The Importance of Self-Acceptance

One of the more dramatic shifts in understanding human psychology can be demonstrated in the contrasting views of Aristotle compared with his mentor, Plato. There is a famous painting by the old master Raphael of Plato and Aristotle. In the painting Plato points to the heavens whereas Aristotle points to the ground. This was a visual representation that Plato was an idealist, whereas Aristotle was a realist.

Plato believed that mankind was perfectible. There was no excuse for those that could not live up to his ideals. When we experience something that seems to contradict an ideal, we should reject the experience. For Aristotle however, our experience of the world is fundamental. Thus if our experience contradicts an ideal we should reject the ideal, not the experience.

Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University points out that the difference between the views of Plato and Aristotle relate to a disagreement about the nature of Human Nature. He defines this difference as a conflict between a constrained view and an unconstrained view of human nature.

Those who lean towards the constrained view believe that human nature is immutable and does not change. This is just another version of determinism. It proposes that human flaws are inevitable and the best we can do is to accept our imperfect nature and make the best of it. This was the point of view of Aristotle.

Alternatively those who hold the unconstrained point of view believe that human nature can be changed and improved. Sowell writes, “In the unconstrained vision, human nature is itself a variable and in fact a central variable to be changed.” This was the stance of Plato.

As usual, the truth lies between these two extremes. As we have discussed in previous essays human behaviour is greatly impacted by our biological history and our social conditioning. Such behaviours become part of our behavioural repertoire and very difficult to change. The determinist point of view would argue that there is little point in trying to change such behaviours.

But we can change our behaviours – not easily and generally not quickly. The general rule is that if we are to change a behaviour we must learn and embed a new behaviour. I have written elsewhere about the dilemma of accepting either of these outlier beliefs.

I talked last week about some of the problems of perfectionism. If we take the unconstrained point of view and we believe the attainment of any ideal is possible, when such ideals are not achieved we often blame ourselves. We can’t accept the fact that some of our ideals are beyond our capacity to attain. This is a huge impediment to self-acceptance. I took issue with the local university which has as its slogan “Become what you want to be.” There are many things I might want to be which are beyond my capability. What say I wanted to be an Olympic basketballer? Well I am forty years too old and at least 30cm too short! A young autistic boy who I know was greatly interested in computers and completed relevant TAFE courses. However, despite the fact he would have loved to become a computer technician his lack of hand/eye coordination prevented it.

On the other hand, if we adopt the constrained point of view, we take a fatalistic stance that our lives are essentially determined and therefore we have little incentive to try to change for the better. We thus achieve a form of self-acceptance (it is alright to be who I am because I have no choice in it!) but at the expense of realizing our potential.

Because the unconstrained point of view leads to self-denigration and the constrained point of view leads to fatalism, like the Buddha would have attested, there is a middle way. Proper self-acceptance comes from striving to develop our potential whilst being realistic about our limitations. This way we can continue to strive without an undue sense of guilt, because we know that our own limitations will sometimes prevent us from meeting our ideals.

Just as an aside, I read some material from the Israeli psychologist and teacher Haim Ginott recently which had a bearing on this issue. Ginott’s most famous quote is the following:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis
will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

Between Teacher and Child

Ginott admonishes us for not letting our children identify with and properly acknowledge their emotions.

Ginott said, “A child learns about his physical likeness by seeing his image in the mirror. He learns about his emotional likeness by hearing his feelings reflected by us.”

Harvard academic, Tal Ben-Shahar comments, “Just as a mirror does not preach to us but merely shows us what is, a parent should not preach to a child who is in an emotional storm.”

If a child says after an altercation with a sibling, “I hate him!” parents are inclined to say, “No you don’t hate your brother you are just disappointed that he hasn’t shared with you.”

We attempt to downplay the emotion of the child. As a result the child becomes confused about what emotion he or she is actually experiencing. In the end denial of emotions is not a helpful strategy in dealing with them.

Managing our emotions comes from our awareness. Being able to recognise our anger/hatred/resentment etc is the first step in addressing the negative outcomes of such emotions. This is the Buddhist state of mindfulness. If we are aware of the emotion as it is arising we can take steps to ensure that we are not at the mercy of the emotion but can do something positive in response. If we are led, (even through the best intent of others) to deny these emotions and to artificially suppress them they will more than likely play out in destructive ways.

