I’ve always had a vague feeling of un ease surrounding the concept of self-esteem:
In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. So looking to develop high self esteem doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. From personal experience, living with integrity – that is living in accordance with my own values even when in the short term it’s not particularly comfortable, has had a huge impact on my ease of being. But there is a darker side of the ubiquitous hunt to feel good about ourselves….
In our highly competitive goal orientated society, there’s a suggestion that to be worthwhile you need to be somehow special – the best, the fastest, the thinnest, the most beautiful, the best mother, even the best meditator …. the endless list. So when you’re not feeling worthwhile, the message is join the chase to become better, then you will feel better about yourself.
Self esteem inherently requires a judgement to be made – it’s all about having a particular cluster of traits which set you apart from other people – that make you somehow special and in doing so it’s no longer OK to belong, to be average. This sets into motion a damaging pattern of competitiveness and self-absorption – which at best isolates us and at worse might even lead us to have to put down others in our attempts to come out on top.
The irony is that life is inexorably linked to suffering – So there are bound to be things that make you feel lousy, times when you fail, when other people do better – and before long if you’re not careful in the quest for the elusive self-esteem you’ll be roller coasting along, heading into the sunset chasing the next thing that will make you feel worthwhile.
Even the culture of praise which is often encouraged in our attempts to be enlightened parents, brings with it an unwelcome payoff:
If we raise children whose positive sense of self-worth is closely linked to how well they are doing, to other people’s approval, we risk creating a generation of people pleasers who are reluctant to take risks and who rely on their environment being “just so” in order to feel good about themselves.
I’ve sometimes wondered if we aren’t creating a society of Narcissists – people with and overwhelming need for admiration and affirmation – whose sense of self is largely reliant on the positive reaction of those around them, who will struggle to deal with failure, with constructive criticism and with the reality that none of us are perfect – that we all share a common humanity and that it’s often our struggles that unite us.
Perhaps instead we would do well to look at practicing self compassion rather than cultivating self-esteem. Self compassion involves treating yourself with kindness – as opposed to judging yourself, it requires recognition that we are all going to suffer, that we are not alone in our failures and that this can be a uniting factor. It also requires that we cultivate mindfulness in order not to get caught up in the tensions and fraughtness of the mind – with self obsession and delusion and instead look at our difficulties with the tender kindness of a dear friend.
Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.Wouldn’t it be fantastic if our children grew up with at least some of the skills to soothe themselves and maintain equanimity throughout life – rather than a relentless need to achieve in order to keep feeling good.