According to psychologist Carol Ryff, the term self-acceptance refers to positive evaluations of oneself and one’s past life. Someone with high self-acceptance experiences psychological well-being (PWB) in the form of a positive attitude toward oneself—being able to recognize and accept the good and bad qualities of multiple aspects of oneself—and looks positively upon past life. Alternatively, someone low in self-acceptance is dissatisfied with herself or himself, wishes to be different, is troubled by certain personal qualities, and is disappointed with past life. The term self-acceptance has its origins in research on positive PWB and has been identified as one of the central components of mental health, optimal functioning, and the realization of one’s true potential.
Aspects of self-acceptance are featured prominently in research and theory in sport and exercise psychology (SEP), more specifically research on self-esteem and the physical self. For example, in R. Sonstroem and W. Morgan’s model of how exercise might influence self-esteem and the physical self, physical acceptance (i.e., the degree to which an individual accepts both physical strengths and weaknesses) is identified as one of the two main dimensions of the physical self (physical competence is the other dimension). Physical acceptance is described as similar to satisfaction with various parts of one’s body; and body satisfaction itself is often associated with global self-esteem. The model makes a case that it is possible to alter perceptions of the physical self, including physical acceptance, through exercise. However, in comparison to the physical competence dimension of the model, much less is known about the physical acceptance dimension.
Links to Well-Being
Indicative of its key role in psychological adjustment, self-acceptance has been proposed as a dimension of human potential consistent with Ryff’s eudaimonic perspective of well-being. Self-acceptance is associated with hedonic forms of well-being, such as satisfaction with life and positive affect, and is positively related to the other dimensions of eudaimonic well-being (e.g., environmental mastery, positive relatedness). Along with additional indicators of optimal psychological functioning, such as personal growth and purpose in life, self-acceptance is associated with participation in physical activity (PA), as well as satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness through engagement in PA. By using the abilities and functions of one’s body, PA promotes self-acceptance and therefore striving for the fulfillment of human potential. Being physically active contributes to an able body that meets the demands of everyday life and encourages contentment with one’s body despite weaknesses and deficiencies. This allows one to be self-accepting, particularly of the physical self.
A sport-specific form of self-acceptance has also been discussed in the literature, consisting of self-accepting self-regard and independence of self-regard. Self-accepting self-regard represents a belief in the inherent, unique, and complex worth of all human beings, whereas independence of self-regard refers to valuing and feeling good about oneself despite one’s shortcomings. Together, self-accepting self-regard and independence of self-regard form a sport-specific self-acceptance, which reflects athletes’ valuing and feeling good about themselves despite their shortcomings and failures in sport. Sport-specific self-acceptance is related to general self-acceptance, stability of self-concept, and self-esteem. Although sport-specific self-acceptance and self-esteem both involve a positive sense of self-regard, important distinctions exist between the two constructs. In particular, the independence of self-regard dimension of sport-specific self-acceptance means that athletes value and feel good about themselves regardless of whether or not they perceive themselves as competent in sport-related domains. In contrast, high self-esteem is conditional on a sense of competence or adequacy, whereby athletes need to feel good about their strengths and accomplishments. Researchers suggest that sport-specific self-acceptance might be as beneficial as self-esteem development in helping athletes feel good about themselves.
Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion
Self-acceptance has also been described as an important aspect of self-compassion, which shows promise as a personal resource for athletes and exercisers. Self-compassion is particularly useful in times of pain and failure, because it generates a desire to heal oneself with kindness rather than berate oneself with harsh criticism. As exemplified in exercise settings, people who are self-compassionate seem to be more accepting of things that they are unable to change and instead focus on things that they can change. Specifically, women exercisers who are less self-compassionate tend to feel a stronger obligation to exercise, even when that exercise might be harmful to them. Women exercisers have also described that acceptance of one’s own body limitations can be an important part of developing self-compassion toward the body. In sport, self-compassion has also been proposed as potentially beneficial to women athletes on the journey to self-acceptance of their own muscularity.
Conditional and Unconditional Self-Acceptance
The distinction between unconditional self-acceptance and conditional self-acceptance has also been recognized in the SEP literature, each of which might have important consequences when looking at the outcomes of participation in sport and exercise. Unconditional self-acceptance can be considered an adaptive acceptance of one’s self that does not depend on the approval, acceptance, or love from others; rather, it involves accepting oneself fully and unconditionally. Among athletes, unconditional self-acceptance is negatively related to maladaptive forms of perfectionism, such that those with high unconditional self-acceptance are less likely to experience perfectionism based on either the pursuit of exceedingly high standards set by the self or high standards perceived as imposed by others. Conditional self-acceptance, on the other hand, is highly dependent on the perceived evaluations of others and predisposes perfectionists to experience burnout.
- Fox, K. R. (1997). The physical self and processes in self-esteem development. In K. R. Fox (Ed.), The physical self: From motivation to well-being (pp. 111–139). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Neff, K. D. (2012). The science of self-compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.), Compassion and wisdom in psychotherapy (pp. 79–92). New York: Guilford Press.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological wellbeing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,57, 1069–1081.
- Sonstroem, R. J., & Morgan, W. P. (1989). Exercise and self-esteem: Rationale and model. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 21, 329–337.
- Waite, B. T., Gansneder, B., & Rotella, R. J. (1990). A sport-specific measure of self-acceptance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 12, 264–279.