Does Conditional Self-Acceptance Keep You From Being Happy?

Accepting yourself unconditionally means abandoning self-criticism.

Posted Sep 10, 2015

Self-Reflection, from Flickr
Source: Self-Reflection, from Flickr

Do you have a tendency to disavow compliments (e.g., “Yes, I did do that, but I don’t really think it came out that well.”)? Or to deny credit if what you accomplished was done with minimal effort? Might you attribute your successes more to luck than to intelligence, innate gifts, or social skills? Could you perhaps be modest to a fault? Too quick to minimize or discount your good points? Do you tend to see your (healthy) acts of self-nurturing as maybe selfish, as somehow culpable? Or might you worry that you’re not nice enough? Kind enough? Sufficiently good-looking?

If any of these characterizations apply to you, you’re probably preventing yourself from experiencing what, whether you're aware of it or not, all of us most desire: Namely, unconditional self-acceptance. And this acceptance doesn’t mean complacency— sitting back self-satisfied and doing virtually nothing creative with your life—but ceasing to evaluate whether your every move is good enough to pass muster.

If there’s anything that comes close to guaranteeing happiness in life, it’s feeling really positive about yourself. And not because of something you’ve done but because, overall, you really like the person you are, and you’re not in the habit of constantly “grading” your worth. After all, what could be more conducive to a state of well-being than almost always being on the best of terms with yourself—rather than regularly valuing yourself on the basis of your latest performance or some unrealistic behavioral standard?

As I wrote earlier in my PT post “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance,” this ideal type of self-regard represents “a global affirmation of self...When we’re self-accepting we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem-able’ parts...We can recognize our weaknesses, limitations, and foibles, but this awareness in no way interferes with our ability to fully accept ourselves.”

If you’re too hard on yourself—and may even have been accused by others of being so—the most likely source (though there could be several) is that your parents held you to excessively high standards. Although the messages you received from them may have been less overt than implicit, their typical reactions may have convinced you that their acceptance of you was qualified or conditional. That they regularly assessed your worth on the basis of how “praiseworthy” they thought your behavior was. And when you failed to meet their standards, you could literally feel their disappointment or disapproval—even the withdrawal of their love and support, which (needless to say) all children desperately seek.

If this was the case, it’s only reasonable that you would have internalized their message about your personal value or capability: that your self-approval would hinge on whether you met conditions related to your parents’ expectations. So, at every turn, you might feel compelled to evaluate whether you’re “good enough” based on standards not really appropriate to who you are. And hopefully, you can perceive how such tenuous self-regard could also make you prone both to states of anxiety and depression. Which, if you reflect on it, is terribly unfortunate.

If now—to alleviate your own self-doubts—you must routinely excel at things, or look or act in ways that others perceive as “nice,” then you’ll always experience a certain worrisome tension from within. You won’t be able to stop seeing yourself as only as good as your latest “performance.” Being ambitious and working hard to achieve your goals is well and good, but not when your self-acceptance depends on achieving what you imagine signifies success in the world’s eyes. How others measure success—how, that is, you see yourself as “stacking up” against some more or less arbitrary societal criteria—may not come close to mirroring your particular propensities or gifts.

So if, in conventional terms, you do succeed, but in the process have sacrificed what really mattered most to you (assuming, of course, you’ve spent the time actually figuring this out,) then—in existential terms—your life has been a failure. The fruits of your labor have been bitter indeed, for you haven’t succeeded in expressing what you truly care about, distinct from values that essentially belong not to you but others. For to be happy, you need to “realize” what's inherent in your nature, not what your original family wanted you to be, or what others might define (according to their own value framework) as productive or meaningful.

And none of this has to do with struggling to improve your talents or skills. As long as you’re engaged in something that's vital to you, your work and your play won’t really be that different. When what you do is “enlivening,” because it just feels right to you, your efforts won’t be labored but liberating. As long as it's for your sake and not someone else's, there's certainly nothing wrong with endeavoring to better yourself.

Again, having dreams about what you’d like to do with your life is fine. What isn’t fine is being at internal (and eternal) war with yourself to accommodate extraneous, no longer relevant standards from your past. These criteria for self-acceptance have little or nothing to do with your innate proclivities: what, by nature, you were meant to do, or be. Moreover, even if you meet what you presume will define you, externally, as successful, you won’t—and cannot —be happy.

As the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins stated (with breathtakingly simple elegance): “What I do is me: for that I came.” So, as a shrub will grow as it’s innately “purposed” to, or as a wild animal will act according to its inborn disposition, so will we as humans. If we’re to "make real" our uniqueness in life, and in doing so feel happy about ourselves, we need to discover how to "put into practice" what, biologically, we were born to be.

Regrettably, it’s our ego, how we incessantly compare ourselves to others and their viewpoints, that prevents us from doing so. Yet if our past environment hadn’t interfered with our feeling good enough in the first place, we wouldn’t feel it necessary to strive to achieve what, ironically, we already are.

In the end, the choice is yours. So how would you answer this seemingly inane question: As your life’s primary, overarching goal, would you rather be successful or happy? In making this crucial determination, ask yourself what would be the more fulfilling path to follow. For material success alone, if it compels you to abandon what, personally, best “aligns” with your inborn nature, certainly won’t lead you to happiness.

On the contrary, achieving happiness and fulfillment is not pursuing what’s merely pragmatic (or “decreed” by your family or culture), but about about—as the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell noted— “following your bliss.” And this is in sharp contrast to what may be your conditioned need to garner others’ approval—or at least to do everything possible to avoid their dis-approval. It’s when you feel obliged first to bend to the will of your family, and later to the supposed dictates of society, that your life takes a turn alienating you from yourself.

Being able to discover what’s “blissful” to you—as the singular, unreplicable individual that you are—is what’s paramount here. Inevitably, living a life of satisfaction and joy depends on your willingness to renounce what may never have been “natural” to you. For as long as you’re governed by the expectations and standards of others, you’ll remain frustrated—both with yourself and life in general.

NOTE 1: A much earlier article of mine (already alluded to in this post) delineates just how you can go about becoming more self-accepting. It’s entitled “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance.”

A second post of mine (most complementary to the present one), “What Keeps You From Being Unconditionally Self-Accepting?”, pinpoints (among other things) how comparing yourself to others and endlessly seeking their validation stands in the way of unconditional self-acceptance.

And finally, a third piece closely related to this one discusses why you can never love another (or be loved by another) as much as—potentially—you can learn to love yourself. It's called “Unconditional Love Is Possible—But Only From Yourself.”

NOTE 2: If you know of anyone in your circle who might have some interest in this post, please consider forwarding them its link. And if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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