How shall we understand the word “self-acceptance” in its psychological sense? This article uses the best available scholarly references to arrive at two new definitions of self-acceptance.
KEYWORDS: definition of self-acceptance, philosophy, psychology, self-acceptance, self-acceptance-1a, self-acceptance-1b, self-esteem, self-love, well-being.
In this article I am focusing on the concept of “self-acceptance”: How shall we define it?
In the course of this article I will look at many different sources, in order to understand this concept better.
At the end of this article, I am then constructing two new definitions of the word “self-acceptance”: one general definition (self-acceptance-1a), and one more specialized definition (self-acceptance-1b).
PART 1: BACKGROUND
Why should we, at all, care about the word “self-acceptance? And why am I writing this article?
We should care about the concept of “self-acceptance”, since it is a general indicator of our current mental health. So by learning about it, we might not only become better at assessing our own situation, but we also may become better at evaluating other people’s situation.
Relatively Few Reference Sources
One of the main reasons for why I have decided to publish this article is because there are not a whole lot of reliable reference materials available on self-acceptance.
This is strange, since the term “self-acceptance” already was in use by Maslow in the 1960s (Maslow 1968, pp. 43, 107, 145; Maslow 1970, pp. 133, 156 ), and possibly even earlier.
And yet, very few of the main dictionaries and encyclopedias (whether in psychology, or in the English language) contain any references to this term. [notes 1, 2, and 3]
Thus, it seems as if the term “self-acceptance” hasn’t really found its way, on a broader scale, into the field of psychology, or into the English language.
This, however, is hopefully on its way to change. During the last couple of decades there has been published a number of research papers on “self-acceptance” from various angles.
So it seems highly likely that this term soon will find its way into the standard reference works in psychology, and hopefully also into the main English dictionaries.
Many Less Solid Online Sources
Another main reason for my eagerness to come out with this article is that there are many discussions on “self-acceptance” on the web (on various psychology and self-help sites) that are, in my opinion, not very solid.
This might be seen as a consequence of that the term is not “cemented” yet, in terms of being properly defined and discussed in a wide variety of reference works in the field of psychology.
These not-so-solid web articles are not, of course, completely devoid of positive aspects. But there are, in my view, two common defects.
One such defect is that many of them lack references. This may be due to the author’s lack of research, or due to the fact that there are relatively few standard works to consult (as I mentioned above).
Another defect is that some of their definitions, as well as their comparisons with other neighboring terms (such as self-esteem and self-love), do not always make sense, or do not always keep the meanings of the different terms apart; and when they do keep them apart, they sometimes seem confusing nevertheless.
So it is my hope that this article and its definition of “self-acceptance” will provide a reliable source for those of you who want to know what this word means.
The Road Ahead
In Part 2 (“Definitions of Self-Acceptance”), I am showing definitions that I have found in major reference works in the field of psychology.
In Part 3 (“Quotations on Self-Acceptance”), I am presenting various passages from textbooks, monographs, or research papers that discuss the concept of “self-acceptance”.
In Part 4 (“Self-Acceptance and Objectivity”), I am discussing the “objectivity” requirement that is present in the definitions offered by VandenBos and Reber.
In Part 5 (“New Definitions of Self-Acceptance”), I am presenting my two new definitions of self-acceptance.
PART 2: DEFINITIONS OF SELF-ACCEPTANCE
In this part I am presenting three definitions from standard reference works in psychology: D1 by Ryff and Singer(1998), D2 by VandenBos (2006), and D3 by Reber (2009).
Definition D1: Ryff and Singer (1998)
The earliest definition of “self-acceptance” in any psychology reference book that I could locate is found in Ryff and Singer’s article in the Encyclopedia of Mental Health (Ryff and Singer 1998, p. 707):
[D1:] “Self-Acceptance 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.”
Thus, there are two perspectives that are highlighted here. First, that there is an acceptance of one’s current qualities, whether good or bad. Second, that there is an acceptance of one’s past experiences (presumably only referring to one’s current lifetime, and not referring to events and karma from previous lifetimes).
In another location in that same article, Ryff and Singer expand on their idea of “self-acceptance” by stating, as I read them, that self-acceptance is the most important factor for well-being of those alternatives that they have covered (Ryff and Singer 1998, p. 707):
“The most recurrent criterion of well-being evident in the previous perspectives is the individual’s sense of self-acceptance.”
And in that same paragraph they also say that self-acceptance is “a characteristic of self-actualization, optimal functioning, and maturity” (Ryff and Singer 1998, p. 707).
This can be interpreted as them saying that self-acceptance is a necessary requirement, or necessary condition, for self-actualization, optimal functioning, and maturity.
Definition D2: VandenBos (2006)
The second earliest definition of “self-acceptance” in any psychology reference book that I am aware of is found in the APA Dictionary of Psychology (VandenBos 2006, p. 827a):
[D2:] “Self-Acceptance n. 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.”
