Going Beyond Self-Esteem

When I was in graduate school, every treatment plan that my colleagues and I wrote seemed to include a plan to increase self-esteem in our clients. The thinking was that folks just needed to feel better about themselves and the way to do it was to build up their self-esteem. But here’s something interesting about self-esteem. Low self-esteem is evidenced in people having negative, and often distorted thoughts about themselves. You can probably identify those internal messages in yourself: I’m so fat, this person probably thinks I’m boring, I’m stupid, I’m such a fraud…..any of these sound familiar? It is very difficult to stop thoughts like this from coming. And all too often, people simply try to get high self-esteem by replacing thoughts like these with positive thoughts. I’m thin! I’m an interesting person, I’m brilliant, I deserve this honor…..Ah, if only we were so easily fooled! The problem with this type of internal work is that all it does is replace a distorted negative thought with a distorted positive one! The truth is often somewhere in the middle.

Listen to this interesting quote regarding self-esteem; “in one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors” (p.137, Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, PhD). In other words, high self-esteem can come as a result of success in life, but is not required to attempt the activities that may facilitate it.

Instead of working towards high self-esteem, I’ve started talking with clients about developing self-compassion. Self-compassion is the ability to have compassion for yourself just like you have compassion for a friend. Developing the ability to recognize your own suffering connects us to the human experience as a bunch of sometimes wonderful, sometimes average, and sometimes decidedly unimpressive individuals. You are no exception! As Neff says, “you can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction. All by giving yourself the compassion you need in the moment” (p.12).

What do you think? How easy does self-compassion come to you?

Click here for a link to Kristin Neff’s website and information about her book.

8 comments


  • Well said! I often frame the seeking of higher and higher self-esteem as narcissism training.

    May 3, 2012
  • Annie

    Liberating.

    May 3, 2012
  • Well-said. Important stuff. I highly recommend David Mills essay, “Overcoming Self-Esteem.” Here’s the link:

    http://davidmills.net/index_files/Overcoming-Self-Esteem.pdf

    May 3, 2012
  • jill

    I thought this was interesting–at the same moment that I got your article in my inbox, I also received a message from a dieting website with the ‘encouragement of the week’ below. It is so second nature for us to combat any problem with positive thinking, usually about how deserving or good we are. The truth can be distorted in many directions, like you said. And the best truth is, that we’re undeserving but loved unconditionally and ‘worth it’ anyway. 🙂

    1. I am worth it because I deserve to feel healthy.
    2. I am worth it because I deserve to feel pretty.
    3. I am worth it because I deserve to not feel embarrassed when I walk into a room.
    4. I am worth it because I deserve to be surrounded by love and not negativity.
    5. I am worth it because I have spent my whole life feeling bad about myself and I will no longer accept that.

    May 3, 2012
  • I love your comment, Jill – so true. I have always disliked the self-esteem movement because it tells us we are deserving, when in fact, that is just as much of a distortion as the negative thoughts we are experiencing. (And I have also heard the same from a popular commercial weight-loss program and struggled with it!).

    But I digress. Thank you, Janice, for the term self-compassion. I like that much better. It reflects the compassion that God has for us – while we were yet sinners, he died for us. While we are undeserving, he loves us and has great compassion for us and longs to free us from our sin and entrenched behaviors that control us.

    May 3, 2012
  • Dan McWilliams

    So, what do people think motivates people to try new things, and not be afraid to fail. If it’s not a heatlhy self-esteem that gives you the framework for the self-confidence, what is it?

    May 3, 2012
  • marykate

    here’s a term for that, Dan: pre-emptive self-compassion. Instead of going into a situation with the thought “I am going to suck at this and make a fool of myself,” to think “whatever happens, I will try my best to learn something from the experience, and not take myself too seriously.”

    thinking of the verse “his mercies are new every morning,” and trying to make my own thoughts line up with that–having mercy on yourself, starting new each day, can restore so much energy that gets wasted on the negative spiral.

    May 3, 2012
  • Doug Wolfe

    I heard someone say, that someone told him, if he wanted self esteem, “then do esteem-able things.” He referred to things that involve sacrifice, and serving others. Made sense to me.

    May 10, 2012

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