Self-esteem refers to our perceived sense of worth or value. Issues with low self-esteem can sometimes lead to things like depression or even things like addiction. But trying to improve your self-esteem can also lead to problems like narcissistic or self-absorbed behavior. In fact, the very notion of self-esteem itself problematic. Let me explain.
Self-esteem involves a type of comparison, either upward or downward comparison.
Upward comparison is when you compare yourself to people you perceive as “better” than you in some way, perhaps they are more physically fit, attractive, successful, financially well off, well-traveled, speak multiple languages, or whatever it is that you value. Engaging in upward comparison can lead to feelings of inferiority. It might indicate what you value, but beyond that, it is not particularly helpful, in fact, it can be detrimental. Sometimes people think that engaging in upward compassion can help motivate them to make changes and become “better” but that is not what the research shows. It actually reinforces a sense of yourself as inadequate or “less than.”
"As long as we judge ourselves harshly, it can feel as if we're making progress against our many flaws. But in reality, we're only reinforcing our sense of unworthiness."
Downward comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who we perceive ourselves as being “better than” in some way. In this case, perhaps we are the ones who are more educated, successful, attractive, etc. It makes us feel superior. So what is wrong with this if it makes us feel better? Because it only lasts for so long and ultimately comparison is a losing battle. So what are we supposed to do? I’ll offer you an alternative, self-compassion.
What is self-compassion? Mindful Self-Compassion or MSC was developed by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. You can learn more about MSC and how it differs from self-esteem at www.selfcompassion.org. But to summarize, MSC involves relating to yourself the same way you might relate to a friend. Think about it for a minute. If one of your friends was having a hard time, how might you relate to them? Do you relate to yourself in this same way? I am guessing probably not. Typically, at least in western culture, we learn to relate to ourselves in a rather harsh or critical way. Sometimes this is referred to as the inner critic. I have worked with some clients who are incredibly hard on themselves in which the term inner abuser seems more appropriate.
When I begin talking to clients about trying to decrease the ways in which they relate to themselves as critical/judgmental and begin to adopt a kinder, more gentle, compassionate, and supportive relationship with themselves they are often hesitant. They imagine that the inner critic, or even the inner abuse, has a purpose or is serving them in some way. They imagine that the inner critic or abuser is helping them to improve themselves. When I ask them to “examine the evidence” so to speak and observe the ways in which their inner critic or abuser is helping them improve themselves they often begin to realize it is a myth. In fact, it might be maintaining their sense of worthlessness, their depression/hopelessness, and preventing them from taking ACTionable steps to actually improve their lives.
MSC also allows you to see yourself accurately, flaws and all, without engaging in either upward or downward comparison. This is incredibly important when it comes to the process of change. The first step is always awareness or acknowledgment, right? Well, when you are thinking from a self-esteem perspective vs a self-compassion perspective seeing yourselves accurately can be too threatening, because it is damaging to your self-esteem, but when you see yourselves from a self-compassion perspective you can see yourselves more honestly; this will allows you the opportunity to make real changes.
If you would like to learn more about self-esteem and self-compassion you might be interested in buying my book.
If you are interested in learning more or in working with me please go to my homepage to contact me or schedule your free 15-minute phone call.
Please note that the information in this blog is intended for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for psychological or medical care. If you are looking for professional help, visit my resources page for guidance on how to find a therapist. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.