Self-esteem vs self-acceptance: Which is more important?


December 2, 2019
Filipe Bastos

When it comes to discussing mental health, self-esteem and self-acceptance are important topics.  But what’s the difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance?

Self-esteem is a measure of how we think we compare to others. But, because others can change, so too can our self-esteem. Self-acceptance, on the other hand, is timeless and enduring. It is achieved through practices like mindfulness meditation and self-care.

Which is more valuable, self-esteem or self-acceptance?  Well, self-esteem can bring us short-term happiness, but self-acceptance is more satisfying in the long-run.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a measure of how favourably we think we compare to others in relation to:

  • Wealth
  • Intelligence
  • Strength and fitness
  • Creativity
  • Career success
  • Physical beauty
  • The ability to care for and nurture others
  • Morals and ethics
    ..and more

To understand how high your self-esteem is, ask yourself ‘how does the world see me?’ Your self-esteem is mostly determined by what you think others think about you.

See a problem with that? Well, it’s incredibly difficult to know what others are thinking about you. Added to which, people’s opinions are changing constantly. In this light, self-esteem doesn’t seem like a very useful or reliable measure of self-worth.  

What is healthy self-esteem?

When clinical psychologists talk about ‘healthy self-esteem’, they’re referring to people who have a reasonably positive self-image.

If you’ve got ‘healthy self-esteem’, you believe you can ‘compete’ in at least a couple of the above categories… Perhaps you work harder than most of your colleagues or perhaps you’re a better mum than your peers. Or, perhaps, your creativity is what sets you apart from others…

On the other hand, if you have unhealthy self-esteem, this either means you think too much of yourself, or you underestimate your capabilities. These two polarities are associated with lower levels of emotional intelligence.

How does self-esteem impact our lives?

Self-esteem can have a big impact on the way we live our lives. After all, it is the lens through which we interpret our external world. It also dictates the way we speak to ourselves. In turn, this determines the life-choices we make and the risks we decide to take.

For example, let’s say you have low self-esteem, and you assume that most other people are more intelligent than you. In your day to day life, your brain will seek out evidence to confirm or refute this belief. And, due to confirmation bias, you are more likely to focus on the things that prove rather than disprove that you are unintelligent and unworthy.  

As a result, you’ll dwell on past mistakes and avoid taking risks in the future. You’ll probably choose a job that is not very demanding, and which never forces you to learn new skills. Because of this, you’ll never find any evidence to disprove your self-image, and you’ll spend a lifetime believing you are incapable.

This is the vicious circle that we hear so much about in mental health!

 Is self-esteem fixed?

The other important thing to note about self-esteem is that it often changes throughout the lifespan. Big life events such as losing our job or getting married can impact our self-esteem – for better or worse.

As mentioned, our self-esteem depends on how we think we compare to others, and since others are constantly changing, our self-esteem is also likely to shift, too.

The good news is that, although self-esteem cannot be relied on during times of upheaval, self-acceptance can!

What is self-acceptance?

Whilst a healthy amount of self-esteem can help you to succeed in this world, self-acceptance is the only thing that can bring you pure joy and contentment.

Self-acceptance is constant and timeless; unlike self-esteem, it doesn’t shift depending on what’s happening in your life. Truly accepting yourself means that, even if you lose your job, your spouse or your home – you’ll show yourself compassion. You won’t beat yourself up for being less employable, less lovable, or less wealthy than those around you.

Ironically, once you truly accept yourself, it will appear to the outside world as if you have a ‘healthy level of self-esteem’. But, in fact, you will have gone beyond self-esteem. According to Tolle, once you fully accept yourself, you’ll no longer feel the need to compare yourself to others. In other words, you’ll see that a life guided wholly by self-esteem is ultimately unsatisfying.

Self-acceptance: A refuge from constant change

Self-acceptance is similar to the concept of mindfulness in that it provides refuge from a constantly changing world. We cannot control our external world, but we can gain a sense of peace by fully accepting the world (and ourselves). Eckhart Tolle captures this sentiment perfectly when he says:

“To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease and lightness. This state is then no longer dependent upon things being in a certain way, good or bad.” 

