When I was growing up, self-confidence and self-esteem were THE buzzwords. They were the reason someone was successful or unsuccessful, outgoing or shy, popular or a loner, good or bad at something, and any number of dichotomies you can conceive. Self-confidence was the be-all, end-all of the well-adjusted child. So why do so many Millennials seem to struggle with it?
First, I would venture to say there is no such thing as a “well-adjusted” person, child or adult. Life is hard and everyone is shaped by their unique experiences. So right now, let’s throw out the term “well-adjusted.” Rather, what we should consider is something more elusive and unique to our individual experiences: self-acceptance.
Let’s play a little word game.
There is a prevailing school of thought among psychologists that self-confidence can be self-defeating because it focuses on what one does well but it does not account for failures or skills one lacks which can lead to an unbalanced self-view.
On the flip side of that, self-esteem, though similar, carries a different connotation: it can be viewed as rooted in pride and thus represents a more arrogant and self-promoting vision of the self. Self-esteem is based in the exercise of celebrating recognized skills and talents which also results in an unbalanced self-view.
So the new, but more balanced, buzzword in the psychology of self-development is self-acceptance. While on the surface, it would appear to be rooted solidly in self-esteem and self-confidence, there is one important difference: self-acceptance is the practice of accepting everything about yourself, including successes and failures, talents and shortcomings, strengths and weaknesses. Overall, self-acceptance is about forgiveness and mindful self-development.
So why does it matter?
Self-acceptance is a guiding principle of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), developed by Dr. Steven Hayes in the 1980s as a treatment for depression. It has since expanded well beyond treatment and become a new way to build sustainable confidence. Focused on healing, self-acceptance is different from other types of confidence building (like self-esteem and self-confidence) because a foundational principle is the practice of letting go of self-judgement. It’s about accepting that you can be intelligent and make mistakes and that it is okay.
From this perspective, confidence is not the absence of fear, self-doubt, or self-judgement, but the ability to recognize it, acknowledge it, and say “nonetheless, I am worthwhile.”
Speaking from experience, self-acceptance is particularly hard for those who have high expectations for themselves. I personally struggle with letting go of mistakes, especially those that result in something I perceive as embarrassing or opening me up to criticism or judgement from others. I have been known to beat myself up for years after an embarrassing situation. Like that one time in undergrad (nearly 10 years ago) that I made a comment in class in response to a question that resulted in an awkward, 5 second silence. The professor politely smiled at me and said “That is an interesting thought,” then said to the class “Any other thoughts?” Mortified, I kept my head down for the remainder of the class and didn’t speak up in any class for several days after that.
While I do not have a fear of public speaking, this experience continues to haunt me, gracing me with a small voice in the back of my mind saying “Remember that one time…” whenever I consider speaking in a group forum. I have learned to muffle it, but it still nudges me to remind me it is there. As a result, a major part of my self-acceptance journey is learning to forgive mistakes and recognize that no one remembers them except me. One of my mantras is “I am a work in progress and that is okay.”
Self-acceptance is a useful way to re-frame confidence to account for the whole you, including your successes, failures, talents, challenges, and conditions. Accepting everything about you will help you shape your life to be self-fulfilling.
So I encourage you to ask yourself:
If I muffled the self-judgement and had limitless confidence, how would my life be different?