A lack of self-acceptance can sabotage you in a variety of ways. It can increase anxiety the closer you get to someone or something desirable. It can compel you to act in ways that are antithetical to your goals. It can make you withdraw during the goal acquisition stage without giving you a chance to succeed. When you feel ashamed of who you are or some aspect of yourself a satisfying relationship is hard to develop. Until you acknowledge those parts of yourself and learn to manage them, your life may remain unsatisfying. Learning to accept yourself places you in a better position to be accepted by others. It’s a hollow victory when friends and family accept you and you have trouble accepting yourself. Everyone may not like you, that’s not the point. The point is for you to like yourself and for you to have the courage to give others the opportunity to like the real you. By being more aware an authentic, you offer others the chance to choose to like the real you, not some fake invention.
Let’s distinguish between self-esteem and self-acceptance to clear up any confusion about the two before we proceed. According to Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D.: “Self-esteem refers specifically to how valuable, or worthwhile, we see ourselves, self-acceptance alludes to a far more 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.”
Everyone is both a saint and a monster. We also may have physical features that make us feel bad about ourselves. While we may have an overall view of ourselves as worthwhile a lack of self-acceptance may interfere with our ability to accept those unfavorable characteristics. When we don’t like features we possess we may try to hide them or compensate for them in ways that allow us to cope. Our efforts to suppress, numb, or avoid the parts of who we are that we don’t like often invite other problems and make the situation worse. Someone who can’t stand being short may overcompensate by acting more macho. Someone overweight may begin smoking in a misguided effort to prevent weight gain. Someone who suffered growing up poor may vow to never want for anything in life and overspend or steal. Those coping strategies often fail and increase our problems. The macho person may find himself trying to prove how big he is in progressively dangerous ways. The smoker who fails to control her weight without smoking may ultimately find herself needing an oxygen tank. And the person who breaks the law to compensate for an impoverished childhood may wind up in jail. In short, our fixes often make accepting ourselves more difficult.
To further illustrate how our attempts to compensate for low self-acceptance can create problems, here’s an example from the Disney movie “Aladdin.” Aladdin presented himself as a prince to the princess when he was actually a beggar. As they grew closer, he became uncomfortable. Feeling increasingly anxious about who he really was and his dishonest attempt to conceal his true identity threatened to destroy their relationship. Feeling like an imposter Aladdin, ultimately, revealed his true identity and, like all things Disney, the fairy tale ended happily. In real life betraying yourself and others in that way can be disastrous.
What's interesting about the Aladdin example is how it illustrates the difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance. Aladdin’s self-esteem motivated him to strive to be with the princess. He aspired to be with someone beautiful who also had status, and he accomplished that goal. That indicated healthy self-esteem. On the other hand, dishonesty about his true identity indicated low self-acceptance. The internal conflict between his self-esteem and his self-acceptance resulted in feelings of guilt and shame about being dishonest. Those feelings triggered anxiety and self-doubt which threatened his relationship with himself and the princess.
Working to accept yourself is for heroes. It takes courage to proceed down a hero's path. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to accept your fears, discomfort, and efforts in order to embrace yourself fully-- and not just the positive “more esteem-able” parts. By feeling more comfortable with yourself, you encourage people to like the authentic you. Presenting a false front or withdrawing from relationships before you give them a chance to succeed leads to unhappiness.
The inability to accept yourself is a type of suffering. To free yourself from this attitude requires that you learn to sit with yourself and look deeply into who you are. That seems simple enough, but we all spend an extraordinary amount of time avoiding, camouflaging, and disavowing the parts of ourselves that we find unattractive. When we do this, simple things become difficult. The last thing we want to do is sit, breathe, and embrace every part of ourselves and our suffering. That’s emotional labor. To be human is to suffer. Fear prevents the type of emotional exploration I'm describing.
Exposure therapy is the number one treatment for specific phobias and other fears. If you went to see a therapist about a fear of snakes. The therapist would talk to you about snakes. He might even show you a picture of a snake. As you become more desensitized, he might even bring in a rubber snake. Eventually, as your fear of snakes decreases, he might even have you hold the rubber snake until your fear of snakes is extinguished. By sitting with and exposing yourself to your own thoughts and feelings and the anxiety they invoke, you can reduce your anxiety. To avoid feeling like an imposter, increase happiness, and improve your relationship satisfaction, practice self-acceptance.