A Research Paper By Jennifer Walker, Life Coach, UNITED STATES
An Exploration of Self-Acceptance
Self-acceptance has long been studied from a variety of perspectives within different disciplines including theology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. The understanding that self-acceptance is essential for confidence and self-compassion, positive mental health, and ongoing personal, psychological, and spiritual development has been widely discussed since the teachings of Buddha over two thousand years ago. The study of acceptance continues through modern-day psychological theories, therapeutic models, and contemporary literature. Coaching, with its philosophy of supporting clients’ self-awareness and growth, is well-positioned to join in these ideologies to promote the value and practice of self-acceptance as it relates to the journey of personal enlightenment and transformation.
History of Self-Acceptance
Williams and Lynn (2010) outline five historical concepts that contribute to acceptance:(1)nonattachment – to understand that things change and that to cling to or control leads to suffering; (2) non-avoidance – to confront things without avoidance; (3) nonjudgment – to experience something without evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong; (4) tolerance – to remain present even in discomfort; (5) willingness – to choose to have an experience or initiate change. This philosophy dates to early Eastern and Western traditions where teachings can be found in Buddhism and Christianity, as well as historical literature, and political and philosophical records. The understanding that acceptance requires letting go of thoughts, feelings, and experiences while paradoxically embracing the present, without judgment and with tolerance, remains central to the contemporary construct of self-acceptance.
We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. (Dalai Lama XIV, n.d.)
In ancient times, the belief in acceptance was philosophical and experiential. It was valued as a path toward spiritual enlightenment. The more one could accept the present without attachment, the more likely one would achieve spiritual awakening. It was not until the early part of the 20thcentury that these conceptualizations turned more toward human development and psychological well-being.
In the early1900s, much of the study of acceptance centered around the relationship between self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. However, by mid-century, the concept of acceptance began to be researched in terms of psychopathology and mental health treatment. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology and the psychologist responsible for the person-centered approach to psychotherapy, believed self-acceptance was
the foundation of insight (Rogers, 1940, p. 163).
With insight comes the ability to create change.
As the research continued, so did the understanding of the positive correlations between acceptance and any number of qualitative and quantitative measures related to happiness, relational satisfaction, and self-concept. It was widely accepted that self-acceptance was associated with improved interpersonal relationships, reduced symptoms of psychopathology, and a more desirable quality of life.
By the turn of the 21st century, there were a number of therapeutic treatment models, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapy, that recognized the implications of self-acceptance on psychological health.
Self-acceptance helps individuals to accept vulnerabilities and limitations as part of their life, fostering mental health in face of distress (Tibubos, et al., 2019, pg. 13-14)
Current Understanding of Self-Acceptance
In recent years, increasingly more research and literature have come out about the importance of self-acceptance. Psychological studies and therapies are being joined by models of self-improvement, meditation, and life coaching. Self-acceptance is a critical component of the process of worthiness, confidence, self-compassion, and self-love, all topics which are commonly discussed in current culture, and recognized as the cornerstones of emotional well-being, good mental health, positive relationships, and personal growth.
By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead, we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive. (Brach, 2003, p. 42)
While much has been studied regarding self-acceptance in terms of psychological theories and treatment, the practice of acceptance is now recognized as a basis for an overall sense of self and well-being. Through acceptance, we can identify the unrealistic expectations of self and the societal pressures that keep us confined. It can allow us to forgive ourselves for past mistakes and perceived failures, heal emotional injuries and trauma, and interrupt our critical thinking and rumination. Thus, becoming free to own our authentic selves and accept our self-worth without expectation, comparison, or judgment.
Brené Brown (2010, p. 39) defines shame as the
intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
This idea of not being worthy or good enough is believed to be a universal experience, at least at some level, for all individuals. A shared experience in theory, yet one that is intensely personal and private in practice, keeping individuals silent and isolated with their pain.
Many individuals can recall thoughts of unworthiness that go back to childhood. At a time when we were developmentally unable to understand all of what was said and done, we learned to internalize negative messages or unmet needs. These became beliefs and these beliefs became truths. According to Nicole LePera (2021, p. 110), our
core beliefs are our deepest perceptions about our identity; they were installed in our subconscious often before the age of seven.
Much of the work toward self-acceptance requires dismantling these beliefs, accepting, and healing the associated pain.
Self-Acceptance Case Study
Alex is a single 35-year-old woman who came to coaching after many years of therapy with the goal of reigniting her career as a performance artist. Alex presented to coaching as highly motivated, insightful, and articulate. It was clear she had done some important counseling prior to coaching to better understand her past, her family of origin, and her patterns. Alex had stopped performing for the last several years and was now interested in taking her career to a new level. She was interested in identifying steps and having accountability for returning to the stage.
As Alex discussed her goals and her prior attempts at achieving them, it became clear there was much written beneath her “story.” It was evident that there were old fears and underlying beliefs sabotaging her attempts at change. Alex had a genetic condition that involved visible physical facial abnormalities that began in her childhood. Her family was uncomfortable discussing the condition leaving Alex alone to manage her many thoughts and emotions. The isolating shame and embarrassment became a cage of self-doubt. A primary belief was, “I can’t talk about my condition or my appearance. It makes people uncomfortable.” For years, Alex performed by trying to tell herself that no one noticed and that her condition was of no consequence. While on the surface this may seem a healthy stance, it kept Alex in a place of avoidance and self-judgment. By exploring the beliefs that were operating in the subconscious– the fears of being different, of not being accepted, of openly acknowledging and discussing her condition – genuine self-acceptance and growth were possible.
