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Ch-5: Develop Your Self-Worth and Self-Confidence

Part 3: The Self-Acceptance and Forgiveness Process

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter  5, Part 3, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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How do we love ourselves despite all our faults--Learning self-acceptance?

 The Keys to Eliminating GUILT and ANGER
 A technique for learning how to accept your greatest faults
 How to overcome negative labels (from self or others)



The Keys to Eliminating GUILT and ANGER

Dr. Maslow believed that acceptance of self and others (and all their imperfections) was one of the primary characteristics of self-actualized people. His description follows.

They can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings, with all its discrepancies from the ideal image without feeling real concern. 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. One does not complain about water because it is wet or about rocks because they are hard, or about trees because they are green.

As the child looks out upon the world with wide, uncritical, undemanding, innocent eyes, simply noting and observing what is the case, without either arguing the matter or demanding that it be otherwise, so does the self-actualizing person tend to look upon human nature in himself and in others. (Abraham Maslow, (1954) pp. 155-156)

The little, wide-eyed child Dr. Maslow described in this passage is the Higher Self. What I believe has happened for these self-actualized people, is that their Higher Selves have become the dominant parts of their personalities, and the other parts have become integrated with their Higher Selves.

We all do things that are dysfunctional to our own and others health and happiness. We are all only human and have many limits to our knowledge, skills, and resources. Our limits may create dysfunctional habits that we keep our entire lives. However, the Higher Self is committed to growth and to our quest for self-actualization. It wants us to have a happy, productive life no matter what our past was like.

We will never get rid of all our inadequacies or negative subparts. Getting rid of negative subparts is not our task. It is ok for those negative subparts to exist, but we must remove their power to control our lives. Our task is to strengthen the more functional parts of ourselves and learn ways of identifying, understanding, and coping with the more negative parts. If you can do that you will be making fundamental personality changes that will have effects in many areas of your life.

Psychologists since Freud have recognized that one of the major causes of emotional problems are habits of repressing, avoiding, or denying parts of ourselves that we feel bad about. We hope that if we just avoid these negative parts, they will go away. While this approach does have some merit in limited situations, we cannot just avoid major subparts of ourselves that continue to cause havoc in our lives. That avoidance can actually give them more control.

Self-understanding, self-acceptance, and restructuring our beliefs are the keys to getting control of our underlying negative belief systems. See the self-exploration process in chapter 2 and the sections below to explore beliefs about yourself and replace dysfunctional ones.

"We make mistakes, mistakes don't make us" (Maltz, p. 150 , 1960)

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Sometimes loving ourselves can be difficult. How do we love ourselves when other people keep telling us that we are "selfish," "stupid," or "dysfunctional"? Exposure to frequent negative labeling or name-calling from parents or peers can help cause us to internalize those messages. We internalize not only their messages, but we internalize mental models of the persons themselves. I have a little "mom" and a little "dad" inside. They have the same beliefs my real parents had when they were alive.

My inner mom is supportive, loving, and understanding; but mom never learned to have fun. My inner dad is concerned about "being the best," making a lot of money, and "having the best." My inner dad is intolerant of failure and used to yell "stupid" or "idiot" to me whenever I didn't do something perfectly. My Higher Self has learned from both parents. Over the years, I have usually chosen to listen to my Higher Self--not my inner mom or inner dad. Those choices have quieted my inner parents and empowered my Higher Self.

One client's father had been psychologically abusive to her. If she did not do what he wanted, he called her "lazy," "bad," or "selfish." Once when she went out without his permission, he called her a "slut." As a young girl, she tried pleasing him and tried to meet his sometimes high, sometimes contradictory expectations. She learned that no matter how hard she tried to please him, he would still berate her. So, she quit trying.

Consequently, as a teenager, she began to drink heavily, take drugs, and generally led a wild life. She eventually left home and started working. Her new lifestyle was a way she hoped to get even with her father--she intended to hurt him by doing the opposite of what he wanted. She also hoped that her new friends and partying would help her drown out the inner voices that constantly told her what a loser she was. Those voices came from her dysfunctional, internalized father. She responded by sinking deeper and deeper into drug dependence and guilt.

Fortunately, she began to see that her drug-based lifestyle was just making her more miserable than she had been as a little girl. She started college, met a new group of friends, went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and began recovery.

She came to see me because she was haunted by guilt. She said, "I despise myself for wasting eight years of my life." Learning to accept herself and love herself was difficult: her internalized father still told her what a loser she was. Even though she had improved her life, she those messages haunted her.

