Self Acceptance

Self Acceptance

Self-esteem vs Self-acceptance

Gary Potter, Author/ Counselor

Several years ago I attended a training for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy through the Albert Ellis Institute in Kansas City. I had become acquainted with REBT while working on my Masters Degree a the University of Nebraska at Kearney. As I began to realize I was using some of the REBT principles quite often in my counseling practice, I decided to attend the seminar to gain a better understanding. The opening session for the weekend training was with Dr. Ellis. As we were listening to him present the overview of REBT I became very aware that I was resisting some of the things I was hearing him say. I inwardly bristled when I heard him say, “activating events in life have no meaning whatsoever until we give them a meaning. We each decide the value or meaning of the activating event.” “No way”. I thought. “I don’t get to decide if some things are right or wrong, good or bad”. My defenses had been activated, and what I was hearing was “this guy wants to change your value system”. In reality what I believe Dr. Ellis was pointing out, is the truth, that it is our value system or belief system, that gives the meaning to whatever the activating event in our life is. Not that we need necessarily to change those beliefs, but be aware it is our belief that gives meaning or value to the event. This is critical because if I want to change the way I am reacting to a life event, I have to be willing to think about why I define it the way I do, and thus begin to challenge why I believe what I believe about the event.

Wow! Great concept! This makes sense! I admit I had to process it a while before I accepted it, and got past my defenses and was willing to challenge my own thinking with it.

Shortly after that challenge to my thinking came this life-changing statement from Dr Ellis. “Self-esteem is a curse that has been put on us by the psychological profession.” Excuse me? He couldn’t have really meant that, could he? We all know how important positive self-esteem is, right? We can go back to Nathaniel Brandon’s book “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” written in 1969 to espouse the importance of positive self-esteem in helping us be successful. I think I was beginning to check out of Dr. Ellis’s talk when he followed up saying, “Self-esteem is always conditional. That is, it is based on something. Some valuation of what a person has done, or what has been communicated to that person regarding something they have done. If I do well and nice things are said about me, my self-esteem goes up. If I do not do well and bad things are said about me, my self-esteem goes down. Therefore self-esteem is conditioned on my, or someone else’s evaluation of my performance.” The next words from Dr. Ellis changed my thinking dramatically. “I would rather focus on self-acceptance, not self-esteem.” 

This is how I have come to think about it. Self-esteem is how I feel about my performances and sometimes I have good self-esteem and other times no so good. Sometimes I perform really well and it would be right to feel good about that performance. Sometimes I do not perform very well, and rightly I ought not to feel very good about those poor performances. Self-acceptance is about me: My worth and my value. My worth and value are based on my existence, not my performance. As I learn to embrace this truth, I can judge my performances without judging my self. I can be hard on my performances and judge them without judging myself. Learning to separate our performance from our worth can be very difficult and at the same time when we can learn to make that separation, it is very liberating.

I am not at all advocating that we stop working on positive self-esteem in our lives and the lives of family, friends, or clients. However, is it worth considering, that positive self-esteem based more on a principle of self-acceptance, rather than performance would be beneficial? If it is based on performance, then I must continue to perform at a certain level in order to continue to feel “good about myself”. I like the idea of “feeling good about myself” because I live and breathe, not because I am able to maintain a certain performance. So, with this self-acceptance approach, does my performance even matter then? If I am going to feel good about myself whether I perform well, or poorly, then maybe my performance does not matter. Performances, in fact, do matter, and it is wise for us to work on improving our performances, not because they increase our worth or value, but they have a significant impact positively or negatively on our lives and the lives of those we associate with.

I will address that more in future posts. For now: Self-acceptance says. My worth is not based on my performance.

I would love to hear your ideas.

Be encouraged,


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