Whenever I hear from clients that they want to work on their self-esteem, I question what they think self-esteem means to them. Their answers generally consist of, “I want to like myself more,” “I want to feel valued by others,” “I want to have more self-worth.” The common theme here is that self-esteem is based on a judgment either made by oneself, or by others. The result judging oneself is often devastating. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves when we finally admit some flaw or shortcoming: “I’m not good enough. I’m worthless.”
Now, I don’t want to dismiss the idea that low self-esteem is bad. It can lead to depression and lack of motivation, which is problematic. However, high self-esteem can be equally problematic. Self-esteem focuses on how much we stand out from others, and how different, or special we are. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison.
In therapy, if the goal was to raise your self esteem, I’d be working with you on building your narcissistic, self absorbed behavior by helping you put others down in order to feel better about yourself. You would probably leave therapy feeling angry and aggressive towards those who had caused you to feel bad. Focusing on the perception of others might encourage you to ignore, distort or hide any personal shortcomings. This could prevent you from seeing yourself clearly and accurately. Does that sound very therapeutic?
Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realize that—however much we’d like to—we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average.
So you might be thinking, “Ok Anna, so what? Are you suggesting that I remain insecure, while obsessing over my flaws? Am I just supposed to live with my shaming and anxiety inducing thoughts of low self worth?” Don’t worry, as you probably guessed, there is an alternative way to thinking about yourself that doesn’t involve judging and evaluating yourself. A way to stop labeling yourself as “good” or “bad” and simply accept yourself with an open heart. To treat yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter. This way that I speak of is called “self compassion.”
Ok, so how is self compassion any different from self-esteem? Well, the answer lies within the way you think about yourself. First, think of how it feels to feel compassion towards someone in your life. To have compassion for someone, you must become aware of their suffering, you must feel moved by their suffering so that your heart responds to their pain. The definition of compassion is to “suffer with.” When I asked you how it felt to have compassion for someone, you probably felt warmth, caring, and the desire to help in some way. The feeling of compassion encourages you to offer understanding and kindness when someone fails or makes mistakes. It is not the feeling of pity, it is the realization that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience. Now I want you to take this feeling of compassion and direct it toward yourself, as if you would towards a close friend, a child, or a person in need. If that judgmental voice starts to creep in, I wonder what it would be like to give that part of yourself a little compassion as well. Notice what happens. Is there any softening towards yourself?
Having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others. You have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people.
Finally, It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.