“Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it’s conditional.” Albert Ellis
Problems of low self-esteem arise in emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, anger, hurt, guilt, jealousy, envy and shame and in many specific areas such as relationship problems, anxiety disorders, performance anxiety to name but a few.
When low self-esteem predominates in people’s problems, their unhealthy or irrational beliefs largely take the form of rigid demands and self-depreciation beliefs.
A demand is the rigid expression of a desire for something and takes the form of an absolute such as ‘must,’ ‘I have to’, ‘I absolutely should’ e.g. ‘I must not fail’.
A demand is essentially a ‘non acceptance’ belief. It is inconsistent with reality. It is important to note that acceptance does not mean ‘approval’. It simply means the acceptance and acknowledgment of a past, present, future event. The event can be real or imaginary and internal or external. Internal events are any events or triggers in the mind and the body e.g. an image, a memory, a physiological sensation or symptom, an inference/thought or an emotion.
This is a global negative rating of the self. The self is rated as ‘totally bad’, ‘total failure’ and so on e.g. ‘I am a failure or worthless because I failed’.
The combination of a demand and self damning belief leads to problems of low self-esteem.
General examples of low self-esteem beliefs:
- ‘I am bad because I let someone down’
- ‘I’m a failure because I failed’
- ‘I’m worthless if people judged me negatively’
- ‘I’m worthless because I’m not in a relationship’
- ‘I’m weak because I’m depressed’
- ‘I’m undeserving because I’m not perfect’
- ‘I’m useless because I made a mistake’
There are two additional irrational beliefs according to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory but they are not involved with problems of low esteem. They are noted below for information only.
‘Awfulising’ is an unrealistic rating of how bad it is that a person’s demand has not been met. The badness of the situation is rated at 100% or more bad. The person believes that it is the worst thing that he/she can ever experience. e.g. ‘it’s awful that I failed’.
Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT)
Also known as LFT, this is an irrational rating of a person’s ability to handle or cope with difficulty or frustration e.g. ‘I cannot tolerate failure’.
An individual may have all of the above unhealthy beliefs which can also interact with one another in complex ways.
Unhealthy negative emotions and unhelpful behaviours
When beliefs based on self-esteem are triggered they tend to provoke strong unhealthy negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, hurt, guilt and so on as well as unhelpful behaviours and coping strategies.
Whilst there are many different unhelpful coping styles Schema Therapy summarises them elegantly in three broad ways; surrender responses, avoidant responses and overcompensation responses.
Surrender coping style is the tendency to give in to one’s beliefs and perceptions. Instead of challenging the unhealthy beliefs, the person submits to them, passively and helplessly.
Avoidant coping responses involve an avoidance of people, situations, objects, feelings, symptoms, thoughts and images that trigger one’s unhealthy beliefs and schemas.
Overcompensating coping responses represent attempts to ‘do the opposite’ of the unhealthy beliefs. A person who is ignored may learn to capture the attention of others by being extra charming.
According to REBT theory, unconditional self-acceptance is the healthy alternative to self-depreciation or low self-esteem. Unconditional self-acceptance is found when people hold full ‘preferences’. These are desires about the way they want themselves, others and the world to be, but which are not then transformed into rigid demands. Such a belief is termed ‘healthy’ or rational. When an individual holds a healthy belief but experiences a negative activating event, he or she will experience healthy negative emotions e.g. concern instead of anxiety, sadness instead of depression and annoyance instead of irrational anger etc. as well as engaging in helpful and constructive behaviours.
According to REBT theory, when people experience healthy negative emotions about actual or perceived negative events they do so because they hold healthy beliefs about these events.
Correlation evidence linking the two key concepts of irrational or unhealthy beliefs and unconditional self-acceptance has been demonstrated (Davies, F.M., 2006). Individuals who scored highly on unconditional self-acceptance scored low on irrational beliefs. Unconditional self-acceptance was found to be significantly (negatively) correlated with neuroticism.
When people experience healthy negative emotions their beliefs largely take the form of full preferences and self-acceptance beliefs.
This is the healthy and flexible equivalent of the same desire but without the rigid demand e.g. ‘I would prefer not fail but it doesn’t mean that I must not’.
