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«MINDFULNESS AND SELF-ACCEPTANCE Shelley H. Carson Ellen J. Langer Harvard University, USA ABSTRACT: The present article will focus on the cognitive ...»

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Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2006 (Ó 2006)

DOI: 10.1007/s10942-006-0022-5

Published Online: June 20, 2006

MINDFULNESS AND SELF-ACCEPTANCE

Shelley H. Carson

Ellen J. Langer

Harvard University, USA

ABSTRACT: The present article will focus on the cognitive theory of mindfulness and its importance in achieving unconditional self-acceptance. The

goal of the mindful perspective is to increase cognitive flexibility and to thereby increase behavioral flexibility and the ability to adapt to one’s current environment in a meaningful manner. Empirical evidence spanning four decades attests to the beneficial effects of a mindful vs. mindless perspective.

The article will focus on the following aspects of mindfulness as they apply to self-acceptance: the importance of authenticity, the tyranny of evaluation, the benefits of mistakes, the mindlessness of social comparison, the trap of rigid categories, and the acceptance of self as a mindful choice. The article concludes with a number of mindfulness applications geared toward enhancing self-acceptance.

KEY WORDS: authenticity; mindfulness; self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance is crucial to mental health. The absence of ability to unconditionally accept oneself can lead to a variety of emotional difficulties, including uncontrolled anger and depression. The person who is caught up in self-evaluation rather than self-acceptance may also be very needy and may devote considerable attention and personal resources to self-aggrandizement in order to compensate for perceived personal deficits. One of the simplest and most natural methods of reducing self-evaluation and replacing it with acceptance is to assume a mindset of mindfulness rather than mindlessness (Langer, 1989).

Mindfulness (Langer, 1989) is a flexible cognitive state that results from drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the Address correspondence to Shelley H. Carson, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; e-mail: carson@wjh.harvard.edu.

29 Ó 2006 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.

30 Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy environment. When one is mindful, one is actively engaged in the present and sensitive to both context and perspective. The mindful condition is both the result of, and the continuing cause of, actively noticing new things. The cognitive state of mindfulness is distinct from the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation, although postmeditative states may indeed be mindful in the cognitive sense (Carson & Langer, 2004). The hallmarks of the mindful condition are:

(1) the ability to view both objects and situations from multiple perspectives, and (2) the ability to shift perspectives depending upon context. Mindful cognition typically is guided by rules and routines but it is not governed by them (Carson & Langer, 2004; Langer, 1989).

In contrast, mindlessness is a state of rigidity in which one adheres to a single perspective and acts automatically. When one is mindless, one is trapped in a rigid mindset and is oblivious to context or perspective. The mindless condition pigeonholes experiences, behaviors, objects, and other people into rigid categories. Mindless thought-processing and behavior are governed by rules, routines, and previously constructed categories. Much of learned information has been imparted by an authority figure or has been presented in absolute language. Individuals often accept this information mindlessly and become trapped within a single perspective, oblivious to other ways of seeing the information. In fact, individuals often view and accept their own personal experience mindlessly, unaware that they could have processed the experience from an alternate perspective or even from multiple alternate perspectives (Langer, 1989). These individuals may come to accept their original categorization of material, whether it stems from an attitude they were taught by an authority or from their own early experience, as immutable truth; that is, they become cognitively committed to one way of seeing information. When information and experience are processed mindlessly, the potential for reconsideration and reinterpretation is abandoned.

Learned emotional responses to people, things, ideas, and even oneself control well-being. Often these emotional responses have been learned mindlessly in a process called premature cognitive commitment (Chanowitz & Langer, 1981). While mindless responses can impart a (false) sense of stability and certainty, many studies have found that increasing mindful responses result in greater competence, health, positive affect, creativity, and reduced burnout (see Langer, 1989, 1997 for review of research).

Shelley H. Carson and Ellen J. Langer 31 The essence of mindfulness theory, then, is that a flexible and open ‘‘mindset’’ in which one remains actively engaged in the process of drawing novel distinctions about the environment is more beneficial than a mindset in which one is judgmental and rigid, sacrificing flexibility for a sense of certainty. The state of mindfulness by definition encompasses a state of self-acceptance, as the focus of mindful attention is on acceptance of and exploration of present experience rather than on self-evaluation and self-criticism.





This article will explore mindfulness theory as it may be applied to issues of self-acceptance. It will present some of the main tenets of mindfulness theory including: the importance of authenticity, the tyranny of evaluation, the mindfulness of mistakes, the mindlessness of social comparison, the trap of rigid categories, and the choice of selfacceptance. Finally, several techniques will be presented that can be employed both inside and outside of the therapeutic setting for increasing mindfulness and healthy self-acceptance.

THE IMPORTANCE OF AUTHENTICITY

One important aspect of self-acceptance is the ability and willingness to let others see one’s true self. Living mindfully entails living daily life without pretense and without concern that others are judging one negatively. The person who lives mindfully is fully ‘‘in the moment’’ and is not worried about how he or she is coming across to others. Mindful individuals are truly authentic in that they are fully engaged with the environment and are busy noticing novel aspects of the situation, rather than devoting attentional resources toward winning the approval of others or toward bolstering fragile self-esteem.

