The Dark Side of Self Esteem

 Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion

Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion

Often, when I ask clients about therapy goals they list “self esteem” as a primary concern. I have a similar reaction to the words “self esteem” as I do to the words “fat free.” Just as fat free foods are often loaded with sugar or fake sweeteners to make them palatable, working on “self esteem” can produce saccharine and artificial results. At the same time the USDA is challenging the myths of low fat eating and embracing butter, the science of psychology is challenging the myths about  high self-esteem and embracing self-compassion.

In her research at the University of Texas at Austin, Kristin Neff defines self esteem as, “our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves.” Having low self-esteem is associated with self-criticism, anxiety and depression.  Interest in self esteem sky rocketed in the 1990s with schools, psychologists and parents making it their mission to raise people's self esteem in the hopes of producing lifelong happiness.

So what's wrong with  Stewart Smalley’s (Saturday Night Live) affirmation?

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Self Esteem: More is not Better

Recent research suggests that self esteem may not be the panacea we hoped for. Please who score highly on self esteem also score highly on measures of: narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, and discrimination.

According to Neff, “In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special.  It is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves.”

Self esteem does not hold up when our egos are threatened. For example, when people with high self esteem are told that they are “average” they tend to get upset, deny that the feedback was due to individual factors and blame the feedback on external circumstances (Neff, 2011) .  “Who me, average? What an insult!” High self esteem is like an overfilled balloon, ready to pop  at the tiniest poke.

Self Compassion: A Different Way to Feel Good About Ourselves

Self compassion might offer a more sustainable way of relating to ourselves. According to Neff, people with high self-compassion gain the benefits of self esteem (happinesss, optimism, protection against depression and anxiety) without the downsides. Neff defines self-compassion as having 3 components:

1)   self-kindness

Being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.

2) common humanity

Feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.

3) mindfulness

Holding our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.

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Unlike self esteem, when individuals with high self-compassion are presented with a humiliating situation, they are less likely to feel embarrassed or incompetent. They respond with self-statements such as, “Everybody makes a mistake now and then” and “In the long run this doesn’t really matter.”

People high on self compassion are also better able to accept who they are regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others. They are less judgmental of themselves and have a more stable positive self-regard.

Just as my grandmother was right all along about the benefits of  butter, psychologists are wising up to ancient wisdom about what promotes true happiness.