How could she get control over this part of herself that was so critical and responsible for so much guilt? First, we explored it thoroughly to see what its' expectations were. What did her father really want from her? He wanted her to be moral, successful, and happy. In fact, she finally concluded, the "good father" part of him really loved her and wanted what was best for her. It's just that he thought he knew what was best for her and wanted to control her and run her life to assure that she would be successful.

On the other hand, another part of him was quite "selfish." When she had lived with him, he wanted her to cater to him and be at his beck and call. Yet he would disguise these "selfish" motives by saying he wanted her to learn "responsibilities" such as doing his cooking, laundry, and housecleaning. If she didn't obey, he would say something like, "Look at all I've done for you, you selfish ingrate." The result was that she felt guilty, and wondered if he really loved her.

Once she understood that these self-expectations (and guilt) were coming from her internalized father and she could clearly verbalize them, then she could examine them from the point-of-view of her higher, more functional beliefs. One unrealistic expectation was, "I should never make a mistake. If I do, I should be severely--even eternally--punished for it." Another was "All addicts are bad people--permanently! They can't overcome this moral wrong."

Thoughts like "I am a bad person, because I am an addict" came from those dysfunctional beliefs. Once she was aware of these beliefs, she could accept or reject them based on how well they fit her newer, higher beliefs. For example, she could respond to these old messages by saying, "All people have great value--even addicts. I am not a bad person or a loser. I love myself unconditionally and am loved unconditionally--no matter what my past is. Even though I am not proud of all I did, I did not waste that time; I learned from it and could not be the person I am today without that experience. I will try to use that knowledge for my own and others' benefit." That self-talk was the only thing that had ever worked to help her get lasting control of her guilt.

She not only got control of her guilt, but she got control of the deep anger she had felt toward her father (and most men). She had blamed him--as well as herself--for her years of unhappiness. She had thought she could never forgive him. But she said. "Only because I understood and forgave myself, could I understand and forgive him."

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Learn how to accept all of yourself, your past and your future

The self-acceptance process is a method for accepting the parts of yourself that you may feel bad about. Think of some part or aspect of yourself that you don't like--especially some aspect that you can't change immediately. Use the following process to increase your self-acceptance of that part. Even if you do choose to change that part, gaining acceptance of it as it is now is an important first step to change. The first thing that Alcoholics Anonymous requires of new members is for them to admit that they are alcoholics.


SHAQ Research Results: Forgiveness


The Forgiveness subscale correlated with Happiness, .34; with Low Depression, .27; with Low Anxiety, .35; with Low Anger-Aggression, .49; with good Relationships, .23; with Health, .34; and with Income, .12. (For all correlations, p < .0001 and Ns ranged from 2093 to 2328.)


 SHAQ research (and that of others) supports the value of forgiveness for helping people have better relationships and find more happiness. Forgiveness gives to the giver at least as much as it gives to the receiver. Again, the control of your happiness lies within in your mind.


Step 1: CHOOSE TO VALUE TRUTH ABOVE ALL--Including honor and pride

The words "pride" and "honor" can mean many things. In certain contexts they can be functional concepts that enhance our lives. The idea of taking pride in our work and caring about what we do are examples of using the concept of "pride" functionally. Similarly, honoring or specially recognizing someone because they have achieved an important goal can be functional.

However, placing values best confined to specific situations above more important values can lead to dysfunctional results. When we put our honor, pride, or any other self-image above the truth, then we are inviting disaster--in the form of guilt hammering at our peace. Trying to drown guilt with alcohol, work-ahol, or play-ahol instead of facing the truth are dysfunctional results of putting pride above truth. Being completely honest with yourself is the first step toward self-acceptance--even when it means facing the worst truths about yourself.

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Ask yourself questions like, "What do I expect myself to be like?" "How does that differ from how I am?" and "How are my beliefs, thoughts, and actions different from what I expect them to be?"

Explore conflicting expectations from different subparts. You may find conflicting answers to these questions from different parts of yourself. One part may expect you to make a lot of money, while another part may think that money is not important. In other words, you may have conflicting expectations from different parts of yourself.

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Step 3:  EXPLORE THE UNDERLYING CAUSES--Knowing "WHY" increases acceptance

One way we give more control to our healthy parts is to understand our dysfunctional parts better. We can question and change these beliefs and learn more functional beliefs. Some important questions to understand why we keep performing unproductive habits include:

  •  When does it occur? What situations and stimuli regularly precede it?
  •  What thoughts and behaviors occur?
  •  What thoughts and images are associated with these thoughts?
  •  What overall themes, beliefs, or assumptions are behind these thoughts or actions?
  •  What internal or external outcomes may be reinforcing the thoughts and behaviors?
  •  What are the historical causes of the habits? (Eg. Parental or peer modeling, instructions, reinforcements, etc.)

