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Be comfortable with who you are

No-one's perfect. But so often we compare our insides to other people's outsides. Dwelling on our flaws - what we're not rather than what we've got - makes it much harder to be happy. Learning to accept ourselves, warts and all, and being kinder to ourselves when things go wrong, increases our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our well-being. It also helps us accept others as they are.

Having constant criticism in our heads about not being good enough is a sure way to be unhappy. This doesn't mean we should ignore our weaker areas or bad stuff that happens, but it does mean accepting that no-one is perfect, us included. It means putting our imperfections (and things that happen to us) into perspective - seeing them as normal rather than out of the ordinary. And it means a shift of focus, from what we don't have or can't do to what we have or can do.

Self-acceptance unpacked

Psychologists describe two parts to our well-being - feeling good (perhaps what we typically think of as happiness) and functioning well. Functioning well, is thought to be made up of a number of key psychological factors that contribute to how good or happy we feel. One of these factors is self-esteem or self-acceptance [1][2]

Self-esteem, or feeling positive about ourselves [2] has long been a subject of psychological study. Self-acceptance expands this concept to: knowing our strengths and our weaknesses, coming to terms with our past and feeling okay or good about ourselves while being aware of our limitations. [1] Importantly, self-acceptance doesn't mean ignoring what we don't do well or mistakes we've made, but it's about working with rather than against ourselves.

Albert Ellis, a renowned psychologist, described two choices: accepting ourselves conditionally (i.e. only under certain conditions, for example when we succeed) or unconditionally (under all circumstances). The first choice he says "is deadly". If we don't fulfil the conditions we set ourselves, and so fail, we think of ourselves as a loser or good for nothing rather than accepting failing as a normal part of life and learning from it. [4]

If we are low on self-acceptance, we can be troubled by aspects of who we think we are and long to be something or someone different. [3] This can lead to dwelling more on what's wrong with us or what we aren't, leading to a lot of negative self-talk. And this really gets in the way of making the most of ourselves, and of our happiness.

The problems with self-esteem

There is a lot of scientific evidence that people with a balanced sense of self-worth or self-esteem (judging that we are good and valuable), experience more happiness and optimism and less negativity, depression and anxiety than those with low self-esteem. [3][6]

But self-esteemcan also be problematic. Indeed Martin Seligman, 'father' of positive psychology, has warned of the dangers caused by overly inflating the positive side of ourselves. [5] For example, it can lead to increasing our sensitivity to negative feedback, making self-improvement difficult, and can causing anger and aggression when our ego is threatened. [6]

Self-esteem (as opposed to self-acceptance) is typically based on judgements of how good we are within specific areas of our lives, for example our appearance or our performance at work, school or at a particular activity e.g. a sport or painting. Because these judgements are dependent on how well we are doing in that area, how good we feel fluctuates based on our latest success or failure. [6]

Self-esteem also means that our judgement of how good we are is relative to other people, so it can lead to a sense of superiority over and therefore separation from others. Since our connections with others are a key source of happiness, having self-esteem that is too high can also undermine our happiness. [6] So whilst self-esteem can lead to being happier (and certainly low self-esteem makes us less happy) it isn't always a good thing.

Being more compassionate towards ourselves

We all know the expression 'Treat others as you would wish to be treated' but perhaps it also needs to be reversed. We give ourselves a hard time for things we would be compassionate towards in others. Think of a close friend failing to get a promotion. We don't tell them "you're no good" or "you'll never get anywhere". Chances are we'd say "you can try again next time" or "maybe you should look for a new job that will make the most of your skills".

Recently modern psychology and neuroscience has started to explore 'self-compassion' which has been a Buddhist concept for thousands of years. Research studies are showing that self-compassion is associated with greater happiness, optimism, curiosity, resilience and reduced depression and anxiety, suggesting it has all the benefits (and more) of self-esteem but fewer of the downsides. For example, it seems to promote building connections with others. [6]

Self-compassion is defined as having three overlapping parts:

  • Being kind and understanding to ourselves in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy;
  • A sense of common humanity, recognising that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of life for all human beings; and
  • A balanced awareness of our emotions-the ability to face (rather than avoid) painful thoughts and feelings, but without exaggeration, drama or self-pity.

Kirstin Neff, a leading psychologist in the study of self-compassion, says that if we think that we are the only people to mess up or not be good at something, this makes us feel inadequate and can lead to feelings of shame, which causes us to cut ourselves off from others. In contrast, if we realise this is something everyone feels at times in their lives, it gives us a sense of being connected to others and enables us to have the same caring, kindness and concern towards ourselves as we do for those close to us. In other words she says, self-compassion "is available precisely when self-esteem fails us". [6]

Neff's and others' studies are also showing that self-compassion promotes self-improvement and reduces comparison to others (which is very detrimental to our happiness). It helps put our own issues in perspective and so reduces immobilising self-pity. Because it is about caring about ourselves being self-compassionate motivates us to work through challenges and learn from mistakes. Indeed, it has been shown to be positively related to developing new skills and knowledge. [6]

Self-acceptance and compassion are also closely related to mindfulness and meditation.

References

[1] Ryff, C.D., & Singer, B.H. (2008), Know thyself and become what you are: a eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies 9:13-39

[2] Huppert, F.A. & So, T. (2009) What percentage of people in Europe are flourishing and what characterises them? Briefing document Prepared for the OECD/ISQOLS meeting"Measuring subjective well-being: an opportunity for NSOs?" 23/24 July, 2009, Florence, Italy.

[3] Ryff, C.D. (1989), Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,57, 1069-1081

[4] Ellis, A. (2007). How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable. CA: Impact Publishers

[5] Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004).Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.New York: Oxford University Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[6] Neff, K.D. (In press) Self-compassion, self-esteem and wellbeing.Social and Personality Compass

[7] Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062

POSTER #9: ACCEPTANCE

Be comfortable with who you are

Acceptance 200