The importance of unconditional self-acceptance

Self-acceptance versus self-esteem

Photo Credit: taylormcquarrie via Compfight cc

In our recent reader survey, you said self-esteem was a top 3 concern in parenting your teenagers. We’re committed to bringing you more articles on this topic, starting with this one by teenage coach Ray Mathis, who explains the connection between shame and self-esteem, according to Rational emotive behavior therapy.

What is shame?

Shame is what we feel when we believe we don’t live up to expectations. We all have plenty of expectations of us starting early in life. Plenty of expectations means plenty of opportunities to feel shame.

Many children and teens are even regularly told, “You should be ashamed of yourself”. No one should ever say that to a child or teen. We have every right to not like what they say or do, and to tell them so in a reasonable and respectful way, and ask them to stop, and back it up with consequences if necessary. But kids will shame themselves enough without our help, some even to a morbid level that may one day cost them their lives. People sometimes say, “The problem with these kids is they have no shame”. Actually, the opposite is true.

“People sometimes say, ‘The problem with these kids is they have no shame’. Actually, the opposite is true.”

Shame also often plays out as anger, as people try to protect themselves from feeling ashamed when confronted by others. Anger gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. As long as they stay angry, they don’t have to feel ashamed. Unfortunately, teachers and parents often react to the anger rather than recognize it as the person simply trying to protect themselves against real and intense shame they are generating in their own minds.

How to recognise shame

Shame can be a primary and secondary disturbance. It’s often the primary feeling people seek relief from through alcohol and drug use, and even suicide. It’s why kids shut down in school, and eventually drop out.

Shame often plays out as anxiety and/or anger. If you think you’re not living up to expectations now, or haven’t in the past, it’s easy to become anxious about doing so in the future, and dread instead of welcome challenges and opportunities. Anger gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. As long as someone stays angry, they don’t have to feel their shame. When kids are feeling ashamed, you’ll usually get either “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. And too often, what teachers do with the “rattlesnakes” is the equivalent of poking a real rattler with a stick. Never turns out well for either party.

“If you think you’re not living up to expectations, it’s easy to become anxious about doing so in the future, and dread instead of welcome challenges and opportunities.”

The kids in my ‘Tool Time’ groups are perfect examples. They have had a lifetime of being told, or getting the message in some other way, that they were not living up to expectations. They are “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”, and go back and forth at times. Viewing them this simple way helps temper and guide how I approach them.

As a secondary disturbance, shame can make people want to keep what they think and feel, or even do a secret, for fear it would reflect badly on them should others find out. Lots of bad things happen to people because they keep secrets, and irrational beliefs about themselves, others and life go unchallenged, and simple opinions start to feel like facts from shear rehearsal and practice. Shame makes them less likely to seek or accept help that is available.

The difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance

Low self-esteem is often cited as the cause of much unhealthy, self-defeating behavior. What people call low self-esteem is really:

  1. shame about past and current performances or behavior
  2. anxiety about future ones because of the past.

Too often, when we believe people suffer from low self-esteem, we try to make them feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, we technically can’t do that. The best way to combat shame and low self-esteem is to teach people to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA). You do that by encouraging them to believe that:

  • Anything they think, feel, say or do, have in the past, or might in the future, is perfectly understandable.

That doesn’t mean it’s helpful, healthy or acceptable to others. What people think, feel, say and do often is not. Understandable simply means:

  1. If we put anyone else through exactly what we have each been through, others would probably end up thinking, feeling, saying and doing much the same things, and maybe even worse
  2. We’ll never be the first person in human history to think, feel, say or do something
  3. And we’ll never be the last either
  4. We’ll always have a lot of company.

This would hopefully help us logically realize that whatever we think, feel, say or do is simply part of being human. Understandable also means:

  1. We all do the best we can at the time, given what our lives have been like before we find ourselves in situations. We could have done better, but…
  2. No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes. It’s why we have so many emergency rooms, paramedics, police, and therapists. It’s why we need laws and consequences.
  3. We’re all what Dr. Ellis used to call Fallible Human Beings (FHBs) who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives worse instead of better.

Hopefully, someone would come to the logical conclusion that though whatever they think, feel, say or do is not helpful, healthy or acceptable to others, it is understandable, part of being human, and nothing to be ashamed of.


What do you think about this perspective of self-esteem versus unconditional self-acceptance?
Can you see your child – or even yourself – benefiting by trying this tool?




  1. This is such a fantastic post! I am going to print this one and keep it as a reminder. As parents we are sometimes so lax with words. I love the idea of unconditional Self acceptance.
    Eleise recently posted..Imagine being a step childMy Profile

    • Thekids says:

      I’m glad you liked it Eleise. I especially liked the explanation for anger – it really helped me see this behaviour in a new way.

