We often talk about the preferred version of ourselves - if I was 5 pounds lighter, if I was an inch taller, and if I was better at math… Some of these things are easier changed than others, and there’s no harm in wanting to change the things that we can change. After all, we all want to improve ourselves as a person.
But more often than not, we wish to change things that cannot be changed. We may even realize this, but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming. Sometimes it's better if we would just accept ourselves for who we are. It’s self-acceptance that will bring you happiness, rather than trying to achieve the “ideal” version of yourself.
If you're looking for tips on how to accept yourself in order to live a happier life, you're in the right place. In this article, I’ll take a look at the numerous benefits of self-acceptance and how to achieve it.
- What is self-acceptance?
- The benefits of self-acceptance and why we need it in our lives
- Why it's so hard to accept yourself
- How to accept yourself and live a happier life
- Closing words
What is self-acceptance?
American educational psychologist Lorrie Shepard, who has written one of the most cited works on the topic of self-acceptance, defines the concept thus:
“Self-acceptance involves self-understanding, a realistic, albeit subjective, awareness of one's strengths and weaknesses.”
When psychologists talk about self-acceptance, some people are quick to argue that being too accepting of oneself makes people idle and lazy. But that's not what self-acceptance is about. Self-acceptance isn’t just willful ignorance of your shortcomings or looking at yourself through rose-colored glasses.
Rather, it’s the opposite: self-acceptance is about being realistic about all aspects of yourself.
Being unhappy with who you are and what you can do is often seen as the main source of motivation to improve. The desire to improve yourself is completely natural, but the motivation should not come from a place of unhappiness, hatred, and discontent. If your motivation to improve yourself is caused by something that's of a negative nature, chances are you're trying to improve yourself for the wrong reasons.
When talking about the “negatives”, it’s extremely important to know which parts of yourself can be changed and which can’t.
For example, there’s no point in being angry at yourself (or your genetics) because you aren’t as tall as you’d like to be or because you're unhappy with the color of your hair. You can try all you want, but you'll never change those features of yourself.
The benefits of self-acceptance and why we need it in our lives
If there’s one thing I’ve found as a psychologist, it’s that humans are really good at self-deception. We are quick to credit ourselves for something good that happened, while it was in fact all a result of luck.
Like all things, this habit of self-deception has a psychological purpose: to protect our self-esteem. For example, if I convince myself that I’m more talented a dancer than I actually am, then everyone who says otherwise is just an ignorant bully, and my feelings and confidence are protected.
This isn’t to say that self-deception is the way to go. In fact, self-deception is almost never the right strategy. Instead, we should aim for self-acceptance: my dancing may be bad, but I’m brilliant at languages. We should strive to pay equal attention to our strengths and weaknesses.
Not only does self-acceptance give us a more realistic picture of ourselves, but it’s also good for our mental health. The mental health benefits of self-acceptance include:
- Higher self-esteem and general psychological well-being.
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety.
- Lower levels of depression and perfectionism.
Why it's so hard to accept yourself
I think you don’t need much more convincing that self-acceptance is good for you. I’m sure that you could figure out that accepting yourself is strongly correlated to better mental health, without all this science backing it up.
But if self-acceptance is so good, why is it so hard to achieve? Allow me to tell you a personal story.
A personal example of self-acceptance
As a professional, I am very lucky to have received therapy during my studies. Although the therapeutic process taught me a lot about myself as a person and as a psychologist, the session I’m most grateful for is the one where my therapist introduced me to the concept of radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance means acknowledging reality and accepting it for whatever it may be. As my therapist put it:
“Acceptance is the first step to moving forward.”
My closest friends are smart in the “traditional” sense: they are mathematically and scientifically inclined. I, in contrast, am not. I’m not saying I’m not smart now, but I sure did think so a couple of years ago. My friends understand numbers, while I don’t. Therefore, I am not smart.
I struggled with this mindset for years until my therapist wanted me to try and radically accept the fact that I’m not as smart with numbers as my friends are. I was confused and a little bit insulted. And - pardon the Shakespeare - there’s the rub.
Self-acceptance is so hard because accepting our flaws can feel a little like we’re insulting ourselves. If I accept that I’m not good at math, does that mean that I’m admitting that I’m stupid?
It does not because true acceptance is just that - acceptance. It’s an acknowledgment, not a judgment.
I’m not good at math - so what?
Once you’ve accepted the fact, you can move on to other questions. Can you do anything about this? Do you want to do anything about this or are you content to let it be? * As you may notice, asking these questions already shows signs of moving on. Your confidence is not directly tied to your lack of math skills. Instead, you accept yourself for who you are and decide that you can just live with your potential "shortcomings".
This can only arise from a place of self-acceptance.
(* For the record, my answers to these are: yes, I can do something about my maths skills and no, I don’t actually want to.)
How to accept yourself and live a happier life
So how do you go about suspending the judgment and accepting yourself? Here are a couple of simple tips that will help you live a happier life.
1. Think of yourself as a work in progress
Humans are constantly changing and evolving, and you are not a finished product. Realizing this makes it easier to accept your flaws and quirks.
You can change your language to reflect this. Instead of saying “is” and “am”, say “may be” and “could be”. As Shelley Carson and Ellen Langer write in their paper about self-acceptance:
“The very act of replacing the certainty of convictions with the possibility that things ‘‘may be’’ truely opens up the possibility that things may not be as one currently interprets them. This, in turn, creates a mindset open to personal change and acceptance.”
2. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness, as defined by its creator Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” With a definition like that, it’s not hard to see why it can help to promote self-acceptance.
Practicing mindfulness can help you control your judgments and teach you how to say “it is what it is” to all those things you can’t control. As a result, this can help you maintain a clean and healthy mind, which ultimately leads to a happier life.
For a quick starter on mindfulness, this article is a great place to start.
3. Separate yourself from your performance
Accepting yourself is often so hard because you aren’t even looking at yourself - you’re just looking at your performance at work, at school, at the gym, you name it. I see it all the time with my students: when they do badly on the test, they immediately think it means that they are bad students.
You’ve probably done it yourself. You didn’t lift as much weight in the gym as the guy next to you? You’re weak. You didn’t finish all of the work you planned to do? You’re lazy.
Accepting yourself means accepting that you’re human and that humans have good days and bad days, that humans are fallible. You can err, but that doesn’t make you the error.
Self-acceptance begins when you learn how to see yourself beneath your actions. Nobody is perfect, and neither are you. Just know that tomorrow is a new day, which means you´ll have a new chance to do something great with your life. One bad performance doesn´t make you a bad person.
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It’s okay to want to change things about yourself, but it’s important to make the distinction between things you can and can’t change. A better way to deal with your dissatisfaction is to learn and practice self-acceptance and acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses equally. Accept yourself as the fallible human you are, and meet the real, authentic you beneath your actions.
Have you done any self-accepting lately? Do you want to share an example of how accepting yourself made you happier recently? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments below!