginalized or ignored, or scapegoated—therapy is the best route, but self-help also helps.
1. Work on shutting down that critical tape.
Literally, talk back to it; yes, this is better done in the privacy of your own home rather than on a train, but answer it. Yes, you can reroute the neurons by challenging that voice. “I wasn’t fat; you called me ‘fat’ because you knew it hurt me. But it was on you.” (Yes, this is what I said to that voice years ago.)
2. Internalize the good stuff.
Once you’ve taken an inventory of all the awful things said about you, you should start to tally up the good stuff. I’m willing to bet no one mentioned that you were loyal, a good listener, or any of the way-less-obvious things about a person a controller or abuser misses. Bring to mind the qualities you admire in others, and then take a look and see if you have them, in whole or in part. I am willing to bet you will be surprised.
3. Don’t go global when things go south; stay local.
Lack of self-acceptance hobbles us when we fail; there is no question about that. Devolving into self-criticism is a default position, so you are inclined to see your faults and mistakes as part of a pattern, which feeds self-doubt, rather than seeing what you did wrong with clarity. It is way better to see whatever went wrong with an eye to what you might have done to avert the mistake or avoid it entirely. This is a question of mindset.
4. Put your mistakes in context.
This is an extension of the previous point. Asking yourself, “How might I have handled this better?” or “Were there alternatives I didn’t see at the time?” opens up the possibility of learning without foundering in self-blame.
5. Be discriminating when it comes to your critics.
This is hugely important because people criticize for many different reasons. There are ways of pointing out a person’s flaws and missteps that are helpful, not blistering, and then there are ways of using those same observations to wound or control. Be aware of what motivates others to speak up.
6. Take credit when credit is due. It’s not “puffing yourself up.”
Yes, be your own cheerleader when you’ve done something you think is important and special. Recognize your worth not just in your achievements but in how you handle difficult or taxing situations.
7. Pay attention to the small victories.
If there’s something you’ve always had trouble doing and you actually do it, do take time to readjust your view of yourself. We are all works-in-progress, after all.
This material is drawn from research for my books Daughter Detox and Verbal Abuse.
Copyright © 2023 by Peg Streep