What does “self-acceptance” really amount to? And how do we define it so that it doesn’t just end up as a synonym for words such as “self-esteem” or “self-love”?
KEYWORDS: definition of self-acceptance, philosophy, psychology, self-acceptance, self-acceptance-1a, self-acceptance-1b, self-acceptance-2a, self-acceptance-2b, self-appreciation, self-esteem, self-love, well-being.
In a recent article (What Is Self-Acceptance?) I took a close look at the word “self-acceptance” in the academic literature. And I then developed two new definitions of that concept, based on previous definitions and usages of this term (done by scholars in the field of psychology).
But although I consider those two new definitions to be better than any previously published definitions of self-acceptance, I still think that there is more work to be done.
So in this article I will revisit the concept of self-acceptance, in order to come up with a better understanding of what it might be, so that we can create even better definitions.
In the course of this article I am also presenting new graphs of the idea of self-acceptance. These new graphs are an integral part of my approach, and there is, to my knowledge, no such graphs available elsewhere in the academic literature, or in the self-help sphere of literature.
My new diagrams not only make it easier to understand the word “self-acceptance”, but also enable us to more clearly distinguish between the words “self-acceptance” and “self-love”, and similar concepts.
PART 1: ORIENTATION
Part 1 is an introduction to the current state of affairs, as a preparation for the discussion in Part 2.
Here I will thus present my two new definitions, as I created them in my article What Is Self-Acceptance?, so that we have something to analyze and improve.
Two Definitions of Self-Acceptance
Before I start with my new observations on self-acceptance, let me just quickly present to you the two “scholarly” or “academic” definitions that I created in one of my recent articles.
My definition of self-acceptance-1a is this:
self-acceptance-1a The degree of psychological well-being that one experiences as a positive attitude toward one’s self and one’s past life, having acknowledged and accepted one’s good and bad qualities.
And my definition of self-acceptance-1b is this:
self-acceptance-1b The degree of psychological well-being that one experiences as a positive attitude toward one’s self and one’s past life, having acknowledged and accepted, in an objective and realistic way, one’s good and bad qualities.
In these two definitions we can see various aspects of the idea of self-acceptance.
One thing we can observe is the difference between these two definitions. I built the definition of self-acceptance-1b on my definition of self-acceptance-1a by adding the phrase “in an objective and realistic way”.
So unlike self-acceptance-1a, self-acceptance-1b assumes that the individual who assesses himself or herself is doing that in a manner that is both “objective” and “realistic”.
If we now turn to self-acceptance-1a, we can note other things. One thing we can see is the word “degree”. This indicates that self-acceptance is not a digital “on-off” thing, but that it is an “analog” thing, with a value that may fall within a larger spectrum of possible values, not just two (i.e., on, off).
Another thing we can note in self-acceptance-1a is that it is about “psychological well-being” and a “positive attitude”. This indicates that people who are lacking positivity also, by definition, must have low self-acceptance.
A third thing we can note in self-acceptance-1a is that it has to do with “one’s good and bad qualities”.
A fourth thing we can note is that the process is about having “acknowledged and accepted” those good and bad qualities. In other words, self-acceptance is not just about acceptance; it is also about seeing, or discovering, or identifying, that one has such qualities (whatever they are).
PART 2: REVISITING SELF-ACCEPTANCE
It is now time to reassess the situation and improve the definitions of self-acceptance. I am going to do that by both looking at my own definitions (i.e. self-acceptance-1a and self-acceptance-1b) and by revisiting the original sources in the psychological literature.
Self-Acceptance: Good vs Bad
Having looked at self-acceptance-1a and self-acceptance-1b, it seems strange to note that both of these definitions are talking about both “good” and “bad” qualities.
However, when we go back to the “original” references (D1, D2, and D3, as seen in my previous article on self-acceptance) that my two definitions were based on, we see that some of them did not use the words “good” or “bad” in their respective definitions.
