Acceptance isn’t Approval by Ian Martin
Much of the time, when working with REBT, we spend time striving to achieve ‘unconditional self-acceptance’, and this work can be quite challenging, especially when we have spent such a long time beating up on ourselves, or ‘self-depreciating’. When experiencing failure we may have concluded that this makes us a failure as a human being. Alternatively, when experiencing a significant loss which is difficult to bear, we may conclude that this makes us ‘a loser’. When we self depreciate, it becomes habitual and there is an emotional consequence.
In these situations we may work therapeutically toward ‘unconditional self-acceptance’, but one of the earliest obstacles to self-acceptance is often stated, ‘but if I accept myself aren’t I saying that I’m okay, or that it doesn’t matter?’ In other words, we confuse acceptance with approval. In this case we benefit from remembering that acceptance isn’t the same thing as approval.
Approval is a positive evaluation. When we approve of something we are evaluating it in a positive way and assigning it a positive value. When we disapprove of something we are evaluating it negatively and assigning it a negative value. Acceptance is neutral, and requires neither approval nor disapproval, neither a positive evaluation nor a negative one.
If I choose to accept myself in the event of a significant failure, I do not need to approve of the failure, or disapprove of myself as a human being, I can simply accept the fact that there has been a failure and accept that this has happened because I am a human being and all human beings fail as well as succeed. I don’t need to feel ‘OK’ about it or tell myself that it doesn’t matter. Failure does matter, and I don’t like it, but this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have happened, or that the fact that it did happen makes me a failure as a human being.
Self acceptance is neutral and it doesn’t require us to rate ourselves because of things that happen or the things that we do. We can of course rate our behaviour or performance in a positive or negative way. This means we can choose to accept that bad things can and do happen and that they are human experiences even though they are not what we would have wished for.
When we recognise that ‘acceptance isn’t approval’ we give ourselves the opportunity to accept ourselves, others and life itself, simply because it exists, and has a right to. Once we overcome this basic misunderstanding, unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance and life-acceptance become so much easier to achieve, or work toward, and the healthy emotional consequences become that much easier to experience.