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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Self-Acceptance

Sometimes people need change. Other times, they need acceptance.

Key points

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a change-based therapy but its techniques can be used to promote self-acceptance.
  • In terms of cognitive behavioral therapy, an acceptance strategy may involve challenging thoughts that don't allow for negative emotions.
  • Practicing self-acceptance in cognitive behavioral therapy would not apply if the client engages in behavior that hurts others, such as abuse.

Psychotherapy techniques can be broadly grouped into change and acceptance strategies. Change strategies are exactly what they sound like: techniques for changing how a person feels, thinks, or behaves. Acceptance strategies cultivate skills for allowing how one feels, thinks, or behaves to just be, without trying to change anything. Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically a change-based therapy but the cognitive techniques can be used to promote self-acceptance.

Merriam-Webster has many definitions for acceptance but the ones I’m referring to here are “to endure without protest or reaction” or “to regard as proper, normal, or inevitable.” This differs from compassion, in which one works to alleviate suffering and change something. With acceptance, how something is right now can be fine. Acceptance applied to oneself means accepting who one is.

Forms of self-acceptance promoted by cognitive behavioral therapy

With cognitive therapy, self-acceptance can take many forms. Oftentimes, cognitive therapy will target negative, automatic thoughts about having negative emotions such as anxiety or depression. These emotions are normal to have, especially during stress. A belief that one should not have these emotions can actually make anxiety and depression worse. The cognitive therapy technique of challenging negative thoughts would focus on the belief that a person should not feel any anxiety or depression and try to come to a more realistic belief such as “It’s understandable that I feel anxious or down in this situation. I'm working to make things better.”

Image by Schäferle from Pixabay
Source: Image by Schäferle from Pixabay

Challenging thoughts that impede self-acceptance can also be helpful if someone believes they are broken and need to be fixed. The belief in brokenness can be absolute and global instead of framing anxiety or depression as a medical condition and only one aspect of a person. For example, a client may have a belief that “I should never feel depressed again.” This belief can set a person up for failure because even normal mood changes could trigger a spiral of negative thoughts. Cognitive therapy would focus on reframing the person’s view of their own depression and accepting that this may be a part of themselves that they have to continually work on.

Cultivating more realistic thoughts can be helpful for social anxiety as well. A client with social anxiety may believe “No one will like me unless I change who I am.” Implicit in this thought is that there is something wrong with the person. Challenging that negative thought could include accepting that oneself is good enough, even if not perfect, and that one should focus on finding people who accept them as they are rather than expecting them to change.

When the concept of self-acceptance does not apply

Now, I’ve based all these examples on the assumption that the client does not need to change. This concept of self-acceptance would not apply if the client is engaging in behavior that hurts others, such as abuse, and it would not apply to beliefs that they are entitled to others in some way. Self-acceptance is generally for when the negative thoughts are about who the client is or how they are feeling.

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