 Use the self-exploration process to get at deeper causes (see chapter 2).

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If two lower courts conflict over federal law, then the conflict is referred to a higher court. Eventually the case may go to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court relies upon the U.S. Constitution as the ultimate code of law.

The same principle applies to resolving conflicts between lower parts of ourselves. We can choose to make our Higher Selves our Supreme Courts. We can give our Higher Selves this authority by choosing to resolve inner conflicts with questions like, "Which alternative will create the most happiness for me and others?" or "Which is the most honest?" "Which will lead to the most growth?" Our "Constitution" consists of values and beliefs such as these. (If you have not done so, make your own list of higher principles from earlier chapters.)

==> For every old or dysfunctional belief, question it, confront it,
explain it, or persuade it with a more powerful Higher Self belief.

We cannot unlearn old beliefs and habits. We can never entirely erase an old belief or habit, because we can never completely unlearn something we have learned any more than we can forget 2 + 2 = 4. However, we can get better control of these dysfunctional parts by (1) understanding them--especially their negative effects--and by (2) acting on messages from our healthier parts.

Accept the past as past--focus on the present and future. One client came in because he was almost 40 and had been in college for almost 20 years without ever completing all the courses he signed up for! He was intelligent, but had always lacked motivation. He typically set very high goals, and started semesters with a bang. If he had problems or lost interest, he would fall behind and then drop out when he was not making "A" grades. Many of his friends were professionals with high incomes and jobs he envied. He said, "I think I'm as smart as they are, but I've just wasted my life."

One thought that had haunted him for years was, "Look where I would be if I had just worked hard and finished college in my early twenties." This thought was so strong that it was a powerful impetus for his constant dropping out. He learned to replace that thought with a different point of view. He would put himself into the future 20 years, when he would be almost 60. He then asked himself, "How will I feel if I look back to the age I am now and say, 'If I had completed college then, look where I would be today'."

Whenever he would start to focus on the past missed opportunities, he would refocus on this new way of looking at the future instead. His new focus lite a fire under him. This was the first semester that he had ever completed all the classes he signed up for. Not only that, but he made good grades. He has since graduated and was completing his Master's degree the last time we met.

We are not exactly the same people we were in the past. One thing to remember when we beat ourselves up now for past actions is that we are not the same people that made the errors in the past. So, in a sense, we are blaming the wrong person. We have learned and changed since then, so why criticize someone that doesn't even exist anymore? Focusing on past mistakes (beyond what we can constructively learn from them) is totally unproductive.

Recognize positive aspects of yourself--including your goal of growth and your past growth. Review the sections on unconditional self-worth, your Higher Self, and the importance of measuring your life by how much you learn and grow. Focus on your ultimate concern of overall happiness, and adopt abundance motivation by being grateful for all that you have received. Identify past positive actions and aspects of yourself. Make a list of all the positives about you--as you are now.

Put this list in a prominent place and keep reminding yourself of these qualities. Convert these general ideas into clear visual images that exemplify these qualities. Never let yourself state negatives about yourself without also stating positive qualities.

==> Go to the "Rise Above" chapter 8, mental control strategy 4 to learn more methods for changing expectations.

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We can develop a huge fear about the truth behind a label. The fear of being labeled "stupid," "weird," "crazy," or any "whatsit" can be like a cancer eating away at our self-esteem. It can be a fear that others use to control us. It can prevent us from believing or doing many of the things that can help us grow and be happy.

One of my clients, a psychology graduate student, came in because he had low self-esteem and a combative relationship with a woman he loved. They got into arguments that started with mild disagreements, but quickly escalated into shouting matches or even physical brawls. He knew that he couldn't control his temper and suspected that it had something to do with his relationship with his father. He had tried to figure it out, but to no avail. Why did he always have to be right? Why was he so persistent and competitive--even over unimportant differences of opinion?

We explored his relationship with his father. His father was a brilliant scientist, had obtained a prestigious position at a very early age, and had achieved a great deal of recognition. But his father was very demanding. His father had hoped his son would someday become a great scientist. When my client was a boy, his father spent many hours training him to be a scientist.

Yet his father was impatient and short-tempered. Whenever his son couldn't grasp an idea quickly, he would use a negative label like "stupid." My client's mother was also very bright and had a doctorate. Intelligence and science were supremely important in his family.

