Self-esteem & Self-acceptance - How are they Related?
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
Throughout the years of working with clients I have noticed that, regardless of the difficulties people are bringing to therapy, more often than not they are carrying around with them the harshest of critics in the form of their internal dialogue. Sometimes this leads to low self-esteem, a state where we frequently (if not constantly) judge and find ourselves lacking…an unhelpful thinking habit discussed in my earlier post here.
There are two parts to self-esteem. Firstly there is our concept of ourselves. This includes things such as our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and sensations, along with things like our characteristics, qualities, traits, learned skills & innate talents. So the "self" is actually very complex. Secondly, there is the esteem...the appraisal, the judgement, the evaluation... Self-esteem is a representation we have of ourselves which is based on our experiences and our perception of ourselves in that context; we tend to see ourselves through the lens of a single dimension and overgeneralise the implications to our whole selves. Low self-esteem occurs when we judge ourselves as lacking in a global sense (eg. rather than recognising "I find maths difficult" we believe "I'm so stupid", despite the fact that we may have other talents such as being an accomplished artist). So rather than seeing ourselves as a multi-faceted being with many different qualities and aspects, we instead focus on our perceived flaw and identify with that as being our entirety. We are identifying one part of ourselves and assuming that it represents our value as a person, which can end up making us feel bad about ourselves. The language of low self-esteem takes the form of sweeping generalisations and global statements - "I'm a waste of space", "I'm a failure", "I'm unlovable" - assessing our rather complex selves in a very simplistic and all encompassing way. But how fair are we being to ourselves when we do this? Do we really lose worth as a human being every time we make a mistake? Or alternatively, do we suddenly gain in worth when we get something right? When we assess ourselves in this way we are using faulty logic...conceiving of, and rating, our whole selves based on content. What does that mean? Well, look at these pictures of tables and chairs - how do you rate them?
You can assess their characteristics, perhaps judging one set to be ornate whilst the other plain...but that isn't an assessment of the essence of the tables and chairs, it is an evaluation of a single feature...a piece of content. Can we say one set is worthless because of the lack of decoration? That's a bit subjective really, isn't it!? And humans are so much more complex than a table and chairs, so assigning ourselves to the rubbish bin on the basis of an event or an attribute is hardly being fair to ourselves. Rationally we may be able to tell ourselves that we all have equal worth regardless of what we may have achieved, or not...or what is happening around us, or not...or what we have done, or not. But often there is a disconnect between head and heart...we just don't feel it, no matter how much we say it. A key step towards helping ourselves in this situation is to develop a sense of self-acceptance. This can be more helpful than trying to give ourselves high self-esteem because when we do that we're really just trying to replace one way of conceiving ourselves based on content with another way of conceiving ourselves...we may still be looking to external factors to validate our view of ourselves – eg. “I might not be a very fast runner but I am a good cook” still looks to external validation on some level - whereas self-acceptance means we are comfortable in our own skins…warts and all!!