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The ACT Approach to Self-Acceptance

Three surprising, simple ways to increase self-acceptance

Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what is best for yourself.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT-pronounced like the word "act"), developed by Steven Hayes, Ph,D. and others offers promising, even profound, new perspectives for self-acceptance seekers. I recently heard Dr. Hayes interviewed, and came away with some new ways of thinking about self-acceptance that are already proving useful in my life.

According to Dr. Hayes, the key skill in self-acceptance involves being able to shift perspectives. We have to move our focus from a judgmental stance, to a more neutral, observing stance. There are numerous ways to do this, and many are simple, quick and really work. Here are just a few ideas to get you started. Give them a try, and let me know what you think.

1. Sunset mind.

There aren't many of us who don't have parts of ourselves we don't like. Maybe we think we're too fat, too lazy, too disorganized, too selfish, too (fill-in the blank). The basic theme is: I don't measure up. These self-judgments are actually quite normal. Our brains evolved with the primary goal of keeping us safe. In prehistoric times, this meant keeping with the pack. Veering off by ourselves was certain death – we’d be eaten by some scary, ferocious animal. So we naturally tried to fit in, and this meant comparing ourselves to others, and adapting our behavior to accordingly.

1. Sunset mind.

Our brains also developed to have the capacity to critically analyze situations, which is great. We need that. But critical/comparison mind isn't appropriate when it comes to things like self-acceptance.

For example, it serves no purpose to pick apart every aspect of your appearance. Too many people focus on their perceived flaws, such as hips that could just as easily be described as curvy as fat.

Instead of critical mind, we need sunset mind. Imagine you're watching a sunset. Do you say, "Oh, that pink just really isn't the right shade," or "I think that blue clashes with the purple."

I can be critical, but even I don't judge sunsets. I admire and appreciate their beauty, their vastness, and all the intricacies of the merging shapes and colors.

New perspective/intention: Try sunset mind when it comes to thinking about yourself.

2. Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what you think is important.

ACT is all about taking action in spite of anxiety or discomfort, and doing what you value.

2. Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what you think is important.

I've always been good at this when it comes to standing up for others. Here's an example. I'm typically not one to complain or make trouble, but once when my son was going to see a favorite band, the venue was changed on short notice. The new place required you to be 21 to enter (and this was his high school graduation present--he wasn't 21).

I called the old venue, the new venue, and worked my way up until I had reached a high-up media person with the band. They weren't able to get my son in, but they arranged for him to meet the band, hang out at a record store where they were doing a promotion, and they gave him free tickets to the Bonnaroo music festival and be a guest in their tent.

I know this story might not seem like a lot, and granted, it's not like I saved anyone's life or anything, but I would have never been so assertive on my own behalf. I certainly have the skills to make things happen; why don't I do this for myself?

New perspective/intention: Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what is best for yourself.

3. Emotions are here to be felt.

You wouldn't think this would sound revolutionary to a psychologist, but more often than I care to admit, I spend a lot of energy trying to squelch my emotions. My inner dialogue might sound like this:

3. Emotions are here to be felt.

  • I'm too sensitive.
  • My feelings are too intense.
  • I don't want to feel this way.
  • I wish these feelings would go away!

Dr. Hayes pointed out (what I already knew intellectually) that a lot of emotions are painful, but also very useful. They can be clues to what you truly care about.

For example, guilt, although unpleasant to say the least, can lead you to correct behavior or make amends with someone. He gave an example of a parent who had been on drugs and let some horrible things happen to his child while he was high. The guilt was intense, but needed to be felt. It led to sadness and loss, and eventually connected the father with the will to "walk a higher path" and be a better father in the future. This was not a quick or easy process, but it started with allowing and experiencing painful emotions. This man was eventually able to use his feelings to connect with his values.

New perspective/intention: Lean into the painful feelings, and see what they're trying to tell you. Do this slowly, gently, and back off when you're overwhelmed.

Actually, from the ACT perspective, self-acceptance isn't even a necessary requirement for a meaingful life. ACT practitioners would ask, "What if you gave up judging yourself altogether?

In the book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris, author and ACT therapist writes:

Self-acceptance means you refuse to buy into the judgments your mind makes about you, whether they're good judgments or bad ones. Instead of judging yourself, recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and you can do what you can to be the person you want to be.

This is a big shift in perspective, and a topic for another blog post. But it's worth starting to ponder.

You might also want to read how to defuse your thoughts in my previous post, Stop Fighting Your Negative Thoughts.

You can hear Dr. Hayes talk about the above in more detail in Episode 22 of The Self-Acceptance Project sponsored by Sounds True. Steven C. Hayes, PhD, is a Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. He has authored 35 books and over 500 scientific articles.

For more information about ACT, click here.

Let’s Keep in Touch!

Let’s Keep in Touch!

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

Photo credits: Sunset by Yokopakumayoko, Hand on heart, Hearts by Ladydragonfly,

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