How To Practice Self-Acceptance
Self-acceptance is generally considered to be an important component of mental health. We’re all imperfect, so being harsh with ourselves about every shortcoming typically isn’t helpful or sustainable. While it can be a difficult concept to fully embrace for some, it’s a worthwhile pursuit because of the benefits it can bring.
What Is Self-Acceptance?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines self-acceptance as “a relatively objective sense or recognition of one’s abilities and achievements, together with acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s limitations.” It’s about acknowledging that everyone has both good qualities and flaws and experiences both successes and failures in life, and realizing that it’s unfair to hold ourselves to an impossible standard.
It’s worth noting that self-acceptance is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is about positively judging yourself and your abilities, often in comparison to others. Self-acceptance is about accepting yourself the way you are, regardless of where you stack up against others or potential other versions of yourself. While some level of both self-awareness and self-confidence can be helpful in life, self-acceptance can be more foundational and unchanging over time, whereas self-esteem can fluctuate based on life events and those around you.
Plus, there can be some negative aspects to both high and low self-esteem. Self-esteem can reach unhealthy levels on either end of the spectrum because it involves judging yourself in comparison to others—and because it’s often hard for us to be objective and realistic about ourselves. Having low self-esteem and believing you’re worse in comparison to other people can be harmful to your mental health and hold you back from reaching your goals in life. Believing you’re better in comparison to others can make you overlook flaws, act arrogantly, and even harm relationships. In contrast, self-acceptance is a more neutral, fixed, and perhaps even healthy way to view yourself, rather than through the potentially unreliable lens of self-esteem.
What Makes Self-Acceptance Difficult?
Self-acceptance can be difficult for many of us because we’re encouraged by society from a young age to place value judgments on everything—including ourselves. Many of us grow up in a culture of constant comparison, which can produce unrealistic standards, self-criticism, and feelings of inadequacy as a result. Negative self-talk is extremely common from childhood on. Other factors unique to an individual’s past—especially their childhood or adolescence—can also contribute to trouble accepting themselves, such as:
- A history of abuse
- Parents or caregivers who were emotionally distant or neglectful
- Parents or caregivers who were demanding
- Lack of a strong support system
- Internalized messages of inadequacy from media
- Strict religious belief systems that set up finite concepts like “good person” and “bad person”
- Bullying, academic challenges, or other issues at school
There are many different factors that can make self-acceptance challenging. However, it is possible to shift your mindset away from negative thoughts and negative beliefs, and move toward understanding your positive qualities, and accepting yourself as you are over time.
The Benefits Of Self-Acceptance
Again, self-acceptance can provide a more stable view of oneself compared to self-esteem, which is inherently comparison-based and can fluctuate. This may be why research has found that there are mental health benefits associated with self-acceptance. One study found a correlation between “unconditional self-acceptance” and mood after exposure to negative events, and an inverse correlation with anxiety symptoms and narcissism. Another study even found that self-acceptance decreased mortality risk by 19% and added three years of life, even when other factors were controlled for. A sense of self-acceptance can help steady your relationships with yourself and others, help manage mental illness, allow you to achieve realistic goals, and be more content with yourself in day to day life.
How To Learn To Accept Yourself
There are plenty of strategies you can try to increase your levels of self-acceptance and develop self compassion. Like so many things in life, it generally requires consistent practice and effort over time to start noticing true self-acceptance and emotional well-being.
Begin A Regular Mindfulness Practice
One academic paper cites evidence that shows that mindfulness can help improve self-acceptance by increasing authenticity, decreasing comparison, helping one see the benefits of mistakes, and breaking free of rigid categories. As the paper’s author puts it, this practice can help people make “acceptance of oneself [...] a mindful choice.” The idea behind mindfulness is cultivating nonjudgmental awareness, which is what self-acceptance really boils down to as well.
Every human makes mistakes and falls short from time to time. Self-acceptance means coming to terms with this fact so you can move forward. Our inner-critic can have a tendency to stagnate in negative emotions. Forgiving yourself for times when you fell short or hurt yourself or others means that you accept your imperfections. Holding on to and worrying about your errors for too long is a form of judging yourself, which is the opposite of self-acceptance. Research even supports that self-forgiveness can be a helpful coping strategy “that may improve health and well-being.” Apologize if needed, think about how you might do better next time, and then let it go. Practicing radical acceptance can also lead to self-acceptance. Accepting situations beyond your control can help you have empathy, love, and tolerance for yourself.
Incorporating gratitude into your everyday life can have many benefits, including increasing your level of self-acceptance. One study found “strong positive relationships” between gratitude, self-compassion, and self-acceptance because gratitude “helps to reshape the relationship with the self.” Something as simple as writing down or saying out loud three or four things you’re grateful for at the end of each day can help you retrain your brain to have a more balanced perspective on your life—which can eventually extend to increased positive emotions and greater self-love.
Surround Yourself With Good Influences
The law of averages says that we’re like the five people we spend the most time with. If you spend your time with human beings that demonstrate negative qualities, are judgmental, perfectionistic, and hold themselves and others to harsh or impossible standards, you’re likely to internalize these tendencies as well. If you spend your time with those who tend to be more positive, compassionate, and self-accepting, you may internalize these characteristics instead and be better able to apply them to yourself.
One study points to the likelihood of positive traits spreading throughout social networks. It found that those who associate with cheerful people tend to have a happier demeanor and a better sense of well-being. If you’re cultivating self-acceptance, it may help to surround yourself with others who display this and similar qualities.
Speak With A Therapist
Our patterns of thinking play an enormous role in our view of ourselves. Meeting with a therapist is one way to work toward shifting patterns that may be unhelpful in your journey toward radical self-acceptance. A trained counselor may be able to help you take a more realistic, neutral view of yourself over time. If mental health conditions like anxiety or depression are impeding your progress toward accepting yourself, they can also help you address and manage those symptoms.
If you feel more comfortable meeting with a therapist from the comfort of your own home, online therapy is available. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone or video call. Since research suggests that online therapy offers comparable benefits to in-person therapy, those who find this format to be a better fit for them to get the treatment they may need to move forward into a clearer view of self-image and a greater sense of self-worth.
Working to build self-acceptance is a journey that can have significant positive effects on your life. Practicing mindfulness, gratitude, and self-forgiveness, spending time with positive, non-judgmental people, and connecting with a therapist are all techniques you can try to cultivate self-acceptance over time.
Frequently Asked Questions
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