The D1 definition does use the words “good” or “bad” (Ryff and Singer 1998, p. 707):
“A component of psychological well-being that includes having a positive attitude toward one’s self, acknowledging and accepting one’s good and bad qualities, and feeling positive about one’s past life.”
But the D2 definition does not use the words “good” or “bad” (VandenBos 2006, p. 827a):
“a relatively objective sense or recognition of one’s abilities and achievements, together with acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s limitations. Lack of self-acceptance is often viewed as a major characteristic of emotional disturbance.”
Here in D2, then, the phrase “a relatively objective sense or recognition of one’s abilities and achievements” basically means “accepting one’s good aspects”, while the phrase “together with acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s limitations” basically boils down to “accepting one’s bad sides”.
Similarly, the D3 definition also does not use the words “good” or “bad” explicitly (Reber 2009, p. 717a):
“Quite literally, an acceptance of oneself. The term is used with the specific connotation that this acceptance is based on a relatively objective appraisal of one’s unique talents, capabilities and general worth, a realistic recognition of their limits and a rich feeling of satisfaction with both these talents and their boundaries.”
So here in D3, then, the phrase “a relatively objective appraisal of one’s unique talents, capabilities and general worth” basically translates to “accepting one’s good aspects”, while the phrase “a realistic recognition of their limits” basically means “accepting one’s bad sides”.
And here we also note the idea that the individual should not just accept their limits, but also have “a rich feeling of satisfaction” for them (i.e., “their boundaries”).
What Self-Acceptance Is Not
The idea that self-acceptance should include both “the good” and “the bad” seems strange to me. This is because the word “self-acceptance” includes the word “acceptance”; and “acceptance”, in a psychological sense, must necessarily imply that there is some “non-acceptance” going on that the individual, in one way or another, has to overcome.
The overarching idea is that some people are not satisfied with their own selves, for some reason. They are not entirely happy about themselves and their situation in the world.
Thus, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts try to help such people, so that they can improve their state of mind, and then think better thoughts about themselves.
So the idea here is that there is some sort of deficiency here that constitutes the problem. And that deficiency can be expressed as a lack of positivity about themselves. Alternatively, we can speak of a presence of too much negativity in such individuals’ self-assessment.
Therefore, what I am trying to say here is that self-acceptance cannot be about “accepting one’s good qualities” or “thinking nicely about one’s talents” (since “a talent” mostly is understood as a good or positive thing), or anything like that. That is not what (lack of) self-acceptance is about.
The individual does not need to “accept” those physical traits that the individual already has assessed as “good” or “positive”, or those achievements or talents that are evaluated as “great” or “good”. Why? Because he has already accepted them. For that is why he thinks of them as “good” in the first place. The word “good” entails the idea of “accepted”.
So self-acceptance is only about the overcoming of “the bad”. It is only about accepting (in some way) one’s bad qualities, one’s lacking abilities, or one’s lacking achievements, etc., etc.
In other words, one’s degree of self-acceptance is inversely proportional to how bad one feels about oneself: the more irritated one is over one’s “lack” of qualities or abilities, the less self-acceptance one possesses.
I have previously pointed out that the word “degree” is featured in both of my previous definitions of self-acceptance. And I still think it is a useful concept, in general.
But because there is so much confusion (not just on various self-help websites, but also in the academic arena) about the term self-acceptance and its relation to other terms such as self-esteem and self-love, it is important that we improve this situation.
One step in this direction is to say that self-acceptance is a basic requirement for a positive life. And this is surely indicated by ideas such as “psychological well-being” that Ryff and Singer use in their definition of self-acceptance (1998, p. 707).
So the point I am making is that full self-acceptance is achieved at a certain point. And that point is when the individual has reached the positive half of the negativity-positivity spectrum. When he or she is more positive than negative, then he or she has gained full self-acceptance.
At this point, there is little need to qualify that term any further. Self-acceptance, in my view, is about reaching the positive side of the spectrum. And when that is done, we may say that self-acceptance is accomplished. The individual now possesses (full) self-acceptance.