As compared to the D1 definition, the D2 definition adds the idea that one’s assessment should be “relatively objective”. This is, in my opinion, a very bad idea. In fact, it is such a bad idea that it renders the whole definition virtually unusable.
For what if a person does not have a “relatively objective” sense of his or her abilities and achievements, but nevertheless appreciates himself or herself to a very high degree? Is that then not “self-acceptance?
In other words, is the label “self-acceptance” only applicable if the subject uses the politically correct worldview of the psychologists (as indicated by words such as “relatively objective” or “realistic”), but otherwise not?
My discussion on VandenBos’s (and Reber’s) definition is continued in Part 4 (“Self-Acceptance and Objectivity”).
Definition D3: Reber (2009)
The third, and last, definition of “self-acceptance” in any psychology reference book that I am aware of is found in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (Reber 2009, p. 717a):
[D3:] “Self-Acceptance 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.”
In a similar vein to the definition offered by VandenBos, Reber qualifies his definition by stating that there is a particular condition involved in the individual’s assessment of himself or herself, namely that it must be “relatively objective” and “realistic”.
And since these conditions are required, then of course, “self-acceptance”, in Reber’s definition of it, is not just about the individual’s acceptance of himself or herself (and thus Reber’s phrase “Quite literally” seems like a bad choice, as well).
Rather, in Reber’s view, “self-acceptance” is about the individual’s acceptance of himself or herself, but only if the individual’s standard of appraisal is such that it is approved by a third party (namely the psychologist).
My discussion on Reber’s (and VandenBos’s) definition is continued in Part 4 (“Self-Acceptance and Objectivity”).
PART 3: QUOTATIONS ON SELF-ACCEPTANCE
Here in this part I am presenting various excerpts from textbooks, monographs, or research papers that discuss the concept of “self-acceptance”.
Some of these are definitions. But since these definitions are not published in standard psychological reference works, their definitions may not carry enough weight to “override” the definitions in the standard reference works.
However most of the extracts below are not definitions, as such. Nevertheless, I still believe that they are valuable, since the context may reveal various possible interpretations of what “self-acceptance” is, or could be.
Quotation Q1: Maslow (1968)
The word “self-acceptance” is discussed in three different places in Toward a Psychology of Being (Maslow 1968). The first place is on page 43 in Chapter 3 (“Deficiency Motivation and Growth Motivation”); the second place is on page 107 in Chapter 7 (“Peak-Experiences as Acute Identity-Experiences”); and the third place is on page 145 in Chapter 10 (“Creativity in Self-Actualizing People”).
However, unlike his usage of the word “self-acceptance” in Motivation and Personality, none of these three passages give us very much information about what self-acceptance really is.
This is because he is using the word “self-acceptance” in an “umbrella” fashion, as a synonym or near-synonym, together with other similar terms, in order to loosely define some other concept or idea.
A representative example of these three places is the following, in which he discusses some of the “aspects” of “peak-experiences” (Maslow 1968, p. 107):
[Q1:] “6. He is now most free of blocks, inhibitions, cautions, fears, doubts, controls, reservations, self-criticisms, brakes. These may be the negative aspects of the feeling of worth, of self-acceptance, of self-love-respect.”
Maslow’s idea here is supposedly that the negative aspects of the feeling of worth (and of self-acceptance, and of self-love-respect) includes blocks, inhibitions, cautions, etc.
But that information is not very helpful in our attempt to better define the term “self-acceptance”. For it is of course rather trivial that blocks, inhibitions, and cautions, etc. are “counteracting”, or contra-indicative of, a high level of self-acceptance.
And since he is doing his “umbrella” tactics, mentioning “feeling of worth”, “self-acceptance”, and “self-love-respect”, one after another, we also cannot get a sense of what the differences are between, say, his idea of “self-acceptance” and “feeling of worth”, or between his idea of “self-acceptance” and “self-love-respect”.
For more helpful quotations, let us now instead turn to his 1970 work.
Quotation Q2: Maslow (1970)
The word “self-acceptance” is discussed in two different places in Motivation and Personality (Maslow 1970). One place is on page 133 in Chapter 10 (“The Expressive Component of Behavior”); and another place is on pages 155-157 in Chapter 11 (“Self-Actualizing People: A Study of Psychological Health”).
Let us start by looking at these lines, which are located within a section called “Coping and Expression” (Maslow 1970, p. 133):
[Q2:] “Self-acceptance and spontaneity are among the easiest achievements, e.g., in healthy children, and the most difficult, e.g. in self-questioning, self-improving adults, especially those who have been or still are neurotic. Indeed, for some it is an impossible achievement . . . “
So the basic idea here is that self-acceptance is (or may be) easy (or easier), if you are young and healthy, and harder if you are a self-questioning adult.
Although it gives us some indication of how Maslow thinks about the difficulty or simplicity of achieveing “self-acceptance”, it adds little to our understanding of what self-acceptance itself actually amounts to.
