Internally, I heaved a big sigh.
“Okay,” I responded, “Let’s explore self-esteem . . .”
What happened to self-esteem’s cred?
Remember when parents and teachers were encouraged to make sure children developed healthy self-esteem? Once regarded as the gold standard of self-improvement goals, self-esteem also has some serious downsides.
What happened to self-esteem’s cred?
Research is what happened. Research revealed that while having self-esteem provides benefits, the relentless pursuit of self-esteem can backfire and cause problems in overall well-being.
There are problems with pursuing self-esteem that may interfere with resilience:
1. Relying on achievements and external events to feel good
Researchers have a phrase for this: It’s called contingent self-esteem and it means that we base how we feel about ourselves on one or two specific areas in our lives. For some people it may be sports, for others it may be academics, and others may rely on achievements at work.
It’s great to feel good about accomplishments, but what happens when all of our worth is dependent on our achievements? Talk about putting all our eggs in one basket! What if we fail or don’t reach a goal? A crash is likely to follow.
As Janetti Marotta, PhD, writes,
“We hold on to the notion that strain equals gain and we get caught in a never ending cycle of trying harder and harder to prove worth. We become so worn down by the effort, it’s not death we fear but the life we have to live. Paradoxically, in this very quest for self-esteem we turn away from knowing ourselves and thus deny who we truly are.”
2. Constantly comparing ourselves to others
On NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor describes Lake Wobegon as a place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.”
One of the great pitfalls of pursuing self-esteem is that in order to have it, we often feel the need to be above average—better than someone else.
Look, some people have to be average and some have to be below average. That’s how statistics work. And maybe that average or below-average group includes you and me. We might actually be below average on some measurements in life!
If we base how we feel about ourselves solely on our rank compared to others, we’re inevitably going to feel bad in some area where others may outrank us.
3. Difficulty in seeing our own shortcomings
Research has shown that while there are certainly benefits of having high self-esteem, a major drawback of the self-esteem pursuit can be the tendency to have unrealistically positive views of oneself.
Problems arise when one’s self-worth is based on being more attractive, smarter, more likeable, and so on, than someone else. When people who place too much emphasis on high self-esteem receive negative feedback, they may become defensive rather than owning up to their deficits.
Defensiveness can get in the way of learning processes and healthy relationships, among other things.
4. Tendency to self-sabotage
Since the pursuit of high self-esteem is often based on achievements and comparisons, one way to avoid any drop in self-regard is to dodge failure.
Researchers have found that people may give—and believe—excuses such as, “I didn’t try hard” or “I wasn’t feeling well” after failing to perform according to their own expectations. Excuses can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in order to believe their excuse, people may stay up too late the night before a big test or a presentation at work rather than getting the rest they need to perform optimally.
5. Separation from others
When we base how we feel about ourselves primarily on outer accomplishments, we tend to put our needs before those of others.
If we are preoccupied with validation from others, we may use our friends and family for this purpose to the extent that our interactions with them become solely about us instead of being reciprocal.
The need to feel that we are better than others emphasizes our separation from them, which can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection.
If not self-esteem, what?
By now you’re probably wondering what you should pursue for yourself if not higher self-esteem. After all, what will motivate us when we take away the drive to achieve?
The problem isn’t the drive to achieve. The problem is basing our self-worth on achievements to the exclusion of other factors.
Perhaps we can change our motivation slightly and derive greater benefit. Rather than achieving only for ourselves, what if we include others in the scenario? How about achieving and doing well for the good of the team, or the family, or the community?
1. Adopt an “others first” attitude
Instead of working hard at the office for your own accolades, perhaps you can work hard for your team to do well or to provide for your family. The “others first” approach can be motivating and beneficial in other important ways, too:
Goals directed at being constructive, supportive, and responsive to others lead to feelings of connectedness, closeness to others, social support, and trust, as well as reduced feelings of conflict, loneliness, fear, and confusion. Compassionate goals appear to engender a sense of worth and connectedness without the devastating drops that come after feedback suggestive of failure. ~ Scientific American Mind magazine
2. Be self-compassionate
Just as you might be compassionate toward a friend who made a mistake or failed, it helps to apply compassion toward yourself. Part of practicing self-compassion is learning to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to be mindful about being kind to ourselves.
When things go wrong, according to self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff, PhD,
Self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate. When the fickle fancy of self-esteem deserts us, the all-encompassing embrace of self-compassion is there, patiently waiting.
3. Have a get-better goal rather than a be-good goal
Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, explains that people who are concerned about failure and mistakes often set goals based on a “be-good” mindset. This approach establishes goals that are about proving ourselves. The problem? If we fail or make a mistake, then we’re not “good.”
A better way to set goals in line with self-compassion is to focus on getting better at something. Seeing mistakes and failures as an inevitable part of getting better at a task or way of being allows us to learn and grow rather than limiting our experiences for the sake of contingent self-esteem.
4. Learn to be less self-judging
In a terrific article in Scientific American Mind, Jennifer Crocker, PhD, and Jessica J. Carnevale sum up their findings about self-esteem:
If we were to design a new self-esteem movement, it would teach people to reduce focus on the worth of the self altogether because any action designed to enhance self-esteem is destined to have, at best, temporary benefits and most likely will fail because such actions are motivated by a toxic preoccupation with self-judgment.
One of the best ways to reduce self-judgment is to practice mindfulness—the art of being with yourself in the present moment without judgment. How can we learn to be mindful? Try this two-minute exercise:
With your eyes open or closed, focus on your breathing. Notice the coolness around your nose on the inhale and the warmth on the exhale. Continue to focus on your breath. As thoughts come up, notice them and allow them to float away as though they were clouds in a gentle breeze.
When you lose your focus on your breath—and you will—try not to judge yourself by thinking, “I’m no good at this,” or “I’m so scattered,” or “This is too hard.” Those thoughts are judgments.
The point at which you lose your focus is an important moment for you to practice the art of non-judgment, so welcome those moments and allow them to float away, too.
In her essay, The Paradox of Self-Esteem, Janetti Marotti, PhD, sums up the odd and wonderful way that mindfulness helps us overcome the lure of contingent self-esteem:
Life is bittersweet, ambiguity its flavor, uncertainty its color. Mindfulness is based on paradoxes. Mindfulness is like learning to drive on ice. When the road is icy, our natural inclination to stop spinning out of control is to turn away from the skid. But the way to maintain control is by turning into the skid. Mindfulness teaches us to move toward discomfort, rather than away from it, in order to break free. Rather than fighting against the grip of inadequacy, you surrender to it, and then it goes away.
What’s your experience with self-esteem? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.
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Crocker, J. & Carnevale, J.J. (2013, September/October.) Letting Go of Self-Esteem. Scientific American Mind, 24(4), 27-33.
Marotta, J. (2013.) The Paradox of Self-Esteem. In Marotta, J. 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem. New Harbinger Publications.
Neff, K. (2011.) Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. William Morrow.