June 21, 2015

Self-Esteem is Overrated.

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Who wouldn’t want greater self-esteem, right?

And why not, working on our self-esteem sounds like a good thing, right? Surely taking steps to improve how much we like ourselves will lead to a greater sense of self-confidence, right?

The answer, it seems, is actually no.

The key to understanding why can be found in understanding not only ourselves but our “selfs.”

Self-esteem: how much we like ourselves

Self-confidence: how much we believe in ourselves

Self-compassion: how much we care for ourselves

Self-acceptance: how much we love ourselves

This differentiation of selfs might offer some insight into why focusing on self-esteem can be problematic.

While the four selfs are different, they interact with each other like an interconnected web. For example: You may care for someone you don’t believe in, but how can you like someone you don’t care for? And you may like someone you don’t love, but how can you love someone you don’t care for?

This confusing interplay is at the core of why working on our self-esteem isn’t always the best thing to do.

The first problem with focusing on our self-esteem is that it requires us to focus on ourselves, sometimes too much. When we do this, we tend to compare ourselves to others. This is an incredibly slippery slope. When we adopt a mindset of direct comparison, we risk sliding all the way to narcissism.

This was one of the conclusions of a paper published in 2003, which looked at self-esteem as a predictor of happiness and performance. While the study did find a correlation between high self-esteem and happiness, the researchers were quick to point out that most therapeutic interventions aimed at increasing self-esteem provided “no benefit.” They added that such interventions “might just as easily promote narcissism.”

This presents a tricky catch-22: while having a higher self-esteem is beneficial, the process of trying to increase it can inadvertently have the exact opposite effect.

So, if self-esteem is not the best answer to the question of how to increase our confidence, what is?

In a recent study, it was noted that, “Self-compassion is associated with happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and emotional intelligence.” Researchers went on to add that, “Self-compassion predicted more stable feelings of self-worth than self-esteem and was less contingent on particular outcomes.”

Personally, I’ve always found these concepts easiest to understand when I view my inner selfs as another person altogether. I like to call him Frank.

It would be all well and good to try and make Frank like me, but I doubt it would help me to become more confident in myself. In trying to gain his approval, I’d constantly be worried about what he thought of me. I might even be tempted to try and prove to Frank that I’m cool by belittling others.

However, if I were to instead build a caring relationship with Frank, I’d probably feel much less pressure to always be likeable. And if I knew that Frank accepted me, I might not be as worried about what he, or anyone else, thought of me.

This is the real power of self-compassion. It has the ability to remove the pressure to be liked by reframing negative self-critical emotions into positive self-awareness habits. Moreover, a study in 2013 by the godmother of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, found that, “Self-compassion is a teachable skill that enhances overall quality of life.”

On her website, Neff describes the three elements of self-compassion as:

1. Self-Kindness: “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”

2. Common Humanity: “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience.”

3. Mindfulness: “Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.”

The great news is, as an elephant reader, you are already on the path to mindfulness. If you continue this journey, and add self-kindness and common humanity into the mix, the sky is the limit.

The final thought I’ll leave you with is one of my favourite quotes:

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” ~ Buddha


Relephant Read:

The Self-Love Myth.


Author: Garrick Transell

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Boemski/Flickr

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