I’d like to risk using myself as an example in talking about self-esteem.
I have this conversation about self-esteem frequently with clients. I have a deep connection with them and feel perfectly fine self-esteem-wise doing it, however, it feels way different now.
This is a different experience. I’m doing something new and I’m feeling a little uncertain about it.
Three blogs on my website in the past three years. Only one post per year. Situationally my self-esteem is questionable right now. Why? Because I don’t feel as confident writing this post and putting it on the internet as I do in session with my clients. I’m used to being in session with clients, out here ~ not so much!
I believe the material I share is extremely valuable and I am presenting it here wholeheartedly.
However, self-esteem, as we experience it situationally, is inherently unstable. What if the first person to comment on this post is a professional friend I admire, who has invested a lot of her education and career in this concept of self-esteem that I am challenging, and academically mounts a counter-post?
Down on the self-esteem meter, I go.
But… what if it goes viral and Glennon Doyle or Oprah praise my perspective on this? Up it goes!
See how it is situational?
The truth is any time we are doing something new, we most likely will lack confidence, feel a bit uncomfortable, and have a lot to learn. Having a growth mindset is so very helpful in these moments. A growth mindset allows for discomfort and stretching when we are growing and learning, and that is a part of the process of being human.
Confidence and self-esteem are inherently unstable constructs.
Self-Compassion and a supportive mindset, as we find ourselves in new situations with an uncertain outcome, are far more helpful than this idea of a “fixed” self-esteem.
Perhaps self-esteem as a concept is really the product of a fixed mindset. This doesn’t allow for growth or process. A fixed mindset purports you either have the talent for something or you don’t. You are either smart or not.
Carol Dweck is a researcher who has examined the deleterious effects of a fixed mindset. In a nutshell, people who identify with a fixed mindset in their talents seldom want to risk being in a situation that would challenge them, or demonstrate they may not be as smart or talented as they think they are. As a result, they don’t take risks to grow and develop as much as they could if they embraced a growth mindset. And if they do, they tend to blame others or conditions outside of themselves if things don’t go as well as they hoped. They miss the opportunity to self-reflect. They miss the opportunity to grow.
Many people come to me wondering if at the root of all their problems is self-esteem.
Their self-esteem is low, or non-existent. If self-esteem were a tree they wish for a towering oak. They fear what they have is a very sad sapling that never got enough nourishment to thrive.
I find this is especially so for Highly Sensitive People (HSP’s). They live in a world that reflects back to them they are “too sensitive” leaving them with the sense they are inherently flawed or missing something. Often they conclude this missing something must be self-esteem.
Let’s break down self-esteem.
You’ll see why I think it is not only overrated but perhaps an inherently harmful construct that we would all be better off without. Then I am going to discuss what may ultimately prove much more helpful to HSPs and humanity as a whole.
Self-esteem is defined by Webster’s as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.”
In one aspect it can be a global assessment of our skills and gifts and how we apply them in the world. However, this is not the way humans typically experience self-esteem.
Most humans I know experience situational, context-dependent self-esteem.
Instead of a global, broad-ranging and honest look at ourselves, we experience how we feel in relation to the situations we are in, people we are with, and experiences we are having. In this light, self-esteem is an inherently unstable construct. We constantly learn new things and adjust to new situations all the time.
Most of us gain confidence and belief in ourselves by doing.
It’s appropriate to feel situationally low self-esteem any time we are experiencing something new or in a situation where our gifts and contributions are not recognized or valued.
It is rumored that Freud himself said: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, look around you and make sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes.” (I’m pretty sure this is misattributed to Freud but agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly).
We are social creatures and much of our “self-esteem” is actually a reflection of how others see us, our performance or our contributions at the moment.
So I would like to propose that instead of being so fixated on where we are on the self-esteem meter – we focus instead on a more robust and stable construct:
- Self-compassion is a series of practices that nurture an attitude of kindness and support towards ourselves as we go through this process of life.
- Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.
Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology. She defines self-compassion as being composed of three main components:
- Mindfulness: Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to one’s negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Negative thoughts and emotions are observed with openness so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which individuals observe their thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.
- Common humanity: Self-compassion also involves recognizing that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
- Self-kindness: Self-compassion entails being warm towards oneself when encountering pain and personal shortcomings, rather than ignoring them or hurting oneself with self-criticism.
Now, I’m 45 years old and I know that no one stays on any mountain peak indefinitely; so even if this post garnishes massive amounts of positive attention I know better than to think, game over, I did it, or that my self-esteem will stay up high.
If I am growing continuously trying new and creative things I will feel not so sure and have “low self-esteem” feelings again and again. What concerns me is when we are so quick to label children and evaluate their self-esteem. If self-esteem is going to be up and down over the course of their lives situationally as they try new things, wouldn’t it be far more valuable to focus instead on Self-compassion? For a quick taste of what a Self-compassion practice might look like check out my post here.
Do we want to risk our kids having a sense that we are worried about their self-esteem? Wouldn’t it be better to show them, and ourselves, how to meet ourselves with kindness, no matter where we are, who we are with, or what we are doing?