A night without sleep, with a few hormones and the odd hangover thrown in, and we decided at my Happiness Club last month that negative thinking can become a cloud of doom. We spent the night sipping fizzy water and talking about how we can create more positive thinking spirals.
This month, we are focusing on how to accept ourselves, warts and all. ‘By being kinder to ourselves when things go wrong, we increase our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our wellbeing,’ says Vanessa King, positive psychology expert at Action for Happiness. ‘We need to accept that we’re not perfect and put our imperfections into perspective.’
Psychologists describe two parts to our wellbeing: feeling good and functioning well. The latter is thought to be made up of key psychological factors that contribute to how good we feel, including self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance has been a subject of intense psychological study. ‘Self-acceptance is knowing our strengths and weaknesses, coming to terms with our past and feeling OK about ourselves while being aware of our limitations. Self-acceptance doesn’t mean ignoring what we don’t do well; it’s about working with rather than against ourselves,’ says King.
Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis described two choices: accepting ourselves conditionally (for example, only when we succeed) or unconditionally (under all circumstances). The first choice, he says, is ‘deadly’. If we don’t fulfil the conditions we set ourselves, we think of ourselves as losers rather than accepting failure as a normal part of life.
Self-acceptance versus self-esteem
If we are low on self-acceptance, we can be troubled by aspects of who we think we are and long to be someone different. This can lead to dwelling on what’s wrong with us or what we aren’t, leading to negative self-talk. And this really gets in the way of making the most of ourselves, and our happiness.
There is scientific evidence to show that those with a balanced sense of self-esteem experience more happiness and optimism, and less negativity, depression and anxiety than those with low self-esteem. But self-esteem can also be problematic. Martin Seligman, ‘father’ of positive psychology, has warned of the dangers caused by overly inflating the positive side of ourselves. It can lead to increased sensitivity and/or negative feedback, making self-improvement difficult, and causing anger and aggression when our ego is threatened.
Self-esteem (as opposed to self-acceptance) is typically based on judgements of how good we are within specific areas of our lives. Because these judgements are dependent on how well we are doing in that area, how good we feel fluctuates based on our latest success or failure. Self-esteem also means that our judgement of how good we are is relative to other people, so it can lead to a sense of superiority over others, and therefore separation from them.
‘It’s good to explore self-compassion,’ says King. Research shows it’s associated with greater happiness, optimism, curiosity, resilience, and reduced depression and anxiety, suggesting it has all the benefits of self-esteem but fewer of the downsides. Self-compassion has three overlapping parts:
- Being kind to and understanding of ourselves in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy.
- A sense of common humanity, recognising that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of life for all humans.
- A balanced awareness of our emotions – the ability to face (rather than avoid) painful thoughts and feelings, but without exaggeration, drama or self-pity.
Kristin Neff, a leading psychologist in the study of self-compassion, says that if we think we’re the only person to not be good at something, it makes us feel inadequate and can lead to feelings of shame, which causes us to cut ourselves off from others. In contrast, if we realise this is something everyone feels at times in their lives, it gives us a sense of being connected to others and enables us to have the same concern towards ourselves as we do for those close to us.
Studies also show that self-compassion promotes self-improvement and reduces comparison to others. ‘It helps put our own issues in perspective and so reduces immobilising self-pity. Because it focuses on caring about ourselves, being self-compassionate motivates us to work through challenges and learn from mistakes,’ says King.
It feels like this month, we are putting together a lot of themes we have studied so far in our Happiness Clubs over the year, from focusing on our strengths to connecting to being kind. Have a great month.
QUESTIONS TO DISCUSS AT YOUR HAPPINESS CLUB
How to set up your Happiness Club
For more details on how to set up your own Happiness Club, see psychologies.co.uk/get-your-happiness-club-started. For video interviews with Mark Williamson, the director of Action for Happiness, and positive psychologist Vanessa King, and to see the highlights of the first ever Happiness Club meeting with Psychologies’ Suzy Greaves, click on: lifelabs.psychologies.co.uk/channels/154-the-happiness-club