I have spent a lot of my adult life being puzzled about the whole premise of this thing we call “self-esteem”. What is it actually, and how can we so easily move from having a lot of it, to not having much. It always seemed precarious, as if my appreciation of myself was fragile and dependant on a very subjective appraisal.
What is self-esteem?
Broadly speaking self-esteem refers to the way we see ourselves, how we have assessed our performance, what we look like, do and be and is linked to how much we appreciate and like ourselves. When we are deemed to have high self-esteem, we are expected to be more confident and have a stronger belief in our ability to achieve our goals and become more successful.
How do we achieve our self-esteem?
If our levels of self-esteem are created by continual assessment, what and how are we being assessed against? Mostly we are being measured by how we or others experience us or our performance against either a known or unknown benchmark. An expected behaviour, an exam grade, how others are doing or have done before you, what you look like, what you weigh, how fit and healthy you are, your work, your income and how brilliantly you navigate your amazingly perfect life, as measured against what society has set as a standard you are supposed to be able to reach. We also now have social media which has insidiously and with such elegance upped our social comparison default to a whole new level, with so many measuring their “ordinary lives” against those highly filtered and curated moments of others.
The Obvious Problem
If the appraisals that are happening throughout our lives are precarious, subjective and comparative, then it would seem that achieving and maintaining high levels of self-esteem necessarily needs us to be constantly on alert to make sure we are always showing up in ways that are acceptable to whatever is being measured.
It can encourage us to need to feel more important or better than others to feel good about ourselves instead of striving to live an authentic life underpinned with purpose and meaning. It is argued that at its extreme it can encourage narcissistic tendencies and envy.
We also generate high levels of self-criticism, being harsh with our- selves for not doing, being or achieving high enough results, not being good enough and thereby creating a stress response which tends to be diametrically opposed to being curious and creative. How do we achieve congruent and authentic change, feeling safe to make mistakes and fail when it feels as if our sense of self and worth is so conditional? It can so easily feel as everyone else has it sussed and it’s just us struggling with being good enough.
What instead then?
We need to be able to disentangle our sense of worth and value from our performance, how we look, what we weigh, what we do, be and have.
Becoming curious about what it would be like to know that regardless of what you weigh, look like, earn, do, be or have… you are worthy of love and belonging. Your worth is not conditional on you showing up any particular way.
Self-Compassion may provide the answer.
The practice of self-compassion as described by leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff as comprising of three inter-connected parts: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Self-kindness is to be caring towards the self, offering support and unconditional acceptance instead of being self-critical; a sense of common humanity, an understanding that all humans struggle with their imperfections, failures and mistakes and finally mindfulness is necessary in developing an awareness of suffering, allowing the present experience without either ignoring or exaggerating the pain.
Self-Compassion helps us know its ok to make mistakes.
Self-compassion enables us to have positive self-regard, importantly allowing for feeling safe, accepted and secure, allowing for the acceptance of all human imperfection and suffering. Professor Paul Gilbert proposes that “Self-compassion promotes well-being through helping individuals feel cared for, connected, and emotionally calm”. The practice of self-compassion complements Barbra Fredickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, which suggests that the experience of positive emotions in the present, also lead to enhanced personal resources in the long term. Research has also found that practicing self-compassion produced positive affect and personal responsibility following negative events and imagined failures.
Whilst the practice of self-criticism lowers our self-worth and can lead us to feel isolated and less likely to be moved to make meaningful change, self-compassion would appear to do the opposite. Kristin Neff also argues that self-compassion is needed when being mindful of our mistakes and failures as well as when dealing with painful challenges. Learning to offer warmth, support and understanding when suffering as opposed to being self-critical results in increased motivation for self-care and health promoting behaviors.
Responding as if to someone you loved.
Often, we think that if we respond to our mistakes with kindness we may not be motivated to change, and the evidence strongly suggests that the very opposite happens. It is further complicated by the tangling up of thinking our worth is dependent on us being a certain way. When we are able to see our worth is unconditional and separate from our desired personal and professional growth, the stakes become less high. We are then able to develop from a place of safety as opposed to one of high threat.
When someone you love, a friend or maybe one of your children, fails, makes a mistake, puts on weight or fails an exam…what do you do? How do you respond? Do you respond to yourself in the same way? Is your worth of them diminished and your love for them less?
What would it be like, if you awoke daily with the intention of practicing self-compassion and knowing that however the day unfolds you are worthy of love and belonging.
About the author: Helen Golstein
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’
The Positive Psychology People is co-founded and sponsored
by Lesley Lyle and Dan Collinson,
Directors of Positive Psychology Learning and authors of the
8-week online Happiness Course