Why Self-Esteem Alone Isn’t Enough
I mentioned in my last post “You’re Too Sensitive” that while I was at school my teachers had encouraged me to take courses for self-esteem. I went to a really bad school, but I believe that in this case they had the best intentions. It was interesting to look back now with what I know. It was popular for a while to focus on self-esteem, but it never worked for me. I tried courses and read books about it, and even though the advice was sound I never noticed any changes as a result of following it. Last year I learnt about another option called Mindfulness and for the first time my attempts resulted in a noticeable benefit. I felt happier and was finding it easier to motivate myself. I still struggle with bad anxiety, but I’m dealing with it better than I use to.
Mindfulness has taught me about self-compassion. I’m a fallible human being, but that’s ok. Everybody makes mistakes or has a bad day; We often beat ourselves up over those things, but that’s never going to make us feel better. Instead I calmly tell myself that I tried my best and that it’s fair for me to have some time to recover from a set back. There’s a lot of pressure in our culture to be above average all the time, but such a mindset makes it difficult for us to feel good about ourselves. Self-esteem can fluctuate based on our current success and failures, but self-compassion is there to pick us back up again when things go awry. It’s also possible to have too much self-esteem, preventing us from seeing ourselves in an accurate light.
Chasing self-esteem left me with too high an expectation for what I could achieve. I’d been led to believe that people with good self-esteem didn’t have doubts and fears like I did. I don’t think it’s actually healthy to completely eradicate such negative emotions as they exist to inform us. Those that we consider to be confident probably have their own set of insecurities too. To be mindful is to learn to sit comfortably with those negative emotions, not to magic them away. It helps us to interpret what our negative emotions are telling us without being swept away by them.
I wonder how many of us even have problems with self-esteem or if it’s just false belief (see ‘Low Self-Esteem is Learned‘ on Psych Central.) The first time I considered myself to have low self-esteem happened after my teachers put me on the course. I’ve always been treated like I’m too sensitive and so it’s how I’ve learnt to see myself. Yet there have been many occassions in my life where I’ve surprised myself by coping with a situation that was challenging for others. How we’re treated isn’t always right because others might be reflecting onto you what they need you to be. For example, a parent might want to feel needed and will refuse to see the signs that you’re becoming independent, and so they might treat you like you’re less capable than you really are. We might fight against the belief for a while, but as soon as something happens that we struggle to cope with that doubt will creep in – perhaps that they were right to have concerns over me handling this.
I spent a long time searching for a way to fix my self-esteem, but it was never going to work because my initial reasons and expectations for what I wanted to achieve were misplaced. I had convinced myself that there was something wrong with me that needed resolving. When each attempt failed to change my life it would only add strength to those convictions, which of course had an even worse impact on my self-esteem. Luckily I discovered mindfulness and its made a massive difference to my outlook now. My lack of self-compassion had been one of the biggest issues holding me back. My self-esteem seems to be improving as a consequence of self-compassion anyway. Different mindsets work for different people however, and so I’m not suggesting that everybody should go down this route, but I do recommend assessing what you want to achieve and why. If your reasons are misplaced then it’s possible that nothing will do what you hope and could even leave you feeling worse about yourself.
- Self-Compassion Dr. Kristin Neff – Why We Should Stop Chasing Self-Esteem And Start Developing Self-Compassion
- Center For Mindful Self-Compassion – Self-Compassion Vs Self-Esteem