If you were to be totally honest, would you say that you really and truly like yourself? Or are you constantly performing makeovers on your appearance, personality, and abilities? When you look in the mirror, do you see imperfections in your skin and hair and wish you could make them go away? Do you feel the same way about your personality? Every time you worry instead of relaxing before a social event, do you want to kick yourself for being so anxious?
It’s all too easy to become a mental makeover fanatic, especially when reality shows are doing just that to everything from fashion to housing. You can get to the point where you see yourself not as you truly are, but only as you wish you could be. To paraphrase Ophelia from Hamlet, who said, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be": "We know what we are, and we wish we weren’t this way.”
The basis for a positive sense of self-esteem is that you accept yourself as you are, not as you “may” be. This doesn’t mean that you’re never self-critical or that you should never change, but that you’re able to live with being flawed and with your own approach to trying to make yourself a bit less so.
The idea of self-acceptance is gaining ground in the psychological literature as an important contributor to positive mental states such as peace of mind, greater self-understanding, and the ability to empathize with others. Carl Rogers wrote back in the 1950s and 60s about the quality of unconditional positive regard and its importance in personality development. According to Rogers, when parents place “conditions of worth” on young children, they cause their offspring to grow up to be self-doubters and critics. If you feel that your parents will love you only when you perform up to their standards, you’ll develop an inner voice that constantly compares you to how you “should” be.
In fact, psychologists writing from several vantage points discuss the importance of being able to view yourself without feeling undue anxiety about how you may be falling short of some unrealistic ideal self. Psychologists today are translating these theories into measures of self-acceptance that make it possible to see just how hard you tend to come down on yourself.
Before getting to this measure, and some of the research that backs it up, a word of caution: If you get down on yourself for getting down on yourself, you’ll only make things worse. Seeing how self-accepting you are, or are not, can be a liberating process if you look for guideposts along the way that allow you to shake off those inner, critical voices.
Louisiana Tech University psychologists Güler Boyraz and Brandon Waits tested the idea that “individuals with high levels of self-acceptance may be less likely to focus and ruminate on negative aspects of the self and more likely to engage in intellectual self-focus” (p. 85). In other words, if you accept yourself, you’ll be less likely to mull over your failings and more likely to see yourself in a realistic light. You don’t become completely oblivious to your shortcomings, but you’re less likely to view them as fatal flaws.
To test this idea, Boyraz and Waits conducted a two-part study in which, in the first stage, they measured the tendency of undergraduate participants to think about (reflect on), and worry about (ruminate over) their behavior. They then related these to changes at the second stage in the qualities of self-acceptance and empathy. As they hypothesized, people who reflected on their behavior—but didn’t ruminate—had higher levels of self-acceptance; self-acceptance, in turn, predicted higher levels of reflection. Surprisingly, the ruminators tended to be more empathic than the authors expected: It’s possible that the more you ponder your own shortcomings, the more likely you’ll be able to forgive them in others.
Returning to the idea of self-acceptance, then, the Boyraz and Waits study suggests that taking in stride your positive and negative qualities can be beneficial to mental health and your peace of mind.
Now let’s examine those 10 ways you can become a self-liker rather than a self-critic:
- Don’t be afraid to confront your failings. The Boyraz and Waits study showed that being able to think about your weaknesses doesn’t condemn you to a life of self-hatred.
- Step back and enjoy your accomplishments. When you’ve done something well, don’t be afraid to admit that you succeeded. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering: Having cooked a good meal, eat it with pleasure and allow any compliments from those you cooked for to sink in.
- Learn to look at the things you like about yourself in the mirror. Sure, your makeup isn’t perfect and that rash on your chin makes it look a little red. But what about the great job you did on your hair? If all else fails, find a mirror with better lighting than the bright fluorescents in your office.
- Go on a date with yourself. On the date, spend some time alone devoted to thinking about your experiences: Enjoy a movie or concert, or a meal at your favorite restaurant while you spend time reflecting on what’s going on around you. You can even laugh at your own jokes.
- Strive to be a better person, but don’t expect changes to happen all at once. You might be completely unhappy with your weight and can’t stand the thought that the pounds aren’t melting off faster. Give yourself a realistic timeline and measure yourself against smaller, achievable goals.
- Spend a weekend day or evening without worrying about how you look. Try a makeup-free Sunday or a grubby t-shirt Tuesday night. See what it’s like to be yourself without being concerned about impressing anyone else.
- Think about the past, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed with regret. You wish like anything that you could turn back the clock and not have said the hurtful thing you said to your friend. Once you've uttered those words, though, you can't unsay them. However, you may have learned something useful about yourself in the process and certainly can make every effort to apologize.
- Understand that no one is perfect. When you’re in low self-acceptance mode, you believe that everyone is better than you. It’s possible that others are better than you in certain ways, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less of a person yourself. Instead of comparing yourself negatively, accept that fact, and then see if you can learn from it.
- Enjoy your personality, foibles and all. So you’re a little bit too meticulous and want everything to be perfect. When things don’t work out as you wish and you start to berate your weaknesses, stop and do a reality check. So you spilled coffee all over your brand-new tablecloth. OK, maybe you’re a bit clumsy. That doesn’t mean you’re worthless.
- Like “most” of yourself as much as you can. You’re may not reach 100% self-satisfaction, but maybe you can get to 75 or 80%. In the measure of self-acceptance that the Louisiana Tech team used, getting high scores meant saying you were happy with “most” of your personality traits.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Boyraz, G., & Waits, J. B. (2015). Reciprocal associations among self-focused attention, self-acceptance, and empathy: A two-wave panel study. Personality And Individual Differences, 7484-89. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.09.042