Ginott continues, “A child’s strong feelings do not disappear when he is told, ‘It is not nice to feel that way’, or when the parent tries to convince him that he ‘has no reason to feel that way.’ Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished; they do diminish in intensity and lose their sharp edges when the listener accepts them with sympathy and understanding. This statement holds true not only for children, but also for adults.”

So, even here, self-acceptance requires us to be in touch with who we are. When parents try to suppress the undesirable emotional responses of children instead of facing them realistically they are hindering the process of self-knowledge and therefore impeding their ability to come to self-acceptance. Self-acceptance comes to us from a realistic knowledge of ourselves including a realistic recognition of our weaknesses and deficits.

3 Replies to “The Importance of Self-Acceptance”

  1. Ted you state “The determinist point of view would argue that there is little point in trying to change such behaviours”. As a flag carrying determinist myself I do not believe that there is no point in trying to change my behaviour. On the contrary, I believe I can make decisions about my future and achieve many things if I put my mind to it. Being a determinist changes nothing in the way I interact with the world, it simply means that I believe that what ever I do it was pre-determined. Just because the outcome is fixed does not make the outcome any more predictable, nor does it make the journey of life any less meaningful. When I watch a film I know the outcome is fixed but this does not diminish the pleasure of the story unfolding. I see life as no different.

    One thing that being a determinist has got going for it though is it does make it easier to forgive yourself. There are no bad decisions for determinists. If the decision was pre-determined how can I feel bad about making that decision? It was always going to happen. This still does not stop me from trying to make the best future decisions though.
    As far as I am concerned determinism is the easy stuff. It is 100% logical. The big bang occurred and it was those initial conditions of the big bang combined with the laws of physics of this universe that have determined everything since. To me that is a simple fact that virtually no recognised physicist will argue against. Anything else requires external (to this universe) interference and there is zero evidence of this.

    Determinism is something I find very easy to believe in. It does not in any way stop me from trying to make the right decisions, behave in the right manner or attain goals in my life. It does however make it easier to forgive and accept things in my life that I would prefer did not happen. After all they were pre-determined.

    1. Greg, you seem to be in great danger of agreeing with me!

      If you were really a determinist you would concede that you have no choices – everything that happens is predetermined by your history and circumstances. You state that you can make decisions, but I could mount an argument that making decisions in a logical way is part of your predetermination. Computers can be programmed to make decisions. But computers don’t make choices.

      Here is a personal communication that I have had with the good Dr Phil on this issue. (The material is from an unpublished manuscript that you are familiar with.)


      Throughout this book a clear distinction is made between the terms decision and choice. These terms are often used interchangeably in normal day-to-day discourse; particularly when the discussion relates to those decisions made by human beings. However, as will become clear in the arguments presented, this lack of distinction between the two terms results from the almost universally held implicit belief that when a human being makes a non-coerced decision to act in a certain way in response to his or her environment, the decision to act in such a fashion, rather than in some other way, necessarily involves an element of autonomous agency—a free choice or free-will—of the kind not available to other species whose responses are considered to be ‘determined’ by nature, nurture and environmental conditions. This belief, in relation to human beings, then automatically leads to the implication that the person could just as freely have made a different choice to the one that was made. Hence, if the outcome of the decision is deemed to be positive and pro-social, the person may be viewed as personally worthy of credit and merit, whereas if the outcome of the decision is deemed to be negative and anti-social the person may be viewed as worthy of blame and condemnation, and perhaps punishment.

