One common one offered is the suggestion that we develop ‘self-esteem’ This is a popular idea. To achieve ‘self-esteem’, we are encouraged to try and see ourselves as having ‘value’ or ‘worth’; to add up our good points and see for ourselves we do have ‘value’. We are also told that human beings are naturally ‘worthwhile’. Quite how we happen to have such intrinsic worth is never spelt out. It just seems to ‘be there’.
Unfortunately, this conventional approach simply reinforces the tendency to self-rate. It creates the demanding belief that to be happy we must be ‘worthy’. This may work for us if we have many talents and few flaws – and a constant ability to think positively. But how many of us are in this class?
A better way: self-acceptance
There is a better solution: dispense with the idea of self-esteem altogether! Forget about having a ‘self-image’. Give up the notion of liking or disliking your ‘self’.
You do not need to worry about whether you are worthwhile – because ‘worth’ and ‘value’ are ideas that do not apply to human beings.
Sounds a bit radical? Let us take a closer look. What I am saying is: do not rate yourself at all – even in a positive direction. Instead, accept yourself.
Self-acceptance is the opposite of self-rating. It is unconditional. You accept your entire self (flaws and all) as you are now – even if there are things you’d like to change.
To accept yourself is to acknowledge three things – (1) you exist, (2) there is no reason you should be any different to how you are, and (3) you are neither worthy nor unworthy.
Like it or not, you exist as you are – with all your present traits, both good and bad. You know, too, that you have acted in certain ways in the past. To acknowledge these facts is to recognise reality (as opposed to demanding that reality be different).
There is no law of the universe which says you should be different to how you are. You may not like some of your present traits and tendencies. You might not feel comfortable with things you have done in the past. You might want to do something to change the way you are (and perhaps plan to). Acceptance simply means that you avoid demanding that the present you (or your past actions) not exist.
Rate Your Behaviour Rather Than Yourself.
‘Sounds great,’ you say. ‘But if I accept rather than rate myself, won’t this stop me ever doing anything to improve?’ Not at all. Rather than rate your total self, you can rate your various traits, behaviours, and potentials.
In other words, instead of wasting precious time and energy brooding over how ‘worthwhile’ you are, get on with deciding which parts of yourself you could usefully change or improve on.
Maybe you would like to improve your physical health, to achieve your goal of living longer. Great idea – but you do not have to label yourself as ‘unfit’ or ‘weak’. You can develop your vocabulary without calling yourself a ‘useless communicator’. You can admit your marriage is failing, but without thinking this makes you a ‘failure’. You can acknowledge that although you sometimes do bastardly things, this does not make you a ‘bastard’.
Value Your Existence.
If you are prepared to rate specific tendencies and actions, then you will be able to see whether they help you achieve an existence which is worthwhile or valuable to you. In the end, is it not the quality of your existence that matters?
So value your existence rather than your ‘self’. You can recognise you exist without putting any rating at all on yourself. You are neither good nor bad, worthy or unworthy, useful or useless. You just exist. Put your energy into maximising the quality of that existence.
This will aid your total happiness much more than debating whether you have ‘value’ or ‘worth’ as a person.
People-Rating or Behaviour-Rating?
Making the switch means changing what you tell yourself. Compare the lists below:
I am a loser. I lost out on this occasion.
You are a naughty child. You did a naughty thing.
I am a hopeless parent. I could learn more about handling children.
I am a poor conversationalist. I want to improve my conversational skills.
She’s a depressive. She feels depressed at present.
I am a failure at work. I failed on this task.
I am a bitch. I did a bitchy thing.
I am a useless cook. My cooking skills are undeveloped.
I am stupid. I sometimes do stupid things.
I am a lousy lover. I could learn more about sex.
I am unfit. I would be better to exercise more.
I am neurotic. I would like to learn more rational attitudes.
Notice that the people-rating statements include ‘I am’, ‘you are’, or ‘he/she is’. These expressions are cues that you are rating the entire person. They imply, too, that the person always has been, and always will be, what the label says they are. Rating your behaviour, on the other hand, shows that you can change in specific ways (if you choose) to improve your existence.
Making the change
Let us summarise what self-acceptance involves:
You acknowledge, simply, that you exist – without any judgement on your worthiness or any demand that you be different to how you are.
You rate specific traits and behaviours – in a practical and non-moralistic way.
You concentrate on rating and valuing your existence rather than your ‘self’.
Unfortunately, self-acceptance is easier to describe than to practice. Self-rating will be a habit for most of us. We also live in a world where people-rating is the norm, so others are unlikely to help us change. But it’s not impossible. Here are some strategies which will help:
Be aware when you are rating yourself or others. Watch for cues such as ‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘she/he is’. Change any self-rating to a behaviour-rating. Be very specific about any changes you’d like to make. Instead of: ‘I must become a better person,’ say: ’I’d like to learn how to type, start an exercise programme, or get up earlier in the morning.’
Accept (justified) criticism from others of specific behaviours – but reject ratings of your entire self. Note that disapproval from other people proves nothing about you. Remember, too, that when you do something to less than the standard you prefer, your performance may be flawed but you can still accept yourself.
Whenever possible, treat yourself to things you enjoy – food, clothes, outings, time to yourself, etc. Not because you ‘deserve’ them, but because you want them. Remember that ‘deserving’ (and its by-product ‘undeserving’) are subtle ways of self-rating.
Feel good when you ‘succeed’ or get approval from others. But do not rely on these things to feel OK Remember that real self-acceptance is independent of your performance – and the views of other people.
Keep in mind that none of us will ever reach perfection. Total self-acceptance is an ideal few people are likely to achieve in their lifetime. But even fifty percent acceptance is worth striving for.
If the idea of living without self-rating still seems radical, you are not alone. Most people probably subscribe to the idea that to be happy you have to see yourself as ‘worthwhile’. For a moment, though, put aside conventional thinking. Look closely at those high-sounding words: ‘human worth’ and ‘value’. They are, in reality, nothing more than that: words – ideas that exist in our heads. Whether we apply these ideas to human beings is a matter of choice.