Self-Esteem vs Self-Compassion
The idea of self-esteem gained prominence in the 80’s. It encompassed a great need to get children to feel good about themselves because depression was rampant among them. Self-esteem (feeling good about oneself due to the possession of superior qualities) was the key to resolving their emotional difficulties. Their parents thought: “They could be happy if they could just feel good about themselves.” But, there was a catch: Feeling good was intertwined with labeling, which, whether positive or negative, consistently leads to destructive beliefs. (e.g. If I’m beautiful, then I always have to receive attention. If I’m smart, I always have to succeed.)
Telling kids that they were smart, attractive, funny, special, and could do anything they wanted to with their lives (essentially fostering positive thinking and their inner-illusory worlds), became common. The message was: You could feel good about yourself if you possess these particular qualities. And, they misguidedly believed that their children would never catch on, clearly believing that they were far less intelligent than they were. (Talk about irony.)
Then, their manufactured world of positivity became a nightmare. The kids began to see through the parental and cultural veils. They no longer believed that all of them were beautiful and smart, perfect exactly as they were. They realized that each quality existed in comparison to others and that each of them couldn’t possess all of them, all of the time. Specialness is only special when compared to something inferior.
Subsequently, the self-esteem movement came crashing down, with some parents re-directing their praise toward achievements rather than inheritance, teaching their children that they could feel good about themselves if they were high achievers, which was possible through dedicated and sustained effort. Eventually, competition resumed and low self-worth predominated once again. For when there’s success, there’s failure, and when there’s failure, there’s self-loathing, at least when failure is linked to self worth through self-labeling. (e.g. I am a failure because I have failed.)
Self-Esteem and Positive Thinking
The concept of self-esteem is toxic due to its existence being based on, and maintained through, factors outside of one’s full control, whether they be achievement based or inherent qualities such as beauty or intellect. Reality’s bursting of the self-esteem bubble precipitated the movement’s downfall. (As an aside, positively thinking about the world is unsustainable, too.)
Because of its all-encompassing nature, self-esteem falls apart when one’s intrinsic qualities don’t compare well to those of others or when one fails. If I believe that I’m beautiful, how will I feel when I meet someone more attractive? If I’m smart, how did I fail that exam?
Just as positively thinking about the world falls apart when the veil is lifted and the world is seen as it really is, self-esteem erodes when one is seen as she truly is: a human being. Although hurtful at first, the truth, ironically, has the power to liberate us, to free us from the oppression of labels and exuberant expectations (of ourselves and of the world around us), and to afford us the gift of being ourselves.
One of the most difficult aspects of my work is dealing with patients who set high bars for themselves, their actions, and their achievements, those who expect the impossible, while denying the actual: their circumstances. Beauty, intellect, and success are qualities desired by many but only achieved by a few. (And not consistently so, as candid celebrity photos can attest.) They’re traits that can even be, and often are, denied when possessed. So, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t, “How do I attain this or that standard to feel good about myself? But, “How can I love myself despite it?” Although antithetical to our ingrained value of obsessive personal progress, antithesis is what’s needed. As, only antithesis could save us.
Despite the difficulty involved, there is a way out, and the light-bearer’s name is self-compassion. For to love oneself is to accept oneself, and to accept oneself is to accept one’s inalterable flaws, in addition to one’s strengths. I often note that trying to attain excellence is healthy, but that expecting it is not. And why should we expect it?
A Better Way to Mental Health
Most of us will be really good at a few activities and really bad at most others. That is how life is. Yet, we stubbornly hold onto expectations that make little sense in light of the reality we live in. Life is a sea-saw of comparison. Sometimes, we’re above, and at others, we’re below. And if we look hard enough, someone better at something can always be found. But, our essence remains still. And our essence is our tenacity.
Striving, trying, being, doing, progressing, developing: these are all wonderful and life-affirming actions. They make us who we are, helping us reach awe-inspiring heights. In contrast, the lust for, and expectation of, perfection can only engender self-loathing and distrust: the antitheses of growth. To love oneself is to love one’s flaws, and to love oneself is to also love one’s potential, while acknowledging its unattainability. In essence, loving is wishing, wishing to be your best version, while accepting that you’ll always be human and knowing that that will always be okay.