Questions about her beliefs helped Alex to uncover thoughts about early emotional parental abandonment and feelings of shame and unworthiness. Alex could identify specific beliefs that were running in her subconscious, “My family (and people in general) cannot handle my condition,” “I am alone and cannot be truly accepted,” and “I must not talk about how I am physically different from others.” These entrenched thoughts, as well as many more, kept Alex from accepting her true self.
By acknowledging these beliefs, Alex was able to start to heal, accept and move forward. Alex was able to identify the parts of her that held these beliefs through questions such as, “How do you visualize yourself holding this belief?” For Alex, she saw herself as a young child. “What does that part of you need?” allowed Alex to explore her deeper emotions tied to these beliefs and begin the process of acceptance.“What are ways that you can show your acceptance of these parts?” promoted an ability to disentangle from the early messaging and create new thoughts of pride, confidence, and self-compassion. As Alex began to accept her fears and vulnerabilities, and accept and express the parts of her that were previously hidden or rejected, she was able to shift her perspective and identify attainable goals for performance with confidence.
Self-Acceptance is a Process
Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is — especially when you don’t like it — and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed. (Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p. 407)
Self-acceptance is a process that requires patience and practice. It is not a fixed state, but rather a fluid experience. Self-acceptance requires that we acknowledge our beliefs and embrace ourselves fully in each moment, for better or worse. Most of us are so accustomed to operating from the unconscious framework of limiting beliefs and false expectations that self-acceptance seems impossible. However, as seen in the case example, when we are able to increase our conscious awareness of operant beliefs, we can introduce new perspectives and begin the process of change.
In the exploration of beliefs, it is not only the antiquated childhood/family myths that come to mind but also the enumerable expectations internalized from our culture. We are bombarded with societal messages from media and our social communities about what is expected – what we should look like, what we should achieve, what we should earn, etc. – all of which are absorbed into our internal dialogue. These expectations, which become beliefs, set the stage for impossible standards of perfection and success. And, with this comes the cyclical dynamic of expectation – failure – increased self-criticism – lack of self-acceptance – expectation, in a never-ending pattern resulting in defeat and a recurrent sense of unworthiness. By exploring these internal and external expectations and teasing apart their personal validity, it is possible to break the cycle and begin replacing the expectations with individual core values and an authentic acceptance of self.
Self-Acceptance Through Coaching
With over two thousand years of evidence, the importance of acceptance is irrefutable. What remains in question is how to achieve it. Buddhists and early Christians spoke about the spiritual path to acceptance; early psychiatrists and psychologists documented the significance of acceptance in reducing pathological symptoms and improving mental health functioning. Coaching is in the unique position to bring all of these teachings into practice through an active belief in one’s life potential.
Coaching, with its roots in psychological theories, psychotherapy, consulting, and personal development, continues to develop as a practice and industry. It is well-positioned to move away from the medical model of psychology to a more holistic and empowering view of human potential.
Life coaches help clients discover their brilliance, which often lies masked or buried in their unconscious mind and can be experienced when they begin to design their lives consciously and purposely. (Williams and Davis, 2002, p. 11)
Coaches help their clients to explore their unconscious limiting beliefs and tolerate the related emotions; to shed their layers of expectation, fear, critical self-talk, and sense of unworthiness. As clients shift perspectives and develop new beliefs based on acceptance of the whole self –someone who is imperfect and vulnerable, makes mistakes, employs limits, and has messy emotions – they will free themselves for growth. They will create a new way of talking to themselves, free from constant criticism, and make better choices. Thus, creating a new cycle built on core values, realistic expectations, self-compassion, and self-acceptance.
Spiritual Enlightenment, Psychological Well-Being, and Personal Growth All Require Self-Acceptance
From the ancient theological roots of study to modern-day psychological research and practice, self-acceptance is understood to be an essential component in spiritual enlightenment, psychological well-being, and personal growth. Coaching, with its holistic approach and belief in personal empowerment, provides an important avenue for clients to continue the journey toward self-acceptance. From there, coaches can further support their clients to build their self-awareness, shift their perspectives, and truly achieve their life goals and vision.
Brach, T. (2003). Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. Bantam Books.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing.
Dalai Lama Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from BrainyQuote.com.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. Hyperion Publishers.
LePera, N. (2021). How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self. Harper Wave.
Rogers, C. R. (1940). The Processes of therapy. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 161-164.
Tibubos, A. N., Köber, C., Habermas, T., & Rohrmann, S. (2019). Does self-acceptance captured by life narratives and self-reports predict mental health? A longitudinal multi-method approach. Journal of Research in Personality, 13-23.
Williams, J. C., & Lynn, S. J. (2010). Acceptance: An historical and conceptual review. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 5-56.
Williams, P. &Davis, D. (2002). Therapist as Life Coach: Transforming Your Practice. W. W. Norton & Company.