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Self-Acceptance: More Substance than Self-Esteem

Feel emotionally strong through the good time and the bad.

When people concoct their recipe for good emotional health, a generous portion of self-acceptance should be one of the main ingredients. It allows you to feel good about yourself, even with the flaws, mistakes and failures that we all have. And so, self- acceptance is essential to feeling good about just being you.

Don't confuse self-acceptance with self-esteem, which many would place at the top of their list of ingredients for emotional health. As I explained in my blog How Self-Esteem Can Get Us Down, self-esteem usually results from people's efforts to bolster their image of themselves through accomplishments and achievements. And there's nothing wrong with that, to a point. But when things don't go as planned (and the stress of today's economy has derailed many people's career and life goals), self-esteem takes a hit from which it can be difficult to recover.

In contrast, self-acceptance does not rely on achievements and accolades to build us up. A positive outlook on who you really are inside is essential to feeling good about yourself, no matter what is going on outside. Unfortunately, you cannot just will self-acceptance to happen. It has to grow. Psychologist Christopher Germer explains in his book the mindful path to self-compassion that the development of self-acceptance occurs in five stages.

Stage 1: Aversion

People instinctively respond to uncomfortable feelings with resistance, avoidance, or rumination (repetitively reviewing a problem to solve it).

Germer illustrated this with the story of a mother, Brenda, whose 9-year-old son died. She became so overwhelmed with her grief that she generally stayed in bed. When she did go out, she would observe people in a detached way-feeling like a foreigner.

Stage 2: Curiosity

When aversion doesn't work, people become curious about their problem. They want to learn more about it; even though they feel anxious.

To continue Germer's example, Brenda's grief became so overwhelming that she wished she could die. Then she "was seized with terror." She questioned what would happen to her surviving daughter and realized that she had to choose between giving in to her emotions and finding a way through.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan explored curiosity in depth in his book, Curious?. He explains that when people are curious about their problems, their anxiety about those problems decreases. Also, some people are generally more curious than others. While highly curious individuals feel anxious just like anyone else, they show more tolerance for distress while they pursue their interests. Curiosity motivates them to find and integrate meaning from experiences. Thus, highly curious people are oriented toward building a fulfilling life; leading them to thrive and feel a strong sense of well-being.

Stage 3: Tolerance

People in this stage endure their pain while still wishing it would disappear.

Once Brenda decided that she needed to live for the sake of her daughter, she found a way to tolerate her grief enough to function as a mother.

Stage 4: Allowing

As people's resistance erodes, they begin to allow their feelings to come and go. Rather than just acknowledging and tolerating feelings that overpower their defenses, they openly let their feelings flow through them.

With time, Brenda realized that she felt close to her son whenever she felt her grief. She also felt close to him at times when she was grateful for having known him. As she allowed for her different emotions, she was able to have a healthy relationship with (feel love for) her deceased son.

Stage 5: Friendship

People in this stage not only allow for their feelings, but they actually see value in them. It's not that they actively want to feel upset, but they can be grateful for the benefits that their situation and its related emotions bring to their life.

Many years later, Brenda became aware that she was not willing to get in touch with her grief. She realized that she could not fully enjoy the positive moments in life as long as she remained distant from the negative ones. As a result, she began to befriend her grief, allowing her to love fully without the fear of hurting.

It would be wonderful if we could all just start in stage five, but - of course - this is not realistic. We usually need to grow into it. By paying attention to your struggles, you can nurture self-acceptance. And, with self-acceptance, you can feel good about yourself no matter what happens in your life.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.

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