Degrees of Self-Acceptance
However, when the individual is still on the negative side of the NP spectrum, one may very well talk about different degrees of self-acceptance.
For example, a strongly negative person (N3) may be labelled as having only “25% self acceptance”, while a medium negative person (N2) might be thought of as having “50% self-acceptance”. And a mildly negative person (N1) might be referred to as having “75% self-acceptance”.
So the “amount” or “degree” of self-acceptance is related to the negativity-positivity spectrum in the following way (click image to enlarge):
In any case, however we are designing such a gradual scale of self-acceptance (whether we are talking about a scale of 0-100%, or about a scale of 1-5, etc.), the idea is that it is only meaningful to use it as long as the individual is on the negative side of the NP spectrum.
For whenever the person has “graduated” from his negative mentality (in the sense of a general mood, or a general emotional range), he is more sane than most people (see my post The Big Picture: Happiness & Positivity in the Western World). So at that point we must consider him or her to possess full self-acceptance, in an absolute sense.
Thus, it is only helpful to talk about self-acceptance as long as it is a “symptom” or a “condition” of a negative state of affairs that must be “corrected” or otherwise “addressed”. But as soon as the individual arrives at the positive half of the NP spectrum, there is little for the psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychoanalyst to “correct” or “cure”.
In other words, as a psychological (or “health care”) term, self-acceptance is only useful when individuals are not on the positive half of the NP scale.
Self-Acceptance vs Self-Love
One way, then, we can use our new understanding of the word “self-acceptance” is in connection with the word “self-love”.
For the question can be posed: What is the difference between self-love and self-acceptance?
With our new way of thinking about the noun “self-acceptance” we can now see that self-acceptance is a prerequisite for the development of self-love.
So in order to really love oneself, one must first have full self-acceptance. And since full self-acceptance means “being on the positive side of the NP spectrum” (having reached at least P1), self-love is also about “being on the positive side of the NP spectrum”.
Thus, self-love starts where we have our “earliest” occurrence of full self-acceptance (at P1). But unlike self-acceptance–which, on the positive side of the NP spectrum, is not variable, but constant–we might use a gradual scale for self-love on the positive side of the NP spectrum.
For example, a weakly positive person (at P1) may be labelled as having only “25% self-love”, while a medium positive person (at P2) might be thought of as having “50% self-love”. And a strongly positive person (at P3) might be referred to as having “75% self-love”.
So the “amount” or “degree” of self-love is related to the negativity-positivity spectrum in the following way (click image to enlarge):
So both self-acceptance and self-love can be “gradual”. But the difference is that all the gradations of self-acceptance occur on the negative side of the NP spectrum, while all the gradations of self-love occur on the positive side of the NP spectrum.
Self-Acceptance vs Self-Esteem
The conceptual connection between self-acceptance and self-esteem is hard to evaluate. Unlike the comparison between self-acceptance and self-love that I just did (“Self-Acceptance vs Self-Love”, above), a comparison between self-esteem and self-acceptance is considerably trickier.
This is because, unlike the word “self-love”, the word “self-esteem” has many different interpretations in the academic literature. So in order to really do justice to the term, we would need one or several new articles where we outline the different meanings of self-esteem. [note 1]
Therefore, I will not further discuss the idea of “self-esteem” in this article. For readers interested in those topics, my plan is to, in the near future, provide such articles separately, both for the meaning(s) of the word “self-esteem”, and for its comparison with the term “self-acceptance”.
Self-Acceptance: Static vs Dynamic
Many times the idea of self-acceptance is linked to the notion that the individual must accept himself or herself precisely as he or she currently “is”. Or, alternatively, that the individual should accept himself or herself precisely as he or she currently thinks they are.
The premise here is that, in the self-assessment process, the individual should come to terms with himself or herself as an “object set in stone”, so to speak; or as a “finished product” that is not likely to change very much.
