“The greatest sickness known to man or woman is called self-esteem. If you have self-esteem, then you’re sick, sick, sick, because you say: I’m okay because I do well and because people love me, so when I do poorly, which I’m a fallible human and will, and people hate me because they may jealously hate me or they just don’t like me, then back to shithood I go.
I worry, worry, worry about doing well and winning other people’s approval, and I worry, worry, worry about the future even if I do well in the present. So that’s the worst sickness – self-esteem – ever known to man or woman because it’s always conditional.”
– Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy
Self-Esteem – The ‘Nice’ Ugly Sister
Self esteem has been proclaimed as the solution to all our personal problems. If we have high self esteem then we will be happy and fulfilled. Organisations, schools and business have taken this advice to heart and tried hard to boost the self-esteem of their pupils and workforce.
There’s just one problem, it isn’t true and it doesn’t work.
Self esteem is conditional and comes when you think you have done well or that you have desirable personal characteristics.
Self esteem is a flawed system for feeling good because it relies on social comparison. Trying to find the answer to “how am I doing compared to everyone else”? There are inevitably going to be people who are better or worse at things than we are. You probably don’t have to look too far to find someone who is better at something than you. So, comparing ourselves to others as a way to feel good is doomed to failure.
We can feel good when things are going well but “going well” is a state that’s difficult to maintain. Self-esteem is high maintenance, to keep feeling it you have to keep doing well, it has to be re-earned, it is never permanent.
When things go badly (as they will do) it will be hard to compare yourself to other people and find yourself coming out on top. Because you are evaluating your status with respect to other people all the time this sense of security is very vulnerable to the uncertainties of life.
The more investment you put into having self esteem the more distressed you are going to feel when things don’t go according to plan. If our self worth is linked to what we do or what we have, when circumstances change or we fail then our self esteem will be in jeopardy and we may become victims of self hatred.
Self Criticism – The ‘Nasty’ Ugly Sister.
Self-esteem is also fragile because when we fall short of our standards we typically use self critics to motivate ourselves to do better, leading to more comparison and more falling short. As our self esteem rises so does our level of self criticism. It’s a vicious circle.
Superficially, self criticism seems like a good method for motivating ourselves to do better, to get back to being ‘good enough’. But it often moves from being a pep talk into a viscous beating when we feel we have fallen short of our ideals.
If you are caught between self-esteem and self-criticism you are caught in a never ending cycle of temporary highs and vicious lows.
Self Compassion – Cinderella
Self compassion or treating yourself with kind acceptance. It puts aside social comparison and self criticism and tries to treat all our experiences with kindness, understanding and acceptance.
It’s a way of being kind to ourselves without judging or comparison against others. Rather than emphasising our separateness and unique suffering it puts our experience in the broader context of all humanity.
By treating ourselves this way with all our experiences it is not contingent on evaluation against others and tends to be a very stable way of relating to ourselves.
Self compassion has been shown to lower depression and anxiety, raise levels of happiness, optimism and motivations.
Self-compassion is unusual in this culture for several reasons.
Many of us in this culture are conditioned to be self-sacrificing, looking after other people’s needs before our own. So it’s an unfamiliar or even seems like a selfish thing to want to do.
We often find it so much easier to be kinder to other people than ourselves, we don’t have much experience in applying that level of compassion to ourselves.
Self compassion is often confused with self-pity, but self-pity is all about “poor-me” it is all about separate individuals suffering alone. Self compassion is framed in the context of responding with kindness to suffering that is shared by many human beings. It implies “I am not the only one”, with self pity “It’s all about me”.
So if might be wondering what self-compassion is like you might want to try this little experiment.
“… a very easy and quick way to soothe yourself, to calm yourself, to allow yourself to feel safe and get out of that mode of self-criticism, is compassionate touch. Stroke your arm, put your hand over your heart and give yourself a little hug if no-one’s looking
It’s amazing how powerful that very simple act can be because your body responds even if your mind can’t go there right away.”
– Kirsten Neff (interviewed by Dr David Van Nuys on the mentalhelp.net podcast)