My client felt confused about his intelligence. Part of him believed he was intelligent. After all, he did well in school, and he thought that a high IQ ran in his family. But another part of him doubted his intelligence because his father had called him "stupid" all his life.

When my client developed interests in art and psychology instead of "hard science," his father was furious and felt like a failure as a father. He told his son what a stupid choice he had made and nearly disowned him. His father was a role model of aggressive, dominating--even cruel--behavior. The goal was to win any conflict--no matter what the means or the cost. Even though my client was angry at his father, he admired him for his intelligence and accomplishments so much that part of him believed his father was right--he must be "stupid."

Yet being "smart"--even "brilliant"--was so important to him and his family, that he could not stand to think of himself as other than brilliant. He always had to be right--just like his father. To be wrong might imply that he was stupid (the ultimate sin). When a difference of opinion would arise with someone, he would either fight desperately to win and prove himself right or withdraw (out of fear of losing the other person's love.)

He, literally, didn't understand how to have a noncompetitive conversation over an issue and accept that two people could each have a legitimate point of view. He turned every discussion into a contest in which one person won and the other lost. His pride or self-image was at stake in every disagreement. This competitiveness undermined all of his relationships--especially those with women. Through self-exploration we had found that being thought "stupid" by himself or others was one of his worst fears in life. That was a major insight for him. But what could he do to overcome this fear?

Accept the implications of the worst possible self-label. Behind all of this competitiveness was his fear of a label. The idea of being stupid (or even not being highly intelligent) was about the worst possible self-label my client could think of.

We explored the origins of his fear. His family assumed that a person had to be intelligent to have any self-worth. To be accepted as a family member, a person had to be brilliant. He even said half-joking at one point, "I might as well be dead as be stupid."

We continued to explore his negative associations with the label "stupid." What if he really had a low IQ? What would his life be like? What would other people think of him and how would they react to him?

Then, I asked him to find scenarios of how he could still be a happy person even if his worst fear were true--even if he really had a low IQ. He faced his worst possible self-concept fear and found routes to happiness that were possible even with a low IQ. For example, even if he couldn't be a successful professional, he could still be happy as a carpenter.

He also confronted his belief that stupid people have no value with a higher belief that all people have value. Consequently, he found that he could still love and accept himself--even if he were to have a low IQ.

My client clarified how much "being right" and "winning arguments" was interfering with his relationships and life. He chose to make intimacy, empathy, and happiness more important values than winning and being right. He lost much of his need to defend himself against perceived attacks on his intelligence. He began to listen more, be more accepting, and be more supportive.

Why can't we all learn what even children say,
"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never hurt me"? [Unless we let them.]

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Remember, The more successful and powerful we are, the more praise and criticism we receive. More derogatory jokes, cartoons, and statements are made about the president of the United States than any other person in the country. Yet, by many measures, he is the most powerful and successful person in the entire country! What if the president couldn't stand criticism and got upset every time a politician or journalist said something negative about him? It just wouldn't do to have a thin-skinned president.

I asked workshop participants to list both positive and negative characteristics of the U.S. President. For almost every negative label, they listed a corresponding positive label that described the same behavior. For example he was called "slick" by someone who didn't like him, but called a "good communicator" by one of his supporters. The underlying behaviors that the two people saw were the same, but their interpretation of those behaviors was positive or negative depending on their point of view.

Behaviors are just behaviors. They do not come with labels. But--no matter who we are or how we behave--people will give negative and positive labels to those neutral behaviors. People who like what we do will use positive labels, and people who don't like what we do will use negative labels--for the same behaviors. There is no way out--even doing nothing can be labeled negatively. Certainly we will not think well of a president who does nothing.

What can you do if you have been inhibited by your fears of negative labels? First, assume that whatever you do will not be liked by some people. Those people may use negative labels to describe your behavior. They may also overgeneralize and use a negative label to describe you as a person. Not just that you acted "selfishly," but that you are "selfish."

Also, remind yourself that the more successful and influential someone becomes, the more they will be the target of negative comments. The more decisively you act, the more upset those who disagree will become. Learning to accept those negative comments is necessary if you want to have a significant positive impact on the world. Otherwise, your fear of those comments will keep you from speaking or acting assertively.

How to overcome negative labels. In addition to using the self-exploration methods, try using the following to help you identify and overcome some of your worst-feared negative labels.

1. Make a list of the worst possible self-labels. Follow your fears and imagine the worst possible comments someone could say or think about you. List them all--no matter how "silly" or unlikely they seem.