Also, he does not present any scientific evidence that supports these statements, so the impression I get is that this is simply his own mind speculating, perhaps in conjunction with his own practical experience of people (whether in a clinical setting, or not).
Another observation is that he groups “self-acceptance” and “spontaneity”. Why does he do that? I don’t know. But the fact that he does it may indicate that he thinks that people with adequate levels of self-acceptance are more prone to be spontaneous than those who have lower levels of self-acceptance. But of course, that still doesn’t tell us much about his definition of “self-acceptance”.
Quotations Q3-Q5: Maslow (1970)
So let us move on to the big chunk of text that is found in the section “Acceptance (Self, Others, Nature)”, which spans three pages (pp. 155-157). Here we have three places of interest, all on page 155.
Let us start by looking at the very first sentence of this section, where Maslow (presumably) describes the characteristics of a self-actualizing, or self-actualized, person (Maslow 1970, p. 155):
[Q3:] “A good many personal qualities that can be perceived on the surface and that seem at first to be various and unconnected may be understood as manifestations or derivatives of a more fundamental single attitude, namely, of a relative lack of overriding guilt, of crippling shame, and of extreme or severe anxiety.”
Thus, a person with a high degree of self-actualization does not suffer from any considerable amount of guilt, shame, or anxiety. Rather, he is relatively guilt-free, shame-free, and anxiety-free.
So unlike the “normal member of our culture” (p. 155), who may feel unnecessarily guilty or unnecessarily ashamed in many situations, the self-actualized (and thus, the self-accepting) person is in a much better state.
And in the following sentence he seems to indicate that the self-actualizing person typically also is a person with high levels of self-acceptance (1970, p. 155; my square brackets):
[Q4:] “Our healthy [i.e., self-actualizing] individuals find it possible to accept themselves and their own nature without chagrin or complaint or, for that matter, even without thinking about the matter very much.”
Thus, for Maslow, it seems that self-acceptance is, more or less, a necessary condition for self-actualizing people. And that self-acceptance amounts to some sort of unconditional acceptance of their own (imperfect) human nature, reminiscent of “the stoic style” (p. 155).
In the following two sentences he then also adds the idea that such self-acceptance is not about being self-satisfied (1970, p. 155):
[Q5:] “It would convey the wrong impression to say that they are self-satisfied. What we must say rather is that they can take the frailties and sins, weaknesses, and evils of human nature in the same unquestioning spirit with which one accepts the characteristics of nature.”
And to exemplify this he says: “One does not complain about water because it is wet, or about rocks because they are hard” (1970, p. 156).
Quotations Q6-Q8: Maslow (1970)
Continuing examining that big chunk of text that we previously started with, we have three additional places to look at, all of which are to be found on page 156.
According to Maslow, there are several levels of self-acceptance. In the following sentences he describes the most basic level (1970, p. 156): [note 4]
[Q6:] “The first and most obvious level of acceptance is at the socalled animal level. Those self-actualizing people tend to be good animals, hearty in their appetites and enjoying themselves without regret or shame or apology.”
And then, a little later, he goes on to describe other levels (1970, p. 156):
[Q7:] “They are able to accept themselves not only on these low levels, but at all levels as well; e.g., love, safety, belongingness, honor, self-respect. All of these are accepted without question as worth while, simply because these people are inclined to accept the work of nature rather than to argue with her for not having constructed things to a different pattern.”
So the idea is that such people, in a way, unconditionally (“without question”) accept their current place in the world (cf. Q4).
The common characteristics of people with a high degree of self-acceptance are described by Maslow in the following sentences in this way (1970, p. 156):
[Q8:] “Closely related to self-acceptance and to acceptance of others is (1) their lack of defensiveness, protective coloration, or pose, and (2) their distaste for such artificialities in others. Cant, guile, hypocrisy, front, face, playing a game, trying to impress in conventional ways: these are all absent in themselves to an unusual degree.”
One problem with this quote is that he uses the phrase “closely related”. What does that mean? Is it a causal connection?
In any case, it seems as if Maslow’s general idea is that people with high levels of self-acceptance (and acceptance of others) are mostly devoid of negative traits and negative behaviors such as defensiveness, etc.
But he also points out that guilt, shame, etc. is not entirely absent; it is just that such persons have no unnecessary guilt, shame, etc. So normal “animal” functions such as urination, menstruation, etc. are part of the natural way of doing things, and therefore must be fully accepted (1970, pp. 156-157).
Another observation in relation to Q8 is that he treats “self-acceptance” and “acceptance of others” as two different things. Thus, Maslow presumably thinks that self-acceptance is not, to any degree, including, or depending on, an acceptance of others.
Quotations Q9-Q11: Yalom (1975)
Irvin Yalom discusses self-acceptance in one long paragraph in Chapter 3 (“Group Cohesiveness”) of his The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy (Yalom 1975, pp. 55-56).
