Will Unconditional Self Acceptance make me lose my edge?




Sean B. in Florida  asks  Rex.  I think I understand the idea of unconditional self acceptance, in theory at least. But I am afraid that adopting it will cause me to lose my edge and stop striving for excellence in my career.  If I accept myself unconditionally, then do I have to accept it if I do a crappy job on an important project?”

Hi Sean. Good question!

The short answer is, No!  Adopting and applying the principle of unconditional self-acceptance (USA) will not cause you to lose your edge, to become lazy, sloppy, ineffective, or stop demanding excellence, unless you choose to apply it in that way. If you do not evaluate your performance how can you every hope to improve?  In developed countries, not striving for something, not having some standards of quality puts you in a very disadvantaged position.


David Burns talks about the importance of “task perfection” vs. “self perfection.”   In other words, it is perfectly OK to rate our performance as good or bad (if we avoid over-generalizing, awfulizing and other distortions) as long as we understand that no matter how bad our performance, that does not make us a “shit”, a “bad person”, a “failure.”  Likewise, if we perform well, that does not make us a “good person”, a “fine therapist”, a “wonderful mother” or any other positive global label.   So, what does it mean?  It just means we are a person who performed well or badly.  Sure be pleased with a good performance and disappointed with a poor one, but don’t imagine that affects your dear, sweet self one way or the other.

Even the Christians say “Love the sinner and hate the sin” which I take to mean that behavior does not affect intrinsic worth, and reminds us to judge behavior not self.  However, I am more radical than some others and don’t even get involved with the swampy semantics of worth, value  and, gawd forbid,  “self-esteem,” preferring instead to work with unconditional self-acceptance (USA).   This is fundamental to REBT-CBT, but smooches nicely with Christian, “hippie,”  “New Agey” and the great Asian religious traditions.  In  fact, it is more than fits nicely because with the Christian, hippie, New Agey, Buddhist angles, I have to more or less take them on faith, because they intuitively seem right or feel right.  Nothing wrong with that, I guess..  But with REBT and General Semantics I understand in a very substantial way that separating out behavior from self is valid because I understand that language such as a good or bad person, and the myriad variations on that theme are empty semantics, are simply nonsense concepts which human beans have historically bought into, and which we (the culture) continue to hypnotize one another into believing.



The way to really wrap your head around this is to think about the way most people consider the concept of  “evil.”  Hitler is an obvious and useful example, although I reckon there are many qualified candidates.  I maintain that Hitler was NOT an evil person.  I don’t even think he was a bad person (Please, gawd, don’t quote me out of context!)  But I don’t think he was a good person either, or even an OK person, or any other of the dozens of labels we might come up with to describe his self.  In fact, I think that Hitler, Mother Theresa and I all have the same self.


You might ask, how can I possibly say something so seemingly outrageous? Fear not.  There is actually an explanation, and it is not that difficult to follow or to apply if you so choose:

1.  I don’t care what Sam Harris or anyone else says, nobody knows what the hell the “self” is anyway, and as it is unlikely anyone will come up with a universally acceptable definition any time soon. The best minds in existence have been arguing about it for milenia;

2.  Therefore, you can–within reasonable, rational, sane limits–choose anything you want as a concept of self. Or you may go along with Sam Harris in believing it to be an illusion;

3.  Therefore, as I can choose my own self concept, I choose one that CANNOT BE RATED as good or bad or a million-and-one variations on that theme; 

4. That being the case,  this self cannot be improved or diminished, does not need to be saved, spiritualized, transcended, blessed or effected in any way. Think of it as Windows 10,000, the ultimate operating system purring away quietly in the background, never crashes and never needs maintenance;

5.  As such, my self is no different, no better and no worse than your self, or Hitler’s or Gandhi’s.

6. For my self-concept, I take my cue form that brilliant 20th Century philosopher, Popeye The Sailor :  “I yam what I yam, an dat’s all what I yam!”

All kidding aside, “I am” will do nicely or “I am that I am” or “I think, therefore, I am.” Perhaps that is just a bit too “yin” for you. So, choose something else.

7. Some other non-ratable self concepts that some people choose are:  The proverbial 98 cents worth of chemicals, a bundle of synaptic responses, a “soul” or “spirit,” a “child of the living God, consciousness, beingness, atomic-sub-atomic-quantum relationships, love, energy,  the  DNA code.

As we say in Thailand, “Up to you, lah!”  The important thing is that this self concept is changeless and non-ratable, no different, no better or worse than anyone else’s self,  as we have tried to make clear here.


This leaves you completely free to evaluate, analyze and judge behavior, acts and performance as good or bad and variants of that. This leave you free to be satisfied or dissatisfied with yours or someone else’s performance.  This leave you free to judge some behavior as despicable, as in the case of a Hitler.  This leave you free to understand rather than just take on faith that there are no bad people, only bad acts.

It is worth mentioning that even though we judge behavior, not people, there are some reasonable, rational and healthy limits on that judgment such as avoiding over-generalizations and all-or-nothing thinking, awfulizing, and “musterbating.”   For example, “Your performance was total crap, and you must never perform crapily!”  misses the mark in several important ways:  (1)  It would be hard to imagine a performance that was “total crap” even though many aspects of that performance could use improvement, (2) Obviously, even though you performed badly, there is nothing to say that you must not do so, and furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that you will always  perform well and never had a “bad night.”

Still, even the worst sort of judgment related to behavior is better than judging self which I hope I have persuaded you is not only hurtful and harmful, it is nonsense!

Think “task rating,” if you must, but avoid “people rating” as if it were a live 220 volt line hooked up to your genitals!


Khon Kaen, Thailand.



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Originally posted 2013-04-28 05:37:44.

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