      At the simplest level, a decision is the outcome of evaluative processes (in humans these are generally considered to be cognitive processes) leading to a course of action among several alternatives. A choice, on the other hand, implies a level of freedom that is not implicit in the definition of a decision. Computers are quite capable of being programmed to make ‘decisions’ in response to data inputs on the basis of assigned conditions, e.g., “If x is greater than y branch to line 10”. Animals make decisions on a more or less continuous basis as they evaluate and respond to the ‘data’ of their environment according to criteria coming from a combination of their genetic endowment and their history of reinforced responses. However, almost no one would rationally describe the decision-making of a computer as a choice—despite some emotional response that a programmer may make when the program they are working on has failed yet again! Very few people would rationally consider that a non-human animal had a real choice even when it once again soiled the lounge-room carpet—despite the tendency of the anthropomorphically minded owners to momentarily act as if that were the case. Culpability and belief in a ‘just retribution’ are generally reserved for human beings[i]. Dogs may be rationally viewed as in need of training, but not retribution. Some form of animal cognition is generally assumed to be involved when a dog responds to its needs and its world in a certain way, but people would generally view the owner of the dog as having a choice about the dog’s training—particularly if it soils in the street where they are just about to walk—but not the dog itself.

      For reasons that will become clear as the arguments are developed—and in clear contrast to the popular use of the term in a way that is consistent with humanistic notions of culpable freewill and responsibility—the term choice will not be used in this book to describe the outcome of any conscious decision-making process that takes place in the human mind. It will, however, be used in relation to one factor—and always the same factor—that is involved in any decision-making process. Though the nature of choice is indeed the central topic under investigation, decision-making and choice will be shown to operate at different levels in the hierarchical structure of the human psyche. It will be argued that although human beings are more or less constantly involved in decision-making throughout the day, with the outcomes of those decisions determined by a ‘matrix’ of four factors or variables, only one of these factors can be said to involve ‘freedom of choice’, or agency, in the sense implied by the libertarians and acted upon in popular belief. It will also be argued that although the other three factors can have almost unlimited variation, the factor in the matrix relating to ‘choice’ has only one degree of freedom and hence acts largely as a constant that links and provides meaning to the ongoing stream of decisions at the core, and generally unconscious, motivational level.

      Furthermore, it will be argued that the factor relating to ‘choice’, in the matrix of factors that combine to determine the outcome of any decision process, has a number of distinct characteristics:

      (i) Though it is causally independent of the influence of the other factors (otherwise its ‘freedom’ would be constrained), the orientation of this ‘choice’ variable determines both the core motivating purpose that drives the decision-making process forward and the meaning given to the other variables in the matrix, linking them together in such a fashion that allows them to serve this core purpose. All of which takes place at the unconscious level of the decision process. The outcomes of this process, and the rationalisations for such, are observed in the arena of conscious mind giving the impression that the whole decision process was rational;

      (ii) Because this ‘choice’ operates at the unconscious paradigm level in the decision-making process it is generally not seen as a choice at all in the conscious mind of the decision-maker at any time in the decision-making process; hence it is altogether possible that an individual may go through their entire decision-making life quite unaware of the only genuinely free ‘choice’ that was ever available to them (this has significant implications for the ‘justice’ system);

      (iii) The ‘choice’ factor in the matrix of factors that combine to determine the decision outcome is not optional; has no neutral position, and provides a more or less consistent theme that links, at the deep structure of the psyche, what would otherwise be an ongoing series of largely disconnected decisions;

      (iv) As the ‘choice’ factor involves one degree of freedom, limited to two incompatible alternatives, it acts, more or less, as a ‘constant’ in the decision-making process, however, a paradigm shift is possible and can occur at any time.

      For these reasons the term choice will often appear in the book, but never the term choices.”

      However the point you make in your second paragraph is one that I hoped to elucidate myself in this essay viz. that understanding how much of pour makeup is actually determined enables us to be a little more forgiving of ourselves when we don’t meet some of our ideals.

      But as Phil maintains our lives are not completely determined we do have a choice – but that choice is more constrained than most people recognise.

  2. It is probably too late to write comments on a past blog but I’ll do it any way. The good doctor Phil and I have had this debate many times. The problem I still have is:

    The single degree of freedom we do have – that single “choice” – feeds into or influences all other “decision” making. In other words the world is not deterministic if we have this “choice”. Or another way of saying this is that, a conscious and intelligent influence outside the universe and its physical laws has the ability to interfere in the universe. This is the equivalent of a God altering the world we live in and all the God arguments apply. Why would this God not give us all a paradigm of Love so that the hate and hurt we all experience disappeared?

    I have a problem with this so fall back into my comfortable deterministic world. Not nearly as horrid as Father Robin and others might think.

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