[Q9:] “Acceptance by others and self-acceptance are mutually dependent; not only is self-acceptance basically dependent on acceptance by others, but acceptance of others is fully possible only after the individual can accept himself.”
One problem with Q9 is that Yalom both talks about “acceptance of others” and “acceptance by others”. So in the first clause he says that self-acceptance and acceptance by others is a two-way street.
But then, after having said that self-acceptance is dependent on acceptance by others (so far so good), he seems to slip, saying “acceptance of others” is only possible after self-acceptance.
So a “sloppy” reader might have read that last clause as saying that a person must attain self-acceptance first, in order for that person to accept others. But that is probably not what Yalom tries to say.
This is because the phrase “acceptance of others”, at least in informal speech, also can be understood as “acceptance by others”. So I will treat it as that. Thus, Q9 is still consistent, in terms of its logic: the mutual dependency between “acceptance of others” and “self-acceptance” expressed in the initial clause is now explained in a consistent (but confusing) way.
The confusion, however, does not stop there. For immediately after Q9, in the same paragraph, Yalom starts talking about members of a therapy group who “experience considerable self-contempt and a deep contempt for others” (p. 55), after which he, in that very same paragraph, continues (1975, pp. 55-56):
[Q10:] “The importance of self-acceptance for the acceptance of others has been demonstrated in research by Rubin . . . and found that an increase in self-acceptance was significantly correlated with increased acceptance of others.”
But is he talking about an individual’s acceptance of others or others’ acceptance of him or her?
It seems as if Q10 is an attempt to verify that group therapy works: the initial “self-contempt” and “deep contempt for others” have now been transformed to “more self-acceptance” and “more acceptance of others”.
And this reading is confirmed by the immediately following statement (1975, p. 56):
[Q11:] “These results are consonant with Fromm’s statement many years ago that only after one is able to love himself is he able to love others.”
Therefore, Q10 and Q11 seem harmonious. But what about Q9?
Well, Q9 simply seems to be talking about a different point than both Q10 and Q11. For in Q9, the phrase “acceptance by others” seems impossible to read as “acceptance of others” (although the converse is not impossible, as discussed earlier). But maybe that was what Yalom really wanted to say? Maybe Yalom wanted Q9 to be about an individual’s “acceptance of others”, and not about “acceptance by others”?
In any case, as it stands, Yalom’s account is confusing. And, as it stands, Q11 does not give any support to Q9. So Q9 is not experimentally proven, at least not by the referenced research by Rubin.
Quotation Q12: Fox (2000)
The word “self-acceptance” is only found once in Kenneth Fox’s article “The Effects of Exercise on Self-Perception and Self-Esteem” in Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being. However, that occurrence is, unlike most other quotations in this article, a definition (Fox 2000, p. 94):
[Q12:] “Furthermore, self-acceptance — the degree to which we accept our strengths and weaknesses, may also influence self-esteem, based on the assumption that we cannot all excel at everything.”
Regardless of Fox’s view on self-esteem and its connection with self-acceptance, we here have a clear account of what self-acceptance itself amounts to: “the degree to which we accept our strengths and weaknesses”.
One feature of this definition that we did not see in the definitions in the three reference works (D1, D2, and D3) is the word “degree”. For Fox, self-acceptance is not an “on-off” thing; it is a gradual thing on a sliding scale.
Quotations Q13-Q15: Palmer (2000)
The word “self-acceptance” is found in three different places in Introduction to Counselling and Psychotherapy (Palmer 2000). One place is on page 144 in Chapter 11 (“Multimodal Counselling and Therapy”); another place is on page 282 in Chapter 21 (“Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy”); and a third place is on page 354 in the Glossary.
In a small paragraph under the subheading “Lack of Self-Acceptance”, Stephen Palmer asserts the following (Palmer 2000, p. 144):
[Q13:] “People tend to link their behaviour skills deficits directly to their totality as a human being. Depending upon the particular belief the person holds, this tends to lead to anxiety, shame, anger or depression.”
So the idea here is presumably that the individual’s perceived “deficit” in their own behavior then leads them to a more “global” worry about their whole being.
This is, according to Palmer, then addressed in multimodal therapy this way (2000, p. 144): “the content of self-defeating or unrealistic beliefs is examined and is replaced by more self-helping and realistic beliefs”.
So here we have it again: the common belief among psychologists that “unrealistic” (i.e. “not objective”) beliefs are self-defeating, and that “realistic” (“objective”) beliefs are not.
Thus, although the basic idea of replacing self-defeating beliefs with more positive beliefs is a very good one, one also has to realize which beliefs are actually making the individual more happy (if that is the goal), and which are not. Are “realistic” (or “objective”) beliefs always making the individual feel better?