This is what I call a static view of self-acceptance. And it is reinforced by the common perception that people who age are not typically improving their health, or their self-acceptance. Thus, the typical individual in Western society has no other expectation than to “decline” in terms of physical health and well-being.
And when the typical individual becomes older, he or she certainly mostly experiences such physical decline. So the expectations are then manifested in terms of real experiences.
When we now read Reber’s 2009 definition of self-acceptance (D3, as quoted above), we note that he says that self-acceptance entails a “rich feeling of satisfaction” of one’s boundaries.
Having such a definition, then, sets the bar too high: for who feels “a rich feeling of satisfaction” for those things that currently are limiting them? Not even those in P1 do that. Thus, in my estimation, basically no-one on this planet has reached self-acceptance, if we were to use Reber’s definition.
So Reber’s definition cannot be accepted. Self-acceptance is not about ecstasy or “rich feelings of satisfaction”, especially not regarding those aspects of oneself that one is displeased with!
On the contrary, as the word clearly implies, self-acceptance is merely about the acceptance of the individual’s perceived situation of himself or herself in the world. So it’s not about liking it a lot, or loving it a lot, or anything like that.
Reber’s idea then contributes to making it harder for individuals to really embrace self-acceptance. For if the expectation is that one should feel very good about one’s limitations when reaching self-acceptance, no-one would actually ever get there.
But there is an alternative to static self-acceptance, namely dynamic self-acceptance.
In dynamic self-acceptance there is much less focus on what the individual thinks he or she currently “is”. Instead, by adopting the idea of the self as a “work-in-progress”, the individual gets less incentive to not accept himself or herself, since his limitations now may be modified.
So if the individual could view himself or herself as he or she “could be”, instead of what he or she “is”, then self-acceptance may follow (much) sooner and easier.
In other words, by not looking at the current state of affairs, but instead considering one’s future potential, we will have, in most cases, a more smooth path to full self-acceptance.
PART 3: REDEFINING SELF-ACCEPTANCE
Here in Part 3 I am creating two new definitions of self-acceptance, which I am labeling as self-acceptance-2a, and self-acceptance 2b.
These new definitions are created by using self-acceptance-1a and self-acceptance-1b as “models”, and then we are modifying those in accordance with our new discoveries in this article, as presented in Part 2 (“Revisiting Self-Acceptance”).
Note that self-acceptance-1b is only used as a “model” in a relative sense, compared to self-acceptance-1a. This is because the self-acceptance-1b definition originally was created from the self-acceptance-1a definition, by adding a phrase about “objectivity” and the “realisticness” of the individual’s assessment.
A similar relative difference can be found in my two new definitions (i.e., in self-acceptance-2a and self-acceptance-2b). Thus, self-acceptance-2b is created by expanding self-acceptance-2a.
Definition of Self-Acceptance-2a
My first feature to revise is based on my discussion in the section named “What Self-Acceptance Is Not”. There I concluded that self-acceptance is not about “the good”, but only about “the bad”.
Consequently, when I am now defining self-acceptance-2a, I am removing the word “good” (as found in self-acceptance-1a), so that my new definition only contains a reference to “the bad”.
My second feature to revise is based on my observations in the section called “Self-Acceptance: Static vs Dynamic”. Therein I noted that it is more beneficial for the individual to consider his “self” to be a “work-in-progress” than to view it as “set-in-stone”.
Therefore, in my new definition of self-acceptance-2a, I am incorporating the word “potential”, as to indicate the “work-in-progressness” of such a self concept. This addition then also simultaneously adds the idea that the future is not one of “decline” but of possibility and power.
Thus, my new definition of self-acceptance-2a is this:
self-acceptance-2a The degree of psychological well-being that one experiences as a positive attitude toward one’s self (as a work-in-progress) and one’s past life, having acknowledged and accepted one’s bad qualities.
