Self-Acceptance: The “Missing” Strength Young People Need to be Taught to be Emotionally Healthy and Happy

Michael E. Bernard, Ph.D.
Founder, You Can Do It! Education
Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne
Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach

It is clearer to me today than ever before that at school and home, there is an opportunity to inoculate young people from the 21stcentury pressures of growing up. What I have learned is that we can lay a foundation of positive mental-emotional health for people of all ages. The foundation is strong and enduring, capable of withstanding a great deal of wind, hail and rain. The foundation is built from a combination of positive self-regard and self-acceptance.

Self acceptance can be considered an attitude, rational belief or character strength that remains stable across time and situations. Self-acceptance is a way of thinking where people accept themselves in spite of their imperfections and in the face of negative external events (mistakes, failure, disapproval, refection), they do not rate themselves as inferior or worthless.

In The Myth of Self-Esteem, my colleague and mentor, Albert Ellis (deceased) stated that self-acceptance is a single idea that can make you radically different in many ways and that you can choose to have it or not have it.

 “People’s estimation of their own value, or worth, is exceptionally important. If they seriously denigrate themselves or have a poor self-image, they will impair their normal functioning and make themselves miserable in many significant ways. When people do not value themselves very highly, innumerable problems arise. The individual’s judgment of his own value or worth has such an impact on his thoughts, emotions and actions, how is it possible to help people consistently appraise himself so that, no matter what kind of performance he achieves and no matter how popular or unpopular he is in relations with others, he almost always accepts or respects himself. “ (Albert Ellis)

Here’s how Ellis proposed how to help people feel worthwhile: (a) define yourself as a worthwhile person because you exist, because you are alive, and because of your individual character strengths and abilities that make up your uniqueness, accept yourself whether or not you achieve or people approve of you, accept yourself with your errors and do your best to correct your past behaviour; and (b) don’t give any kind of global, generalized rating to yourself, you, only evaluate what you think, feel and do.

More recently, I have added an additional aspect of self-acceptance; namely, self-regard. Positive self-regard has been identified by humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers as a fundamental condition of self-worth. With self-regard, people are self-aware and appreciative of their positive characteristics and developing potentialities (personality, aptitude, family, religious, cultural characteristics).

Self-acceptance enhancement has become an essential ingredient to the You Can Do It! Education program. Both in Program Achieve, our social-emotional learning curriculum for students in grades 1 – 12, and through classroom discussion, young people are made aware of the benefits of defining their own value in terms of intrinsic traits rather than external achievements, opinions held of them by others or body image. It has made an enormous positive impact on the emotional health and wellbeing of young people of all ages.

We are now finishing developing and evaluating a new, classroom-based program to strengthen the self-acceptance and self-regard of young people: I Am Now (I Accept Myself No Matter What).

If you are interested in self-acceptance, see my edited book as well as book chapter:

Bernard, M.E. (Ed.), (2013). The strength of self-acceptance. New York: Springer, pp. 288

Bernard,M.E., Vernon, A., Terjesen, M., & Kurasaki, R. (2013). Self-acceptance in the educational and counseling of young people. In M.E. Bernard (Ed.), The Strength of Self-Acceptance. Theory, Research and Application. New York: Springer Press, pp. 155-192.