2. Accept the worst possible consequences and implications. Pick two or three of the worst labels to work on accepting. For each negative description use the self-exploration process described in chapter 2 to explore the implications of these self-labels. What beliefs or historical events with others underlie these self-labels? What are the practical implications for your life if it turns out you really are this way? What routes to happiness would still be open to you if the worst were to happen?

3. Learn to accept and love yourself "Even if I were a whatsit." Work on accepting and loving yourself even if you were this worst possible "whatsit." Unconditional self-love means that we can love and respect ourselves no matter what kind of a "whatsit" we might be. You are more than a label. You may do "whatsit" behaviors or even partly be a "whatsit," but you are much more than a "whatsit" and your essence is not a "whatsit."

4. Face the truth. Face the issue "How true is this description of me." Try to be honest with yourself and even seek the opinion of trusted others.

5. Do you want to make any changes? Keep working on accepting and loving yourself as you are now even if you do intend to change some part of yourself. As you begin to accept that you are an ok, worthwhile person who can love yourself being a whatsit, you free yourself to decide whether or not you really want to partly be a "whatsit" or not.

You are no longer being "pressured" into change by guilt, "shoulds," or internalized expectations from others. You can now ask yourself questions like, "Will's I be happier being a 'whatsit' or not?" or "Is changing from a 'whatsit' a high enough priority in my life to merit the time and effort it will take?"

PRACTICE: Learn to accept your worst possible self labels. Just as Roger Crawford learned to accept and love his hands and feet, we can learn to accept the worst possible "whatsit" that we might possibly be. We need to do this even before we face the truth. We need to follow our fears to the bottom or worst fear. Try thinking of all of the worst possible labels or descriptions you can think that someone might say or think about you. Then apply steps 1-5 above to overcome those worst possible label fears.

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We can't fully love ourselves unconditionally and accept all aspects of ourselves while we cannot do the same for others. We cannot accept the imperfections in ourselves and not accept the imperfections in others. Our Higher Self is too smart for that. It will not let us have inner harmony if we try to accept imperfections in ourselves and not accept them in others. That inconsistency creates disharmony.

We can apply the same principles to overcoming anger toward others that are successful for overcoming anger toward ourselves (guilt). We will not be able to rid ourselves of the anger unless we can do the following.

1. Accept the effects of their actions. You cannot truly accept or forgive another until you have accepted all of the perceived consequences of their actions. Begin by working on accepting those. Use your higher beliefs. Be grateful for the positives that you have. Find new routes to happiness--despite what they have done. Then the acceptance process can proceed.

2. Choose happiness and health over anger. Are you holding on to your anger in order to punish the perpetrator? Your anger is harming you more than them--is that what you want? If issues like fairness, justice, or revenge are central concerns see the appendix on Anger and Aggression.

3. Develop understanding and empathetic thoughts toward the perpetrator. We can use the same process of understanding, accepting, and forgiving others that we use for ourselves. Deep understanding of the causes and empathy are the first steps to accepting negative effects of others' actions. Understanding and acceptance helps reduce the blame and anger.

==> Go to the appendix on Anger and Aggression for more help on accepting and forgiving others.


SHAQ Research Results: Self-Worth


The Self-Worth Scale correlated with Happiness, .59; with Low Depression, .45; with Low Anxiety, .42; with Low Anger-Aggr, .48; with good Relationships, .39; with Health, .36; with Income, .11; with Education, .09; and with college GPA, .10.


The three Self-Worth subscales’ results were:

1. Love self and others; maximize and balance happiness correlated with Happiness, .57; with Low Depression, .33; with Low Anxiety, .25; with Low Anger-Aggr, .36; with Relationships, .43; and with Health, .31.

2. Unconditional self-worth (not dependent upon anything) correlated with Happiness, .36; with Low Depression, .34; with Low Anxiety, .38; with Low Anger-Aggr, .43; with Relationships, .21; with Health, .29; with Income, .14; with Education, .11; and with college GPA, .08.

3. Accepting all of self correlated with Happiness, .16; with Low Depression, .28; with Low Anxiety, .19; with Education, .07; and with college GPA, .07.


 According to my research, a person with high Self-Worth--who loves all of himself or herself unconditionally, cares for all others unconditionally, and attempts to maximize and balance happiness for self and others--is more likely to be happy, have good relationships, and have success in life. Consequently, developing your self-worth is an important part of choosing to be happy.


Note: For all correlations, p < .0001 and Ns ranged from 2593 to 3199.


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