Self-esteem may not be a useful concept for many of us. If you have low self-esteem, the solution is not necessarily high self-esteem; it is no self-esteem.
I realize this is a controversial statement. I also realize “self-esteem” is difficult to define. Nonetheless, I will make a case for replacing “self-esteem” with “self-acceptance.”
This may seem like a slight semantic shift. After all, both “self-esteem” and “self-acceptance” are constructed terms meant to help us feel better about ourselves. We use these terms to reify abstract concepts. In other words, both terms are made up.
Reification is important. It’s how we make sense of the world. However, I believe the reified term “self-esteem” can create as many problems as it solves, whereas “self-acceptance” provides a better approach to body image.
Self-Acceptance is Not Self-Esteem
Anyone literate in religion or philosophy will recognize self-acceptance as elemental, but somehow self-esteem became the emotional health buzzword from the 1960s through the 1990s. If you are a product of these years, you will remember all the effort to increase our individual self-esteems, often (unintentionally) at the expense of self-acceptance.
Although similar in tone, self-acceptance and self-esteem are incompatible. Self-esteem undermines unconditional acceptance by reducing the self to one inclusive entity that can be esteemed.
Negative global self-ratings — a.k.a. low self-esteem — require language of depreciation, such as failure, loser, lazy, jerk, etc… The solution is not language flipping. Resist the temptation to self-rate by telling yourself I am a winner, hard-worker, genius, etc.. These words encompass the whole when you are really referring to a specific.
Self-acceptance does not require positive self-talk, nor does it succumb to negative self-talk. You are allowed to accept yourself no matter your confidence or success in any particular area of your life. In this sense, self-acceptance is much more compassionate than self-esteem.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself succumbing to generalizations, always include a “because” statement, so that you can dispute the reasoning, not just the emotion or the ecumenical label.
For example, a woman struggling with body image might say, “I am a failure.” This needs to be rewritten as “I am a failure because I can’t lose the baby weight” (the “because” statements are specific to the person and circumstance). Once she includes the “because” statement, she has a thought that can be examined and refuted.
Clearly, losing the baby weight does not determine her whole self. She cannot BE a failure; she can only fail at a task. And if she fails at a task, her self-acceptance is unaffected. Unlike self-esteem, self-acceptance is not scaled. It can not be high or low. It just is.
How are we supposed to feel better about ourselves?
If we toss aside the concept of self-esteem, how are we supposed to feel better about ourselves? Even if self-esteem isn’t a perfect term, shouldn’t we still strive for overall confidence in our worth? Sure, but by narrowing the focus, rather than by globalizing it. Acceptance is unconditional, but confidence benefits from specificity.
Focus on task confidence over self-confidence, says Windy Dryden, a Rational Emotive Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (that’s a mouthful). Self-confidence (a.ka. self-esteem) presupposes a whole that can be rated, whereas task confidence or task-esteem (my term for it) demystifies what you are trying to accomplish.
Task esteem allows you to distinguish your body, your actions, and your thoughts from YOU. True, all of these things are a part of YOU, but none of them stand in for the whole of YOU. This isn’t a minor difference.
Self-Acceptance Versus Task-Esteem Versus Self-Esteem
You don’t have to improve anything to achieve unconditional self-acceptance. Conversely, self-esteem requires mental buffering, positive self-talk, or feel good mantras.
Self-acceptance doesn’t preclude self-improvement. However, it does mean changing your language. If you strive for self-improvement, work on your task-esteem. Look at specific aspects of your life — at specific tasks. For example, evaluating irrational thoughts or creating coping cards are ways to improve your body image task-esteem.
Remember, task esteem is not the same as self-esteem. Tasks are specific. They are actions. They are discrete. They can be improved. But the self? That shouldn’t be esteemed. That should be accepted.
There is no high or low self-acceptance. In other words, self-acceptance stands on its own. Meanwhile, task esteem benefits from diligent effort, from action, and from re-evaluating your thoughts. Do not confuse self-acceptance with task esteem. One can bolster the other, but they ultimately run in their own circles.
You can have unconditional self-acceptance in spite of low body image, in spite of a low frustration tolerance with your kids, in spite of any task specific setback. You don’t need to DO anything to accept yourself.
Sure, to improve your body image, you must DO. But to accept yourself, you only need to BE. Both are useful, but do not confuse the two.
In summary, self-esteem is useless. Task-esteem is useful. And self-acceptance is essential.
Self-acceptance means consenting to being. It means refusing to rate yourself as a whole. So please, give yourself permission to stop chasing a self-esteem chimera.
Return to Week 14
- Windy Dryden, How to Accept Yourself, London: Sheldon, 1999. ↩