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Need more self-esteem? 5 reasons why you really don’t.

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“If I only had more self-esteem, I would be completely happy,” my young client declared as we discussed woman hugging herselfher goals for therapy.

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.

Self-esteem’s shortfalls

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.

And please be sure to share this on Facebook and/or Twitter!

Resources:

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.

Comments

22 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing excellent insights and thoughts, Appreciated

  2. Nancy Nagler says:

    Very interesting article. If that is what most people think self-esteem is, I’d like to trade places. But I’m happier this way.
    I was diagnosed with bipolar in the 90’s, depression in the 80’s. Poor self esteem had a lot to do about it. I thought I had failed.
    Nope. I just had my priorities mixed up. I rebuilt my soul to a larger view. I am a pathfinder. I am stronger because of the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’

    in 2009-9, I took a NAMI course on becoming a Peer Support Provider. I was one of the first in my state to be so certified. We were taught person-centered, strength based approach. Just an extension of appreciating everyone for something special. Certainly an investment, for you and others.

    But the best statement of grounding me, that ‘fell’ into my hands one day was from Ode Magazine from the early 2000’s.
    “What I have is enough; What I am is enough; What I do is enough, What I have
    achieved is enough.”
    And I am thankful for the way my life has gone.

    I think this is what you said only in different language, which is my magic talent. (Refer to the Magic of Xanth series.)

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Nancy,

      I loved those Xanth books! Yes, you do have a wonderful Talent.

      And thanks so much for sharing part of your story. I like how you say you “rebuilt your soul to a larger view.” That is so important in being able to bounce back and forward in life.

  3. Doug Toft says:

    Bobbi, thanks so much for another distillation of recent research and theory.

  4. Kitty Gorfi says:

    Timely article as usual Bobbi. The idea of serving the group, rather than just myself, resonates with me. I derive real satisfaction from contributing to the health and happiness of my family. However, I like to play around with the focus of my efforts because I don’t want to “throw pearls before swine”. I want to feel that my contributions are generally well-received and valued. And acknowledged!! I like to periodically check in with myself and ask, “Does this feel good for me?” This way, I can orient towards the people and activities who are also serving me in some way.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Kitty,

      I’m so glad you mentioned your habit of checking in with yourself to make sure whatever it is you’re doing still feels good for you. Sometimes we create habits of behavior that we become mindless about and then later wonder why we’re feeling resentful or restless. Your check-in helps restore mindfulness again.

      So happy this post was timely for you!

  5. A very thoughtful article, Bobbi, and ultimately full of good advice.

    I have to say that I disagree with any definition of self-esteem as being about achievement, “proving” one’s worth, comparing oneself to others or having difficulty seeing one’s shortcomings. These all strike me as symptoms of low, rather than high, self-esteem.

    I believe true self-esteem is simply the absence of baseless shame. You don’t have to add anything to yourself to enjoy higher self-esteem; you need only remove what’s getting in the way.

    Self-esteem entails self-compassion; far from being opposites, the latter both springs from, and enhances, the former.

    In my opinion, we need a better understanding of self-esteem, rather than getting rid of the concept entirely.

    • Bobbi says:

      Yes, I like your thought process here, Tina. I think that’s why some of these folks I’ve quoted talk about ‘contingent’ self-esteem – the kind that’s based on one or more activities or achievements.

      But your words also make me wonder about the relationship between self-esteem and self-compassion. My initial reflex was to say that I think self-esteem springs from self-compassion rather than the reverse, as you frame it. But I think you might be right; healthy self-esteem encompasses and generates self-compassion. Yet there is reciprocity, too: having compassion for oneself will increase acceptance and self-worth.

      Maybe it’s not important to say which is the overarching concept – what do you think?

      And I completely agree with you about needing a better understanding of self-esteem. What we don’t need is the ‘contingent’ self-esteem that continues to be so prevalent.

  6. Dean says:

    Very, very interesting, Bobbi. I”m guilty of a lot of this. ESPECIALLY being self-compassionate. Let’s say I come home from work, usually pretty tired. I know I have work to do on my blog. Research, whatever it is. More often than not, once the gym and/or dinner is done, it’s nearly 8:00, I’m exhausted, and the last thing I feel like doing is any more work.

    So I get in bed, read some, watch the news, check my feeds, and go to sleep. Then forever beat myself up about not getting any work done. Again. And it keeps feeding on itself.

    Anyway, I know there’s a couple things I can do, short term. One, at least get myself in front of the computer and get a little something done, even if it’s only 15 minutes or so. And, cut myself some slack. I’m not a bad guy, I just need to be a little more disciplined.
    Dean recently posted…SF Beer Week ’14: Missing the Cheese, Taking the Bus, and Hitting the LotteryMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Dean, I just read an interesting quote from self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff: “Stop beating yourself up about beating yourself up to try get yourself to stop beating yourself up!”

      You’re not a bad guy at all. You’re a guy with a full-time job who is also trying to run a very interesting blog. I don’t want to do any more work at 8 pm, either!

      You’re right; cut yourself some slack! 😉

  7. Jackie says:

    Great article! Mindfulness is so powerful to help ground and reorient us to our connected and authentic selves. I appreciated the perspective of shifting the paradigm of self-esteem to one that is more connected to ourselves and others. The old paradigm seems aligned with lack and judgement, whereas the new one suggested is one of engagement, curiosity and service.
    Jackie recently posted…What Writing a Horrible First Draft Reveals About YouMy Profile

  8. Fascinating article, Bobbi!

    I consistently struggle with how to define and apply the concept of self-esteem with my boys, and I feel I’m always coming up a bit short.

    Any advice on how to raise a child’s self worth, without falling into the self-esteem pitfalls you mention?

    I especially like the idea of a “get better” goal, but adopting an “others first” attitude is definitely a work in progress… 😉

    What ways do you suggest I can teach my children to be less self-judging and more self-compassionate?
    Kimberley Grabas recently posted…Your Path to Influence: 17 Simple Ways to Make an ImpactMy Profile

  9. CJ says:

    Interesting and subtle distinctions in here.

    It seems there is some implications around self-esteem as having some delusions, lack of awareness of weaknesses in a topic.

    For me it is recognizing that you have inherent value, that your very nature is valuable. This foundation can be there while being fully aware of strengths and weaknesses, and the inter-dependency we have with others as NOONE can be great at everything. You are just not defining your core worth as a human being based on these strengths, weaknesses and how they compare to others.

    In my experience someone can be extremely skilled, extremely “valuable” and accomplished from an external sense and still feel completely unworthy and unacceptable at the core.
    CJ recently posted…Inner Work For Men: The Balls ProjectMy Profile

  10. After I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on
    each time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment.
    Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service?
    Kudos!
    مصمم مواقع recently posted…مصمم مواقعMy Profile

  11. Hi Bobbi

    I am new to blogging. Your article showed the importance of self esteem. Its amazing one. pls update with your new posts.
    sri katyayani recently posted…fiber optic cable or OFCMy Profile

  12. lynne says:

    Hi, such a very informative article, I really enjoyed it, I love the idea of 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. Thanks for sharing . Great post!
    lynne recently posted…Why I’m Enjoying “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” by Ken BurnsMy Profile

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  14. Ramana says:

    Hi,
    Self motivation is a good practice to get results in life. Your article has given good infomration
    you Only live your life

  15. It’s wonderful that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well
    as from our dialogue made here.
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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.