Similarly, you may be familiar with the popular phrase ‘It is what it is’. I experience a sense of calm upon hearing this statement because it reminds me that, although I may not be able to change my life situation, I can fully accept it.

Isn’t self-acceptance just resignation?

Mindfulness and self-acceptance are often criticised because they seem to suggest that people should just accept their life circumstances – even if they’re experiencing something terrible like abuse.

But self-acceptance is not the same as resignation or submission. Rather, it is a willingness to fully embrace (and understand) your situation. Then, from this position of total acceptance, you can decide how to move forward constructively (if necessary).

The alternative to self-acceptance is that you repress emotions that make you feel uncomfortable and which you don’t want to deal with. Later on, these repressed feelings can turn into addictions or other mental health issues.

Can you have strong self-acceptance and low self-esteem?

No, not really. It’s true that you may fully accept yourself and compare unfavourably to others in terms of worldly pursuits (such as wealth, strength, career success etc.). However, the point is that comparing yourself to others wouldn’t be high on your agenda, so your self-esteem would not appear low. Also, people who practise self-acceptance aren’t at the mercy of their inner critic, so they’re unlikely to exhibit the behaviours associated with low self-esteem.

Can you have poor self-acceptance and high self-esteem?

Yes, you can be unaccepting towards yourself, but have seemingly high self-esteem. In fact, inflated self-esteem is often caused by an intense fear of not being good enough. As we’ve already discussed, relying on high self-esteem to give you a sense of satisfaction can cause suffering, because, one day, you’ll no longer be able to ‘compete’ in the areas you once succeeded in.  

How to practise self-acceptance

Self-acceptance is the basis for achieving joy, peace, and contentment. Whilst self-esteem plays a role in the way you interact with the world, self-acceptance is necessary for building a solid relationship with yourself.

So, you might be wondering, ‘how can I truly love and accept myself?’ Surely it should be easy, otherwise, I would have done it by now. First, let go of the belief you ‘should have’ accepted yourself by now, because that in itself is an unaccepting thought.  Then, consider these tips:

  • Tell the truth

Sometimes, we tell ‘white lies’ about the jobs we have, the neighbourhoods we live in, or the qualifications we’ve earned in order to cover up things we are ashamed of. Telling the truth is the ultimate expression that we have accepted ourselves just as we are. Practise truth-telling daily and see the results.

  • Be quiet and still

To practise acceptance of the present moment (I.e. mindfulness), practise sitting quietly and observing your thoughts. If mindfulness meditation doesn’t appeal to you, other activities like walking in nature, Pilates, running or drawing can help to encourage acceptance.

  • Acknowledge your inner critic

The more mindful you become, the more you will be able to recognise your inner critic. This is the voice inside the head which says things like “You aren’t worthy of that job; you better quit now before you get sacked”.

It’s important to acknowledge this inner dialogue rather than suppress it. In fact, the simple act of acknowledging it will, in some ways, dissolve it.

This is because, if you practise ‘watching’ this inner critic, you’ll realise that it can’t possibly be all of you – there must be something else. And if this critic is only a small part of you, you’re less likely to believe the nasty things it says about you. 

  • Practise accepting others

Accepting others (warts and all) can help you on your journey to self-acceptance. So, when a friend does something to annoy you, resist the urge to point out their flaws. Don’t try to change them, either. Try to love and accept other humans for the people they are. This will have an indescribably positive effect on others as well as yourself.

  • Face your fears  

As mentioned, self-esteem is a measure of how we think we compare to others. So, to protect our self-esteem, we often pick tasks we know we can excel at, and leave those that will expose our perceived weaknesses.

The problem with this type of behaviour is that it can stunt our growth and leave us feeling unfulfilled.

The beauty of self-acceptance is that it encourages us to step out of our comfort zone in pursuit of new experiences. This is because the stakes aren’t particularly high if we don’t ‘succeed’. After all, self-acceptance is more liberating than self-esteem because it removes the need to compare favourably to others.

So, if you want to practise true self-acceptance, facing your fears (and mindfully embracing the results) is the most powerful step you can take! No matter how ‘healthy’ your self-esteem is, it cannot bring you the same type of deep satisfaction that self-acceptance can.

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