Preference beliefs can also be expressed in terms of acceptance i.e. I would prefer not fail but I accept/acknowledge the possibility exists for me as it does for everyone else’.
Unconditional self-acceptance belief
A healthy, rational and realistic view of the self, other people and the world around you e.g. ‘I am not a total failure, even though I have failed. I am a fallible human being and my worth does not depend on whether I fail or not’.
Such beliefs (preference and unconditional self-acceptance) do not completely account for the existence of healthy negative emotions whenever they occur because such emotions are also underpinned by beliefs related to high frustration tolerance and realistic assessment of badness. There are two additional rational beliefs according to REBT theory. They are noted below for information only.
This is the healthy and realistic rating of the badness e.g. ‘it is bad to fail but it certainly is not awful. Worse things exist’.
High Frustration Tolerance (HFT)
Also called HFT, this is a rational evaluation of one’s ability to handle difficulty or frustration e.g. ‘failure is difficult for me but I can stand it and handle it’.
Why should you unconditionally accept yourself?
Unconditional self-acceptance is based on realistic assessment of the self and leads to healthy psychological states and increases the chances of achieving goals. The problem with the concept of self-esteem is that it implies that you can rate a person globally. In order to do that it is important to define clearly the terms ‘self’ and ‘esteem’. Self-esteem means to esteem the self i.e. to value the self. People tend to esteem the self positively and negatively.
In order to rate or esteem the ‘self’ the first thing that needs to be done is figure out what the ‘self’ comprises. Hauck (1991) defined the self as ‘every conceivable thing about you that can be rated’. The list would be endless and so far impossible to construct. Therefore, our ‘self’ is too complex to be given a single rating. The only way that the self could be rated would be if we were a single-cell organism.
Humans are complex, with billions of thoughts, myriads of emotions, habits, traits, characteristics, past, present, future, achievements, behaviours and biological and psychological bits and pieces, positives, negatives and everything in between. It is, therefore, not scientifically possible to give ourselves an accurate single rating. When we do, it is usually making a generalisation about a specific failure or issue, and has little to do with reality. We are also constantly changing and evolving, so that any possible accurate rating would be out of date as soon as it was made. If an individual believes he is a failure his belief is empirically inaccurate, simply speaking totally untrue. For example, if it was true that getting rejected proves he is a failure, then everything about him would have to also fail the instant rejection happened. This is clearly not the case.
It makes logical sense to evaluate certain aspects of the self because this can help in the pursuit of goals and purposes. It does not logically follow that the entire self should be rated the same. A judgement that failing at something makes one a total failure does not make sense and is an over-generalisation. This is nothing more than bias and discrimination against the self. It is possible to rate specific aspects of the self such as behaviour, performance, attitude on any given day but a person is too complex and unique to warrant a single legitimate rating.
Human being are fallible. This means that we are not perfect and with imperfection comes all the issues we do not like e.g. making mistakes, being judged negatively, failing, getting rejected etc. The list is endless. Self-acceptance means acknowledging the reality of being fallible human beings. Self-acceptance helps us to learn, improve and strive for the things that we desire in an enlightened way.
CCBT will be running a CPD workshop on Learning Self-Acceptance for the National Counselling Society. For details please go to:
REBT is one of the cognitive behaviour therapies under the CBT umbrella. It is a trans-diagnostic, evidence based, and humanistic model developed by Albert Ellis.
Davies, F.M., (2006). Irrational Beliefs and Unconditional Self-Acceptance. Correlational Evidence Linking Two Key features of REBT. Journal of Rational Emotive & Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Vol. 24, No 2. Summer 2006.
Dryden, W. (1999) Rational Emotive Behavioural Counselling in Action, 2nd Edition. London: Sage.
Ellis, A. (1994). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Revised and updated edition. New York: Birch Lane Press.
Hauck, P., (1991). Hold Your Head Up High. Sheldon Press.
Joseph, A & Chapman, M. (2013). Visual CBT. Capstone.
Joseph, A. (2009). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: Your route out of perfectionism, self sabotage and other unwanted habits: Capstone Publishing.