Definition of Self-Acceptance-2b
My definition of self-acceptance-2b is done by just taking self-acceptance-2a and adding a phrase about the “objective” and “realistic” nature of one’s self-assessment (cf. my definition of self-acceptance-1b, where I did a similar thing).
Therefore, my new definition of self-acceptance-2b is this:
self-acceptance-2b The degree of psychological well-being that one experiences as a positive attitude toward one’s self (as a work-in-progress) and one’s past life, having acknowledged and accepted, in an objective and realistic way, one’s bad qualities.
There are many new discoveries presented in this article. One important discovery is the realization that self-acceptance is only “gradual” when the individual is on the negative side of the negativity-positivity spectrum (NP spectrum). As soon as the individual enters the positive side of the NP spectrum (at P1), he is considered to have reached full self-acceptance.
Another important discovery is the relationship between self-love and self-acceptance. When self-acceptance has reached its maximum level (i.e., full self-acceptance), the measurement of self-love can start, reaching a maximum at P3 (strong positive emotion). Self-love is only measured on the positive half of the NP spectrum.
I have in this article also constructed two new definitions of the concept “self-acceptance”.
My first definition (i.e., self-acceptance-2a) is a new formulation of self-acceptance that excludes the idea of an acceptance of one’s good qualities (since such qualities are accepted already), but which includes the idea of a self-concept as a work-in-progress (to facilitate easier self-acceptance).
My second definition (i.e., self-acceptance-2b) is for those psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts who, in addition to the definition expressed in self-acceptance-2a, also want to specify how the individual’s self-assessment is done, in terms of how “objective” or how “realistic” it is.
- Although there are a large number of academic articles on “self-esteem” to investigate, my first round of investigation would most probably include these (in alphabetical order, not relative order of importance): Harris (2001), Heatherton and Vohs (2000), Kernis and Goldman (1999), Lamb (1986), Mruk (2010), and Osborne (1996).
- Harris, George W. (2001), “Self-Esteem” in Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics. Volume 3: P-W, indexes. Second edition. New York and London: Routledge. [Link to book]
- Heatherton, Todd F., and Kathleen D. Vohs (2000), “Self-Esteem” in Edgar F. Borgatta and Rhonda J. V. Montgomery, eds. (2000), Encyclopedia of Sociology. 5 vols. Volume 4: Qualitative Methods to Sociolinguistics. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. [Link to book]
- Kernis, Michael H., and Brian N. Goldman (1999), “Self-Esteem” in David Levinson, James J. Ponzetti, Jr., and Peter F. Jorgensen, eds., Encyclopedia of Human Emotions. 2 vols. Volume 2: Illness – Zeal; Bibliography Index; Subject Index. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. [Link to book]
- Lamb, Roger (1986), “Self-Esteem” in Rom Harré and Roger Lamb, eds., The Dictionary of Developmental and Educational Psychology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd. [Link to book]
- Mruk, Christopher J. (2010), “Self-Esteem” in Irving B. Weiner and W. Edward Craighead, eds., The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. Fourth Edition. 4 vols. Volume 4: Racial Differences – Zeigarnik Effect; Brief Biographies; Author Index; Subject Index. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [Link to book]
- Osborne, Randall E. (1996), “Self-Esteem” in Frank N. Magill, ed. International Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2 vols. London, England and Chicago, Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. [Link to book]
- Reber, Arthur S., Rhiannon Allen, and Emily S. Reber (2009), Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. Fourth edition. London: Penguin Books. [Link to book]
- Ryff, Carol D., and Burton Singer (1998), “Middle Age and Well-Being” in Howard S. Friedman, ed., Encyclopedia of Mental Health. 3 vols. Volume 2: Domestic Violence Intervention – Nonverbal Communication. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc. [Link to book]
- VandenBos, Gary R., ed. (2006), APA Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [Link to book]
- NOTE: All links are clean (i.e. NOT affiliate links).
Copyright © 2022 by Chris Bocay. All rights reserved.
First published: Sun 12 Jun 2022
Last revised: Sun 7 Aug 2022