Most of us grew up believing that self-esteem is an important part of healthy development. Yet, feeling good about ourselves can be difficult. In our modern world where we face greater social and emotional pressures than any other time in history, including school and work performance, complex family dynamics, economic stress, and the constant pressures from social media and cyberbullying.
For autistic teens and young adults, having high self-esteem can be particularly difficult. In addition to the pressures mentioned above, they also contend with the outdated perceptions of what it means to autistic. In one study, researchers suggest that autistic adults report significantly lower global self-esteem than typically developing individuals.
It’s common to take social cues from those around us, and use them to formulate how we feel about ourselves, but learning to look inward instead of outward is an important skill to develop good self-esteem.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Acceptance
Although it’s not talked about nearly as much, self-acceptance is much more important than self-esteem when it comes to good mental health and overall happiness. And, self acceptance may also be a powerful way to show the world the truth about autism.
The Dictionary of Psychology from the American Psychological Association (APA) defines self-esteem as “the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive.” This includes a person’s “physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person. The more positive the cumulative perception of these qualities and characteristics, the higher one’s self-esteem.”
The APA Dictionary defines self-acceptance as “a relatively objective sense or recognition of one’s abilities and achievements, together with acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s limitations.”
So, self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself. Self-acceptance is the act of objectively understanding and accepting yourself, even the parts you don’t like.
Dr. Charlotte Markey, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, author and body image expert says:
Both self-esteem and self-acceptance are major components of mental health – but focusing on self-acceptance might be the key to happiness in life.
Why Self-Acceptance Is More Important Than Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is important, but to achieve healthy self-esteem, you need self-acceptance first. Moving away from seeking high self-esteem and instead focusing on cultivating self-acceptance can make you happier. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work to improve yourself, but that you first have to accept yourself just as you are. Only then can you get in the headspace that will allow you to see real personal improvement.
8 Ways Autistic People Can Build Self-Acceptance
1. Recognize the Things You Like About Yourself – And The Things You Don’t Like
Make a list of the things you like about yourself, whether it’s your talents or skills or the fact that you’re a kind person. Your list can also include the things you like about the way you look – it’s not vain to like yourself!
Are you creative or empathetic? Good at math or language? An adept gamer or knitter? Are you funny? Do you tell good stories?
It might sound like bragging, but acknowledging the things you like about yourself is important for good mental health. Once you make your list, refer back to it for a while. It might help to make it part of your everyday routine. It will take a little time, but eventually you’ll be able to easily appreciate all the things you’re good at.
Then, make a list of the things you don’t love about yourself and beside each item, write down a more positive way to look at it.
Don’t like your body? Consider all the amazing things it does every single day to keep you alive and healthy.
Think that you’re a pushover? Instead, think of yourself as kind and generous.
Then think about the ways you could strengthen the things you like and minimize the things you don’t like. Self-acceptance doesn’t mean you can’t also have self-improvement!
2. Embrace What Makes You ‘You’
Sit down with a piece of paper and pen, your Notes app, a Google Doc or whatever, and ask yourself “Who am I?” Don’t refine your thoughts too much, just write down whatever comes to mind. Acknowledge and appreciate all the things that make you “you.” The more you practice embracing yourself, the more it becomes an automatic habit.
3. Soften Your Inner Critic
Practice self-compassion. Listen to your inner critic, but soften their words, take the good advice, leave the harsh words.
4. Learn How To Move On
Forgive yourself for the things you feel guilt or regret over and let go of the things you can’t change. Easier said than done, right? It is possible, but you’ll have to learn over time. Try practicing mindfulness – focusing on the present moment, not the past or future – to get better at letting go and moving on.
5. Do Less Social Media and More IRL Socializing
Getting likes, comments and reactions on social media posts makes you feel good, right? That’s only human. But it’s a false sense of accomplishment and worth. Years of social media use means that many of us are stuck in an endless loop of posting and validation.
Social media also makes us compare ourselves to others – and not even to real people, but to the idealized versions of themselves that they show on social media.
Instead, try to balance your social media use with in-real-life socializing. The more time you spend socializing in-person, the more you’ll realize what matters and what doesn’t.
6. Surround Yourself With Supportive People
Anytime you’re trying to make any kind of positive change in your life, support is crucial. If there are people in your life who criticize you often or otherwise make it hard for you to accept yourself, consider distancing yourself from them, if possible. Instead, spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself and are generally supportive of your endeavors.
7. Get Involved
Did you struggle to come up with things that you like about yourself? Volunteer, get a part-time job, join a team or club or try a new activity. Trying new things can help you to learn more about yourself and figure out what you enjoy and what you’re good at.
8. Focus on What You Think of Yourself, Not What Others Think
It’s only human to worry about what other people think of us, but making it a major focus in your life will only lead to unhappiness. You can learn to care less about what others think, but sometimes it takes a little time.
Start out by centering on a specific person. Maybe there’s someone in your life who you’d like to please, but ultimately, you know that you don’t have to please them – whether or not they approve of you and your choices doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. If you can learn to not care too much about what they think of you, then you can certainly do the same for strangers.
You Are Not Alone In This
Life isn’t always easy and that’s especially true when you’re living with autism. Sometimes it may feel hard to accept certain things about yourself, but self-acceptance is critical when it comes to your well being and happiness.
At RDIconnect®, we have spent decades advocating for the dignity of autistic people. We know that you’re amazing just the way you are, and sometimes you need extra support to help to navigate life.
If you are looking for extra support, we invite you to take a peek inside our Online Learning Community. Here you will find resources, fresh perspectives on autism research, and support and encouragement from people who get you!.