The second place where the word “self-acceptance” is discussed is this, where Michael Neenan, in a short section labelled “Self-Esteem Versus Self-Acceptance”, talks about Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (Palmer 2000, p. 282):
[Q14:] “Many counselling approaches want to raise clients’ self-esteem so that they can ‘feel good about themselves’. . . . To guard against such developments, REBT advocates unconditional self-acceptance whereby individuals refuse to measure or value themselves no matter what is happening in their lives.”
And this concept is explained further (presumably by Stephen Palmer) in this glossary entry (Palmer 2000, p. 354):
[Q15:] “unconditional self-acceptance the concept of never judging or rating oneself on the basis of one’s actions or characteristics, the opinions of others or life events. Rational emotive behaviour“
The perhaps obvious questions in connection with Q14 and Q15 are: Is REBT suggesting that raising clients’ self esteem is a bad thing? And how can one feel good about oneself if one never rates or evaluates oneself?
Quotations Q16-Q18: Ruini and Fava (2004)
The three occurrences of the word “self-acceptance” in Positive Psychology in Practice (Linley and Joseph 2004) are all located on the same spread within Chapter 23 (“Clinical Applications of Well-Being Therapy”), in an article by Chiara Ruini and Giovanni A. Fava. In the table on page 376 the word is mentioned in two places; and in the regular text on page 377, the word is used in a dedicated paragraph, under a subheading called “Self-Acceptance”.
One column in the table describes the “Impaired Level” of self-acceptance, according to Ryff’s 1989 model (Ruini and Fava 2004, p. 376):
[Q16:] “The subject feels dissatisfied with self; is disappointed with what has occurred in past life; is troubled about certain personal qualities; wishes to be different from what he or she is.”
And another column in the table contains a description of the “Optimal Level” of self-acceptance, according to Ryff’s 1989 model (Ruini and Fava 2004, p. 376):
[Q17:] “The subject has a positive attitude toward the self; accepts his or her good and bad qualities; feels positive about his or her past life.”
Note especially here that Q17 here is a very good representation of Q1, in an edited format. So Ruini and Fava’s representation of Q1 is reliable.
The core text then says the following (Ruini and Fava 2004, p. 376):
[Q18:] “Patients may maintain unrealistically high standards and expectations, driven by perfectionistic attitudes (that reflect lack of self-acceptance) and/or endorsement of external instead of personal standards (that reflect lack of autonomy). As a result, any instance of well-being is neutralized by a chronic dissatisfaction with self.”
Although the states described in Q16 and Q17 are clear, they do not, by themselves, produce the idea that unrealistically high standards necessarily causally create a dissatisfaction with self. Instead, high standards and expectations may in some circumstances be vitalizing, and exciting, providing a challenge and sense of purpose for personal achievements of various kinds.
Another issue with Q18 is that if we are talking about “a chronic dissatisfaction” with oneself, then there would hardly be any “instance of well-being” in the first place. So because of the individual’s chronic negativity, he will never actually reach any well-being to begin with. Thus there is no “neutralization” either. The individual’s persistent negativity pulls him or her continuously away from well-being, so that he or she never will experience it.
Quotation Q19: Keyes (2011)
The only occurrence of the noun “self-acceptance” in the article “Toward a Science of Mental Health” (Keyes 2011) is in Table 9.1, named “Categorical Diagnosis of Mental Health (i.e. Flourishing)”.
Keyes here defines 13 concepts that are related to mental health, including item 3, self-acceptance (Keyes 2011, p. 91):
[Q19:] “3. Holds positive attitudes toward oneself and past life and concedes and accepts varied aspects of self (self-acceptance).”
This is a very clear and concise definition of self-acceptance, and it has much in common with D1 (above).
Quotations Q20-Q21: North and Swann, Jr. (2011)
The word “acceptance” is mentioned in two places in the article “What’s Positive About Slef-Verification?” (North and Swann, Jr. 2011). The first place is in the section “What Can Self-Verification Reveal about Raising Self-Esteem?” (pp. 470-471); and the second place is in the section “What Can Self-Verification Reveal about Happiness?”
However, since I am here focused especially on “self-acceptance”, I am not discussing the first section here, since there are no explicit references to “self-acceptance” in it.
Instead, we are turning to their discussion on happiness and its connection with self-acceptance (North and Swann, Jr. 2011, p. 471):
[Q20:] “Our argument is based on the assumption that self-acceptance, including acceptance of one’s vulnerabilities, imperfections, and the full range of one’s emotions, is an integral part of happiness.”
And after that statement, they go on to explain that this is in contradistinction to other accounts of happiness, where they define happiness on the basis of “the frequency of positive emotions and infrequency of negative emotions” (p. 471).
Thus, they continue (p. 471):
[Q21:] “In contrast, we suggest that happiness is more aptly described as a compassionate embracing or acceptance of a fuller range of emotions, rather than one’s overall amount of positive emotions or net value of positive minus negative emotions.”
