Many people come to therapy seeking to develop a high self-esteem. Time and time again, I meet with people who, after some form of rejection – a break up, negative feedback at work, someone ghosting on one of several online dating platforms – experience a shift in their perception of themselves.
How do we maintain our self-esteem in the face of rejection?
The answer lies in the very definition of what you hope to achieve: self-esteem. Self-esteem, as defined by Albert Ellis, father of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, is the rating of oneself in terms of two goals: achieving success and winning the approval of significant others. Both are two common goals that many of us hope to achieve and sometimes rate ourselves depending on how well we’ve met them.
The problem with striving to achieve self-esteem is that the self is an ever-changing and too complex concept to be viewed as a single being. The self is comprised of an infinite amount of traits – beliefs, behaviors, emotions, other attributes – that each represent different aspects of us. In other words, your performance, for example, is a part of you, but definitely not all of you. These innumerous traits are rateable, but the self is not.
Instead of self-esteem, we should aim for self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the ability to respect or approve of yourself even when you view your behaviors as undesirable. As Ellis states in his book The Myth of Self-Esteem, “It is good to achieve my goals because I desire to fulfill them. But I am never a good person or a bad person, no matter what I do. I don’t have to rate myself at all – only what I think, feel, and do.”
Some of you readers might be thinking that if you accept yourself, you’d be throwing in the towel and giving up on improving the aspects of yourself that you wish to improve. This, however, is not true in the slightest!
When you accept yourself as a fallible human being who sometimes does good things and also does bad things, you can then begin to change because you’ve made the distinction between you and what you hope to improve. In other words, if you begin to look at yourself as a person who sometimes eats junk food and doesn’t exercise, for example, as opposed to viewing yourself as a lazy couch potato, you’re more likely to be able to change the aspects of yourself that you want to improve because you have identified the traits you wish to alter without defining your totality as a human by these traits.
Because the majority of us are raised with the tendency to make these global ratings of ourselves – you are either a good girl or a bad girl – we are well versed in overgeneralizing. However, we can stop this tendency if we put in the work and practice self-acceptance instead.