Self-acceptance or self-tolerance, which one?

Some have pointed out that we live in a culture where there is a great deal of guilt and self-criticism.  If you experience an overload of self-recrimination when you make a mistake, you are not alone.  If you find yourself being hard on yourself about things that were clearly accidental and a result of being human, again you are not alone.  No wonder there are an increasing number of meditations being made available on the internet about “forgiveness”.  Not only do these meditations speak about forgiving others, but they almost always talk about self-forgiveness as the two invariably go hand in hand.  A few days ago, I forwarded a message on Facebook Messenger that I honestly thought was genuine and from a trusted source, only to find out later that it was a hoax.  The message urged the receiver to send a caution to everyone on their contact list about a possible hacker.  I do not use this feature often so without thinking, I passed it on.  No real harm was done yet when I discovered it was a hoax, I felt absolutely awful that I had misled so many to the point of feeling sick to my stomach!  As it happened, people I am close to were very understanding and in the end, a bonus emerged out of the turmoil.  Sending a message out to all my contacts allowed me to reconnect with a couple of friends I had not heard from for quite a while!  Yet, I still had a hard time giving myself a break.  Why is it that we find it so hard to forgive ourselves and to acknowledge that we are fallible?  How is it that we can beat ourselves up so brutally for innocent mistakes?  Why couldn’t I tell myself what one kind friend said in response: “No worries.  I know that you thought you were helping.  We all just want to feel safe out there.”

Another friend kidded by saying, I guess you will have to eat humble pie.  Actually, what we know in psychology is that how much grief you suffer, may well depend on your history.  Clinical experience tells us that the degree to which you might badger yourself for innocent mistakes depends on how critical your parents and early authority figures were of you when you screwed up.  If there was no mercy and no forgiveness, like the Queen of Hearts in “Alice and Wonderland” who screamed, “Off with their heads!”, chances are that today you react as if an ax is going to fall should you make the slightest mistake.  This kind of early traumatic learning is very hard to overcome.  Not only might you find that you tend to twist yourself into a pretzel trying to be perfect in order to avoid the tiniest criticism, but you may be living in constant fear and worry that someone will find you lacking.  Where you are on the spectrum of sensitivity to criticism and how brutally you punish yourself for even the smallest transgressions quite likely has not only to do with your upbringing but with your temperament as well.  As we know, some children are more sensitive than others and are more inclined to take rejection and criticism to heart.  However, whether you were particularly sensitive to criticism or not, the problem today as an adult is that the internal critic has had a lot of practice calling you on the carpet and that voice has now become finely tuned.  So how can we help ourselves to navigate the waters of self-scrutiny in the face of life’s challenges?  After all, none of us are perfect and making mistakes, if anything, is a fact of life.

Over the years, many a time I have spoken with clients who were clearly distraught over minor blunders about the importance of learning self-acceptance.  I found that people readily agreed and understood the concept but that often talk about self-acceptance remained just that, talk.  Translating it into practice seemed out of reach for many. Recently, a close colleague of mine made me think about this differently.  He said that we need to help people learn self-tolerance, not self-acceptance.  He explained that often talk about self-acceptance does not work because it makes people think that they have to accept things in themselves that in their own view are not O.K.  It does not work, he said, to try to make people think that they have to make the unacceptable, acceptable.  Self-tolerance, on the other hand, acknowledges that we are not happy with ourselves yet urges us to learn to tolerate our inevitable mistakes and foibles.  This for many is much more manageable.  So try it next time!  When you find yourself indulging in self- flagellation, think about being a little kinder to yourself.   Think in your mind about the notion of “tolerance”, wrap your arms around yourself and remind yourself that embracing the self, means warts and all!


  • Sarah

    Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

  • Dr. Merika Skirko

    For me, toleration relates to enduring something. It also has a pejorative spin on it. I see what your colleague is trying to say, but self-compassion would still be my preferred term for what he is talking about. There is no suffering involved in loving or accepting oneself, while tolerating speaks to putting up with something. I do have to love myself, with all my limitations and foibles, but unless I do that I would not at peace with myself.

  • Dr. Lillian Esses

    Thank you, Merika. As always, I find your point of view additive.

  • Patty Parsons

    The article was thought provoking. I believe clients who cannot do self acceptance right away may be able to do self tolerance until they are ready to move to self acceptance. Great article.

  • Dr. Lillian Esses

    Thank you for your input, Patty.

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