So their idea seems to be that self-acceptance is a prerequisite for (thus “integral part of”) happiness.
But since their idea of happiness does not necessarily include, more positive feelings than negative, I think it sounds less inviting.
For their definition of happiness is not really what most people would think of as happiness (i.e., being happy, being joyful, being full of energy, being interested, being full of knowledge, being loving, being appreciative, etc.). Rather, their version of happiness, and thus their version of “self-acceptance”, seems to boil down to a state of affairs that is much more broad, in terms of emotional range.
And this sounds, to me, that the acquiring of (their version of) self-acceptance, in itself, is not necessarily a a guarantee for feeling better; rather, it seems simply that it is a state of affairs where the individual accepts “reality” or “the world as it is” (p. 473).
This is therefore yet another account (cf. D2 and D3) where the psychologists are suggesting that self-acceptance has to include “realistic” or “objective” evaluations of the individual’s position in the world, and where the end result is not necessarily that the individual feels better.
PART 4: SELF-ACCEPTANCE AND OBJECTIVITY
In this part I am discussing the definitions presented by VandenBos and Reber, as I have presented them above (D2 and D3).
For a more compact discussion, I am just using the word “VandenBos”, so that I do not have to say “VandenBos and Reber” every time I am discussing this point. But my comments about objectivity are equally applicable to both of these authors.
Self-Acceptance and Objectivity (1)
There are several problematic aspects of VandenBos’s idea of a “relatively objective” assessment. The first one is that it seems impossible to achieve it.
The most obvious reason is because we are all individuals with subjective perception. And no man’s (or woman’s) perception is exactly the same; so one individual cannot really know what another individual perceives, knows, and feels.
So it is, in my view, not theoretically, or practically, possible to be objective. We are subjective individuals, and that is the only perspective we can view our world from. Different persons have different ideas about what constitutes “possible” or “doable” or “efficient” or “productive” or “good” or “bad”, etc.
Another reason for this is because no-one really knows what “objective” (or even “relatively objective”) amounts to anyway, when we are talking about people (as opposed to when we are talking about measuring atoms, photons, and bosons in the arena of particle physics).
Thus: What is an “objective” state of affairs when we are dealing with internal things such as thoughts, beliefs, and emotions? And who decides what is “objective”, and what is not? [notes 5, 6, and 7]
Self-Acceptance and Objectivity (2)
The second, and much more severe, defect of VandenBos’s idea of a “relatively objective” assessment is that it is prescriptive, not descriptive. In other words, it contains a recommendation of “how things should be”, instead of an acceptance of what the situation really is (i.e., “how things are”).
So if we are dealing with a question such as “What Is Self-Acceptance?” (as we are in this article), its definition must naturally be one that is anchored from within one individual’s internal situation, as evaluated by himself or herself, using one’s own current thoughts and beliefs.
Naturally, psychologists and psychoanalysts may also try to assess the situation from the outside. But that should not have anything to do with how the individual himself or herself evaluates their own situation from their own perspective.
Since the word “self-acceptance” contains the word “self”, it demands that the assessment of that self-acceptance is done internally, subjectively, by the individual himself or herself. And that assessment is what it is (i.e., there is no “should”). It is not dependent on any “requirements” or “recommendations” of “objectivity” by any psychologists and psychoanalysts.
The only exception is, of course, if the individual starts to listen to such “requirements” or “recommendations” and then incorporates those into his or her own internal belief system.
But even if that were to happen, the process is still the same: the evaluation of one’s own level of “self-acceptance” is done internally, subjectively, by the individual himself or herself, using one’s current network of thoughts and beliefs. It is independent of any “objectivity” requirements from other persons, at the moment it is evaluated.
Self-Acceptance and Objectivity (3)
So, one might ask: What was VandenBos thinking? How could such a mistake creep in, in a professional reference work published by the American Psychological Association, one of the most prestigious psychological institutions in the whole world? [note 8]
We cannot know for sure what the answer to that question is, of course. But my guess is that it is linked to a desire “to better guide the patient”.
For if the patient is not assessing his self-acceptance in a “relatively objective” way, VandenBos might have thought, then he or she might be so “off the road” about himself or herself, compared to how other people evaluate him or her, that he or she just won’t fit in in society very well. Thus, he or she might have trouble getting work, or having a hard time establishing nice friendships, or good relationships, etc.
Now, if this is what VandenBos was thinking, we may first say that it is, of course, not wrong to wish good things for other people. But that well-wishing desire, however, is not a good enough reason to redefine what self-acceptance amounts to.
Self-Acceptance and Objectivity (4)
Furthermore, one can also pose the question if it really is good for all people to try to become “socially respectable” or “politically correct” in order to fit in. Does that make everyone more happy?
Or maybe there is another requirement at play here from VandenBos, of a moral nature: that each person should be part of society, and should be productive, and should contribute to it, regardless of whether he or she is happy or not?
