Learning to Accept Ourselves Unconditionally

Learning to Accept Ourselves Unconditionally

One of my favourite psychologists is, the late, Albert Ellis who founded Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) - a therapy similar to the more widely known CBT but, in my view, it is more gentle and, whilst it is still challenging, I find it a kinder approach.

One of Ellis’s best-known books is “The Myth of Self Esteem” in which he challenges the emphasis so many people put on having a high self-esteem as he believed that this is an unhealthy concept.

Self-esteem is based on subjective opinions both of ourselves and of others. It is based on judgments of self-worth and is dependent on comparing ourselves to others both negatively and positively.

Self-esteem describes a person's overall subjective sense of personal worth or value.” according to Kendra Cherry in an article on the subject in “Very Well Mind”.

Ellis believed that this subjective view of self-worth is unhelpful and that it can lead to unhappiness and discontentment because it is so strongly associated with feeling that we “Should” behave in a certain way, that we “Ought” to have certain characteristics and that we “Must” always try to be better than we really are.

A more helpful concept to aim for is that of UNCONDITIONAL SELF ACCEPTANCE (USA) where we aim to accept ourselves as truly unique individuals with our own set of strengths and challenges. Working towards having a USA allows us to drop all the unhelpful comparisons to others and to develop an acceptance which comes from within rather than from needing a level of admiration from external sources.

To truly develop self-acceptance, we need to work on self-compassion and learn to be kinder to ourselves. This can take many years to fully achieve, but I agree with Ellis that it is well worth putting in the work so that we can ultimately accept ourselves unconditionally.

So, what does Unconditional Self-Acceptance mean?

As I see it, this means that we avoid comparing ourselves unfavourably to others. Whether that’s comparing ourselves unfavourably to other horse riders we encounter or whether it’s comparing ourselves to supermodels, we see in magazines and feeling dissatisfied with our appearance. In both cases, comparison usually leads to disappointment.

Unconditional self-acceptance in the horse-riding world, also means that we relieve ourselves of the pressure that we ‘should’ or ‘must’ ride at a certain level or jump a particular height. On the contrary, we push ourselves to do these things because we want to and we wish to develop and learn not because we feel under pressure, but for the joy of gaining knowledge and experience.

Unconditionally accepting ourselves means that we don’t generalise our mistakes. So instead of telling yourself that you’re a “rubbish rider” because you’ve been eliminated at the first fence you tell yourself that you simply made a mistake and you’re going to work out why the heck you did that and avoid making the same mistake again!

Learning to accept ourselves unconditionally can be hugely challenging because it often includes letting go of conditioned ways of thinking and acting, which may go back to early parenting or school days.  

In an ideal and truly nourishing environment, children will be loved unconditionally simply because they exist rather than because they behave in a certain way. Unfortunately for very many people, this isn’t the case, and the giving of love comes with behaviour prerequisites as something which has to be earned. Many people therefore reach adulthood with a pretty high degree of disapproval and criticism which has come from family, teachers and peers and we unconsciously absorb this, leading to self-doubt and a feeling that we aren’t good enough. These beliefs can be very difficult to overcome, but with help, understanding and support, it is most definitely possible.

Unconditional self-acceptance does NOT mean that we let ourselves off with bad behaviour or with not working hard.   Instead, we recognise ourselves as flawed human beings who don’t always get things right. We aren’t defined by our weaknesses and our mistakes but instead we treat ourselves with compassion and work on developing an understanding of our behaviours so that we can let go of characteristics which don’t help us find true happiness and nurture the more positive sides of ourselves.

At the same time, as learning to accept ourselves, we also need to learn to accept others.  This means learning to be less judgemental and to avoid labelling people. This can be highly difficult, especially if we have had many years of feeling negatively towards others who don’t think, behave and even look like we do. When we can let go of pre-conceived assumptions and labels, then we open up so many possibilities for learning and friendship with a kinder attitude.

Working towards this way of thinking isn’t easy, but it could just be where a more sustainable level of happiness lies.

Jane Brindley

Jane Brindley

Equestrian confidence and mindset coach using hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and performance coaching. Works with riders off horse in person and online. Based in Scotland and connected Worldwide.