Forget Self-Esteem; Work on Self-Acceptance

Here is some counterintuitive advice on self-improvement: Stop working on improving your self-esteem.

Instead, aim for true self-acceptance. Too many people base their self-esteem on competent performance of tasks as judged by the outside world and then define themselves based on these opinions and reactions of others.

As I write in my book “Pack Leader Psychology”, low self-worth drives the need to seek external approval: “The more parts of ourselves we reject, the more important it is to feel accepted.”

I believe we should stop emphasizing self-esteem because it is often taken to mean other-esteem. Yet a person who is overly concerned with the external judgments of others or who values measures of success based on competence often has very low self-acceptance.

For example, narcissists self-report and are measured to have very high self-esteem. Yet they are on an endless search for approval and actually have very low feelings of worth and self-acceptance.  This is what leads them to be attention-seeking, to act superior, and to brag.

Intrinsic self-acceptance, free from the fear of judgment or rejection by others, will bring true inner confidence that is not dependent on the opinions of others. Pursuing the approval of others leaves one lacking in confidence, because one’s self-esteem will always be at the mercy of others — a very weak position to put oneself in.

On an emotional level, if a person feels “less than” or unworthy, this may trigger a feeling of shame, which then may lead to a fear response or anxiety. People who are hyper-vigilant for criticism and shame, then spend a lot of time in the “fight-or-flight” or emotional brain, with resulting behaviors of Submission, Dominance or Avoidance, as I explain in depth in my book.

Hunt as a Pack, Just Don’t Cling to the Pack


IMG_1659I just took my two dogs, Reilly and Hope, to a nearby river to swim, run and chase ducks. I was amused to watch Hope tag along after the more experienced Reilly. Even though Hope is not a good swimmer yet, and Reilly swims like an otter, Hope tries desperately to keep up. (Check out my Facebook page for a video.)

Of course, Hope is trying to learn how to hunt from the master, but she also is playing out a need to belong that is innate in dogs, as well as humans.

As I write in “Pack Leader Psychology,” “This desire to belong, get along, and cooperate is deeply engrained in human behavior through the evolutionary process. Because of the benefits, evolution has encouraged the tendency among many types of animals to join a tribe, herd, or troop. Many of our human social pacts are engrained codes that encourage us to fit in and group together. In fact, an ancient saying notes the human need for community: ‘One man is no man.’”

An urge to belong, called “social affiliation,” leads to positive prosocial behaviors such as altruism, caring, sharing, and nurturing. However, in today’s society this drive for acceptance and approval has been taken to an extreme. It has caused three major types of misbehavior that I describe in my book.

“Submissives” are overly needy for approval and they behave in pleasing and appeasing ways to gain that acceptance. “Dominators” use the “fight” response to fend off criticism which feels like rejection to them. “Avoiders” withdraw and isolate to avoid social interactions that may end up causing them to feel shamed or rejected.

All three of these behavior patterns are signs that the normal need for social acceptance has gone haywire. The urge to belong to the pack has misfired. I explain in detail why that is in the book, with low self-worth at the core for these types of non-Pack Leader people.

For “Dominators” their low self-approval and neediness for external approval causes them to fear criticism and rejection. This fear can be so strong it leads to behaviors that are self-fulfilling. When “Dominators” lash out at others frequently, refuse to accept blame or accountability, and behave in emotionally dramatic or controlling ways, they actually drive away the very people who could provide the feeling of belonging they so desperately seek.

I have seen this play out in many people in my life, including my abusive ex-husband who drove me out of his life with his jealous, intimidating rages and manipulative behavior.

Certainly, it is natural to want to belong. But when one’s low self-worth causes an overwhelming need for approval by others, this is when misbehaviors arise that cause problems in relationships and can even result in what the psychiatric profession labels as “mental illness.”

Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and the Need for Approval

Jan. 20, 2013
We all want to be loved and accepted. That’s a given. Lance Armstrong’s drug doping “admission” on Oprah and Manti Te’o’s scam/duping scandal point out what happens when the normal need for social affiliation goes into overdrive.

Sure, being in the media spotlight and being a champion are compelling motivators. Acclaim feels great, because it signals that other people like, love, admire and respect us. We feel a sense of belonging and that is the most powerful driver of human behavior that there is.

However, Armstrong and Te’o appear to have an outsize need for external social approval. While this need is normal in the human social animal, it is when the need for social approval overcomes and outweighs the moral imperative to do the right thing that people get into trouble. And well they should. Societies should discipline those who step over the line and violate our trust.

Armstrong spent years doping and even more years denying he cheated to win bike races. Te’o knew the online “girlfriend” was a fraud but kept it secret for weeks at the height of a media frenzy. They both knew what they were doing was wrong, but they lied and cover up because the pain of shame and embarrassment that was the inevitable end was difficult for them to imagine bearing.

This points to individuals who may be lacking in self-worth and self-acceptance. Despite tremendous natural abilities and successes, they went out of their way to try to amass even more public approval. Winning bike races or football championships wasn’t enough for these guys. They had to lie, cheat and deceive to get additional attention. Improved self-worth and self-compassion would have helped these two accept themselves with or without the cheers and fame they seemed to desperately need.

According to Pack Leader Psychology, people who are this desperate for approval and attention are often “Dominator” personality types. They know what they are doing is morally wrong, but they often lack the ability to be publicly accountable for their behavior until this accountability is forced upon them. Their need for approval is far more important than any desire to behave morally.