As do many therapists, I always ask my clients during their intake sessions what they think are their primary goals for treatment. If I had one American dollar for every client of mine who answered this question with “to improve my self-esteem” or some rendition thereof, I would most likely be dining on Madison Avenue every day for lunch rather than nibbling at my boring turkey sandwich brought from home. “Improving one’s self-esteem” always sounded like a good idea to me, so I blindly accepted it and typically agreed with my patients that boosting their self-esteem through a cognitive-behavioral approach would contribute to a healthy mind and a general sense of well-being.
However, as I entered my training at the Albert Ellis Institute, I discovered that REBT actually advocates for quite a different treatment goal, or specifically Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA). In fact, on his opening page in The Myth of Self-Esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever, Dr. Ellis goes as far as to describe self-esteem as a “sickness” and “the greatest emotional disturbance known to man and woman.” To explain, self-esteem is a problem because it allows humans to evaluate their worth based on their success (or lack thereof) in accomplishing goals and in terms of their abilities (or lack thereof) in interacting well with and/or gaining the approval of others. Therefore, all is fine and dandy if you achieve your goals and relate well with others; however, if you don’t, you are in an unfortunate spot. With self-esteem you spend so much time overinvesting cognitive and emotional resources into achieving and relating well, thinking you are controlling for future failure (and thus, preventing yourself from being a worthless human), you end up making yourself unnecessarily anxious and depressed. In turn, you are so anxious and depressed that you are unable to take constructive steps towards pursuing your desired achievements and maintaining your meaningful relationships. Put this way, self-esteem sounds like a pretty daunting construct to want to tangle yourself up with, now doesn’t it?
On the other hand, when one fully believes in Unconditional Self-Acceptance, he or she still sets important goals and works towards achieving them, yet the difference lies in the way one evaluates their successes or failures in their achievements. With USA, a human can succeed or fail at a task or relationship, yet his or her worth as a human remains intact. In other words, a human can only have successful or failed behaviors and relationships with others, but their totality or essence can never be rated as a success or failure, particularly given the dynamic nature of the components that constitute this totality (i.e., one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors). You achieve USA first, by persuading yourself that you have it, enthusiastically convincing yourself that you accept the wholeness of your being regardless of your mistakes, errors, missteps, poor judgments, etc. You recognize that these unfortunate parts of your life can be evaluated, yet your wholeness cannot. Next, you choose to keep USA. It is your choice, after all. Last, you acknowledge that no one but you yourself can snatch it away from you. It is yours to acquire, to have, and to hold.
Does that mean that I can’t call myself a failure for naïvely approving of a client’s goal to improve his or her self-esteem? I guess that is what that means.
Next up: Kim Kassay, M.S. on Children