Whether that is what is going on or not, we can make a thought experiment. Let us play with the idea that becoming “socially respectable” or “politically correct” is the right way to go for all individuals (which I am not suggesting, by the way). In such a situation, the idea of a “relatively objective” way of going about things would still not work, necessarily, in all cases.
Sure, if the individual, from the start, had underestimated his own qualities and achievements and overall situation, then it would be advantageous for him or her to adopt better thoughts and beliefs about himself or herself, and the world.
But what if the person in question was overestimating his abilities and achievements?
In that case, it would be much easier for the individual to accept his situation, since he or she perceives himself or herself more powerful than he or she actually is. And because of such a perfectly positive self-acceptance, he or she would therefore be in a better mood, having skipped the “requirement” of being more objective.
The objection from some psychologists and psychoanalysts naturally might be something like this: “If the person has unrealistically positive ideas about himself or herself, then those ideas do not correspond to reality, so it will therefore backfire sooner or later in real life.”
However, one might not subscribe to their gloomy scenario, just as one does not have to subscribe to old-fashioned Freudian psychoanalysis. For one could say (as I do) that one’s mood determines everything in life (whether it’s based on “realistic” or “objective” ideas, or not). So if one is not positive enough, and energetic enough, then nothing works anyway.
Therefore, the most important thing is not to be “objective”, or “realistic”, or politically correct, but to gradually build one’s positive attitude and one’s positive self-acceptance, after which most other things will naturally follow in a more positive way.
PART 5: NEW DEFINITIONS OF SELF-ACCEPTANCE
In this part I am presenting two new definitions of “self-acceptance”: self-acceptance-1a and self-acceptance-1b.
There could have been several definitions more, if I had included various readings of each author’s definitions and usage. But I am not doing that here, in order to keep this article reasonably compact.
In order to produce the two new definitions, I am using the following criteria.
One important consideration is that of “authority”. For this reason, I am prioritizing those definitions that have appeared in the best reference works, either in psychology or in standard English dictionaries.
Unfortunately, however, no standard English dictionary contains a definition of the word “self-acceptance”. So we therefore only have three definitions, all from standard reference works in the field of psychology (i.e., D1, D2, and D3).
But the prioritization of these three reference works does of course not mean that we neglect the many quotations that I also have presented in this article. It’s just that these quotations must be treated a little differently, since they are mostly not definitions, but just places where the word “self-acceptance” is used in various contexts.
Definition of Self-Acceptance-1a
The first new definition of self-acceptance is built on Ryff and Singer’s 1998 definition (D1). This is, in my opinion, the best general definition of the three “authoritative” definitions (i.e., D1, D2, and D3).
Still, there are certain things lacking. One thing missing in D1 is the notion that self-acceptance is not an “on-off” thing, but a gradual thing. This idea was used by Kenneth Fox in Q12, where he was talking about a “degree” of acceptance. So I am incorporating that word into my definition of self-acceptance-1a.
Another thing lacking in D1 is a clear structuring of the definition, in terms of the sequence of mentioning, on the one hand, the resulting emotional state (RES), and, on the other hand, what things are needed “to be done” (TBD) for the individual to accomplish that state.
So in D1, the sequence of text is RES-TBD-RES, which is not ideal: “having a positive attitude toward one’s self” (RES) and “feeling positive about one’s past life” (RES) are both resulting emotional states, and should therefore be mentioned together.
And the phrase “acknowledging and accepting one’s good and bad qualities” is the basic “to-be-done” (TBD) and should therefore either be the start or the end of the definition, and not be placed in the middle, as it is in D1.
Another consideration of mine, in terms of thinking about what was lacking in D1, is connected to the idea of “unconditionality”. This concept was indirectly indicated by Maslow (in Q4 and Q7) and explicitly mentioned by Neenan and Palmer (Q14 and Q15).
However, I decided to not include that word in the definition. My main reason for that is that I do not want anyone to think that self-acceptance-1a is similar to the idea of “unconditional self-acceptance” as used in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).
Therefore, my new 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.
Definition of Self-Acceptance-1b
Although I do feel that self-acceptance-1a is a very good general definition of self-acceptance, we also have to understand that many psychologists (and other people as well) do want to impose restrictions such as “being objective” and “being realistic” in their practices.
Thus, we need a more specialized version of self-acceptance for them. This is what self-acceptance-1b is for.
To build that definition, I use my self-acceptance-1a as a basis, and then I add the condition that the assessment must be “realistic” and “objective”, in a similar way to what VandenBos and Reber are doing in D2 and D3.
Therefore, my new 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.
I have in this article constructed two new “academic” or “scholarly” definitions of the concept “self-acceptance”.
My first definition (i.e., self-acceptance-1a) is a more general formulation of self-acceptance that may suit those psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts who do not want to impose a restriction on how the individual’s assessment is done, in terms of how “objective” or how “realistic” it is.
