One of our most firmly held and pervasive assumptions is that a high self-esteem is good for us.
As parents, we want our children to have as much of it as possible, at other times the target of our wish is ourselves – we believe we need more of it. If only we had higher self-esteem, we would achieve more, be more confident, happier, more successful, more of the “ideal self” we long to become.
The Truth About Self Esteem
Science and research however, is telling us a different story. It turns out that increasing self-esteem isn’t the best way toward finding success and happiness; self-esteem, it turns out, is a double-edged sword. Self-esteem is dependent on you doing well, but it abandons you during the tough times – instead the harsh inner self-critic takes its place.
Moreover, research shows that one is less likely to take potentially lucrative risks when focused on keeping or gaining self-esteem – failure is to be avoided at all costs. We would rather keep the gains we already hold, despite the potential to achieve so much more – it’s just not worth the risk. What if we fail and lose everything? Can we risk losing our identity as clever, talented, strong, or gifted?
So you see, we can never reach our full potential if we chase self-esteem, and at worst, we may resort to beating ourselves up when we do fall – making it even harder for us to dust ourselves off and get back up again.
Self Esteem or Self Compassion?
We are also vulnerable to ignoring our faults when we place a high premium on self-esteem – the pain of facing them is far too … painful. So we may say we don’t care, it never mattered to us anyway.
So, is there a better way?
The answer is yes, and it’s through the cultivation of self-compassion. Self-compassion involves treating yourself as you would treat a good friend. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, proposes that there are three components to self-compassion:
- Mindful attention: this simply means that you have to notice and attend to the suffering before you can bring any kindness to it. We have to notice that a friend is suffering before we can offer a helping hand.
- An attitude of kindness: bringing a kind attention to your suffering, acknowledging that being imperfect and failing is inevitable in life, but it still hurts. Where there is hurt, kindness is required. Here is it helpful to remind yourself about how you would treat a friend going through a hard time. When a friend fails at something we don’t call them an idiot and tell them that they should have known better. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself when you make a mistake. Are you a kind friend to yourself – or a harsh critic?
- Common humanity: when we fail we often feel that we are alone; we compare our suffering to the successes or good fortune of others. With common humanity, we recognise that all humans suffer, it is an inevitable part of life – suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the human condition. Everyone fails and makes mistakes at some point in their lives; everyone experiences the pain of loss.
A common fear is that if we are self-compassionate when we fall short or fail, that this will lead to complacency and we will not improve or change. Most of us have been raised in the belief that we need the harsh inner critic to avoid this.
Achieve More with Self Compassion!
Again, research shows that we achieve more when we adopt self-compassion. We are more able to see our faults clearly; we do not need to hide our failings to avoid the sting of self-criticism.
Self-compassion also means doing what is good for us in the long term, and sometimes this means doing the harder thing in the short term. For example, we may feel like eating a whole tub of ice cream when we feel down, but since this isn’t a habit that would be good for our long-term health, it isn’t a self-compassionate act.
Pay attention to how you speak to yourself when you fail or “fall short” in some way. Did you know that the more unconscious parts of your brain respond to self-criticism in the same way it would to criticism directed at you from someone else?
The good news is that the field of neuroscience has shown that our brains are neuro-plastic – they can change, our minds can change, and we can change our habits. If you recognise that you have a harsh inner self-critic pushing you around, and you would like to try a different approach, then it may be time to give self-compassion a try.
If you have a history of abuse or trauma you may consider doing this work with a trained mental health professional.
Jina Kleynhans is a Clinical Psychologist, with a special interest in child and adolescent mental health and working with families. She finds it particularly rewarding to assist parents to find loving and effective ways of handling the challenges of parenting, particularly as she has plenty of firsthand experience herself.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Jina Kleynhans try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Neff, K (2011) Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: Harper Collins Publishers