  2. Kylez @ A Study in Contradictions says:

    This is certainly an interesting perspective on self-esteem and not something I’d ever really considered before. It’s definitely something to think about. Thank you for sharing.

    #teamIBOT was here!

    • Thekids says:

      Hi Kyles, it was a new perspective for me as well. I enjoy being exposed to different ways of thinking and doing things.

  3. Great post, helping teens build self-worth is one of the most powerful things we can do as parents to help our children thrive. #IBOT

  4. I have an 18 & 16 y.o. and yet despite our best efforts, neither seems to have a particularly good self esteem! Truly, I don’t know what else we could have done. I guess it is just one of those things they will have to figure out for themselves on this journey called life …
    Janet @ Redland City Living recently posted..Jacked off about JacketsMy Profile

    • Thekids says:

      A really important perspective for us parents with younger teens and children, thank you Janet. That even despite our best efforts, our children may still struggle with these issues. But if we are trying to do our best, chances are our kids will find their way.

  5. No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes. It’s why we have so many emergency rooms, paramedics, police, and therapists. It’s why we need laws and consequences. – This statement really stood out to me.
    This is the best post I’ve read on TKAAR so far. It’s not only relevant to teenagers but adults too. After all, we are ALL prone to making mistakes yet beat ourselves up over it.
    Grace recently posted..Fail proof date night (Groupon Australia Voucher Giveaway)My Profile

    • Thekids says:

      Thanks Grace – totally agree us adults need the message too. And maybe that way we won’t pass on the bad habits to our kids.

  6. Oh god, story of my life at the moment! Great post, very timely x
    Kelly HTandT recently posted..One Year!My Profile

  7. Awesome post!! I think I’m going to have to come back again later when I’m not so tired to really soak it in There’s so much good stuff in this.
    EssentiallyJess recently posted..Learning to BreatheMy Profile

  8. This is such an interesting perspective on the origins of low self-esteem, and one I’d not considered before. I try to be pretty careful with the words I use with my kids, but posts like this are so incredibly helpful to make us mindful of causative factors… Things we might not have realised about ourselves. Being conscious can help ensure we don’t perpetuate cycles through generations by ‘doing what we know by instinct’, as a lot of instinct is really learned behaviour, and not necessarily ideal. Awesome post.
    Kim recently posted..All the burning questionsMy Profile

  9. Bookmarking this post to have on hand when the chillums are older. Thank you.

  10. I agree with the other comments, this is a great post, I need to remind myself all the time to be unconditionally accepting of myself.

    As you know, I’ve done a lot of therapy and one of my core issues is defectiveness/shame. I never thought I was good enough for myself, my family, or for anyone. I used drugs and alcohol to avoid my deep sense of defectiveness/shame from when I was a late teen until I was 34 and hit rock bottom.

    I know my parents, like the rest of us, did the best they could and they didn’t set out to hurt me, but still I strive to not make the same mistakes with my son. My son will always receive unconditional love and I hope I am able to help him feel unconditional self acceptance.

    Great post, Rachel.
    Vanessa recently posted..I’m full of myselfMy Profile

    • Thank you Vanessa for always being so open in sharing your own experiences. I am sure being open can help others destigmatise their own shame.

  11. Hello there, I liked this post for me, because I am carrying a bundle of shame for being really silly and not dealing well with a situation when I was trying to sell a car. I can feel that shame, it’s a hot liquid swishing around in my tummy.

    I didn’t behave well, was quite rude really and am annoyed that I ever got myself into the circumstance. I hadn’t realised how hard I find it being wrong… having to do lots of letting go. My self-image as a kind and reasonable person has taken a battering… but actually it does show I need to be aware of perfectionism.

    Now to re-read and think of applying lessons to the kids too!!!
    Seana Smith recently posted..Murray’s Beach at Jervis Bay – And The Shark That Got AwayMy Profile

    • Oh Seana, we all have regrets about the stupid things we’ve said or done, especially if they show a not-very-nice side of ourselves. I think if you are self-aware and learn from the experience, you should be able to let it go. I give you permission 🙂 Hugs to you. x

    • And apologising can always help too, if you have the opportunity.

  12. Great article! I am always teaching parents and teens about self acceptance. I think the concept of self esteem is a little outdated because the reality is, we will all have days and moments if feeling low and others of feeling great. It is all about accepting ourselves for who we are in the moment!
    Tahlia @. The parenting files recently posted..talking to kids about cancerMy Profile

Leave a Reply to Thekids Cancel reply


CommentLuv badge