The second definition of self-acceptance (i.e., self-acceptance-1b) primarily caters to those psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts who do want to impose a restriction on how the individual’s assessment is done, in terms of how “objective” or how “realistic” it is.
- The term “self-acceptance” is not found in the following standard reference works in psychology (arranged alphabetically, by author name: Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology (Colman 1996); A Dictionary of Psychology (Colman 2003); Handbook of Social Psychology (Fiske 2010); The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology (Gall 1996); The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology (Harré 1983); Encyclopedia of Psychology (Kazdin 2000); International Encyclopedia of Psychology (Magill 1996); Psychology Basics (Magill 1998); Magill’s Encyclopedia of Social Science: Psychology (Piotrowski 2003); Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Ramachandran 1994); Encyclopedia of Creativity (Runco and Pritziker 1999); Encyclopedia of Human Intelligence (Sternberg 1994); Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology (Sutherland 1995); The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (Weiner and Craighead 2010); The Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis (Wolman 1996).
- The word “self-acceptance” is not found in the following standard English dictionaries (arranged alphabetically, by author name): the DK Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (Abate 2003); Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary (Allen 1994); Collins English Dictionary (Black 2009); Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Gadsby 2000); Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (Guralnik 1978); Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language (Marckwardt 1966); The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Pickett 2018); the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (Simpson and Weiner 1989); the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Trumble 2002);
- The word “self-acceptance” is indeed found in the following standard English dictionary, but without a definition: The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Flexner 1987, p. 1735).
- Note that it says “socalled” in Maslow’s original text, not “so-called”.
- Does VandenBos and Reber really mean “objective”, or is it “intersubjective” that they are referring to? Cf. articles such as “Phenomenology” (Churchill and Richer 2000), “Objectivity” (Miller 1998), and “Intersubjective” (Narveson 1995).
- The typical hard-core physicalist “objectivity” requirement is discussed in many places. One good source is in Alexander Rosenberg’s Philosophy of Social Science, where he states that “Once we have recognized that [the idea that the scientific method is a human construction], we will be freed from the mistaken belief that the scientific method is the only way to acquire knowledge or even the appropriate way to do so in social science” (Rosenberg 2012, p. 135; my square brackets).
- Another place for “objectivity” discussions is in Churchill and Richer’s article on phenomenology in the Encyclopedia of Psychology. Therein they say that “phenomenology is the disclosure of things or events as they occur for someone” (2000, p. 168) and that “Phenomenology is also a philosophical position that asserts that objectivity is an unreachable ideal” (2000, p. 169).
- My current assumption here is that VandenBos’s definition (2006) was published before Reber’s definition (2009), and that Reber used the basic ideas (including the “objectivity” requirement) from that 2006 definition to construct his 2009 article. But my assumption might be wrong. For it could be, for example, that the prior edition of Reber’s Dictionary of Psychology (2001) might contain a “self-acceptance” article as well, in which case it would be the other way around. Then the idea would be that VandenBos had used Reber’s 2001 edition to produce his 2006 article. Unfortunately I do not have the 2001 edition of Reber’s Dictionary of Psychology in my private library, so I cannot check, right now, if it contains a “self-acceptance” article, or not.
Churchill, Scott D., and Paul Richer (2000), “Phenomenology” in Alan E. Kazdin, ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology. 8 vols. Volume 6: Optimism and Pessimism – Rapaport. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; and Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
Fox, Kenneth R. (2000), “The Effects of Exercise on Self-Perceptions and Self-Esteem” in Stuart J. H. Biddle, Kenneth R. Fox, and Stephen H. Boutcher, eds. Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being. London and New York: Routledge. [Link to book]
Keyes, Corey L. M. (2011), “Toward a Science of Mental Health” in Shane J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
Maslow, Abraham. H. (1968) Toward a Psychology of Being. Second Edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. [Link to book]
Maslow, Abraham H. (1970) Motivation and Personality. Second edition. New York: Harper & Row. [Link to book]
Miller, Alexander (1998), “Objectivity” in Edward Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Volume 7: Nihilism to Quantum mechanics. London and New York: Routledge. [Link to book]
Narveson, Jan (1995), “Intersubjective” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
North, Rebecca J., and William B. Swann, Jr. (2011), “What’s Positive About Self-Verification?” in Shane J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
Palmer, Stephen, ed. (2000), Introduction to Counselling and Psychotherapy: The Essential Guide. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. [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]
Ruini, Chiara, and Giovanni A. Fava (2004), “Clinical Applications of Well-Being Therapy” in P. Alex Linley and Stephen Joseph, eds. Positive Psychology in Practice. Foreword by Martin E. P. Seligman. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. [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]
Yalom, Irvin D. (1975), The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Second Edition. New York: Basic Books. [Link to book]
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Copyright © 2022 by Chris Bocay. All rights reserved.
First published: Tue 31 May 2022
Last revised: Sun 7 Aug 2022