On the other hand, those who disengage with the moment and expend their attentional resources on impressing others or ‘‘putting up a good front’’ enter a mindless state. They begin to behave the way others think they should behave or the way they think others think they should behave in a given situation, thereby distancing themselves from their honest feelings and their ability to be in the moment and simply enjoy the situation. Whenever individuals respond to a situation in a scripted manner rather than a genuine manner, they close themselves off to other alternatives that may be more appropriate or fulfilling given the variations in the context of the situation. However, the costs of mindlessly pretending to be or feel something that is not authentic are great.

32 Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy A large literature is devoted to the study of self-presentation and the pretenses in which people engage to enhance self-presentation.

This research suggests that people use deceptive pretense about themselves in order to: (a) avoid criticism and loss of self-esteem (Roth, Snyder, & Pace, 1986), or (b) win praise and increase positive self-esteem (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996;

Hussain & Langer, 2003). In situations where people feel that others will judge them negatively, they may be more likely to revert to mindlessly following a scripted response; however, the mindless response may ironically lead to the problem it is employed to prevent. Past research indicates that when people act in mindful ways rather than in scripted ways that are non-genuine, they are evaluated as more charismatic and authentic (Kawakami, White, & Langer, 2000; Langer, 1989). Further, when individuals are praised for behavior that is nongenuine, they may actually experience reduced self-esteem, because praise directed at their pretended behavior or qualities cannot be directed at what they are—only what they are not (Hussain & Langer, 2003). In a study of this phenomenon, Hussain and Langer (2003) measured state self-esteem in two groups of college undergraduates.

One group then took a test which they could not complete without pretending to understand several vocabulary words that were in reality not words at all (e.g. the non-word ‘‘besionary’’). The second group of students took a test in which no ‘‘pretending’’ to understand words was necessary. Upon completing the test, students from both groups received written praise for their performance and their verbal comprehension after which their state self-esteem was measured again. The group of students who received praise and who did not pretend to understand the vocabulary words recorded an increase in state selfesteem, while the group who ‘‘pretended’’ had an actual reduction in self-esteem. The authors concluded deceptive self-presentation not only failed to lead to enhanced self-esteem, but also reduced the opportunity for benefiting from positive evaluation. In other words, when subjects were being praised for something that was not authentic about themselves, not only could they not benefit from the praise but they actually felt worse about themselves than if they had not received the praise at all.

There are situations, however, where manipulating self-presentation can be mindful and beneficial. In some instances, purposely acting ‘‘as if’’ one is somehow different than he or she actually is can lead to self-improvement. For instance, a person can mindfully act as a role Shelley H. Carson and Ellen J. Langer 33 model for herself. This can be a very beneficial technique for changing a bad habit or trait. The individual who desires to quit smoking, for example, can choose to act as if she is a non-smoker for a day and try to respond to situations in a way that non-smokers would respond. The more she pretends that she is a non-smoker and has the emotional experience of being a non-smoker, the more likely the role-playing is to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. This type of ‘‘pretending’’ behavior is not, however, an attempt to make one appear to be something one is not in order to receive the positive evaluation of others; rather, it is a mindful technique to change current experience in an effort to improve future behavior and experience.

In conclusion, being authentic precludes worry about being negatively evaluated. One is not worried about the ‘‘right’’ response. The authentic individual is living mindfully, engaged in the experience of the moment rather than in attempts to enhance his or her perceived appearance. Individuals can then authentically accept themselves without the negative kickbacks that accompany the undeserved praise of others.

THE TYRANNY OF EVALUATION

Another important aspect of self-acceptance is appropriate selfevaluation. Each person has a set of experiences and memories that is unique. Perception is colored by these experiences and memories, and, therefore, no two people will perceive the same object or the same situation in identical ways: each sees the ‘‘same’’ thing differently. However, one may believe—mistakenly—that there exists some objective reality, and this presumption leads him or her to believe in the existence of objective evaluation (Langer, 2005). Despite evidence that others form their evaluations based on their own needs and past experiences, the tendency is to think that others’ evaluations are objective. One may therefore mindlessly incorporate others’ evaluations of him- or herself as ‘‘Truth,’’ and, again mindlessly, form selfevaluations based on this mindless information.

While evaluation is central to the way individuals make sense of themselves and their world, all too often they form these evaluations mindlessly. In theory, they pay lip service to the idea that there are good points and bad points to each aspect of themselves depending upon the situation, yet, in practice, they tend to see each of their traits as ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad,’’ depending upon how others categorize these 34 Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy traits. They forget that they have the choice of deciding how to view each of their own traits. For example, others may brand an individual as impulsive; the individual can choose that evaluation or he can choose to see himself as spontaneous. He might also choose to see himself as private vs. secretive, as serious vs. grim, or as flexible vs.

unpredictable (Langer, 1989, 2005).

It is also possible to look at each personal behavior as positive or negative, depending upon present circumstances. For example, instead of condemning his lack of will-power after eating a hot fudge sundae, a mindful individual might reframe the experience as a benecial decision to treat himself to delicious ice cream at a time when he needed a psychological lift. Eating the hot fudge sundae made perfect sense at the time he did it, and he made the decision to eat it based on circumstances that were different than the circumstances that exist at the time he is negatively evaluating that decision. Each behavior made sense at the time it occurred. In fact, all behavior makes sense from the actor’s perspective or the actor wouldn’t do it (Langer, 2005).



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