Why You Should Stop Striving For High Self-Esteem

stop striving for high self esteem

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I’ve struggled for years trying to improve my self-esteem and self-confidence.  Well, it now seems I may have been barking up the wrong tree!
According to Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, what makes much more sense is to cultivate self-compassion.
Think about it.  No matter how successful we are and how wealthy we become, it never seems to be enough. 
We think that others have more than us and we struggle to accept mistakes and failures. 
This can lead to us feeling anxious, worried and depressed.  We seek the answers at the doctor’s surgery, in pills and in the self-help aisle at the bookshop.

The Problem with Self-Esteem


Self-esteem is the degree to which we evaluate ourselves, whether that be positively or negatively. It is defined as how you feel about yourself and how you think others see you.  

Research has shown that high self-esteem can have some serious downsides.  One key issue is that once you have high self-esteem, you will have to work hard to keep it.  High levels of self-esteem have also been linked to narcissism, aggression, prejudice and anger.   
There is also a problem with the ‘how you think others see you’ part of the definition.  This can lead to constant comparison with others.  My own experience with this is that my day to day happiness can depend very much on what I think others think about me.

Self-Compassion as an Alternative Approach



Self-compassion is being kind to ourselves in the face of failure, or if we notice something we don’t like about ourselves, rather than being self-critical.
It also involves mindfulness, being able to recognise and not judge negative thoughts and emotions as they arise.
Another key point of self-compassion is it is about how we relate to ourselves rather than to others.
With self-compassion, other people are out of the equation. You don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.
Realising this has made me see how futile my battle with self-esteem has become.  I know now that what I actually need to do is give myself a break!
Now, you may worry that practising self-compassion is somehow ‘letting yourself off the hook’
You may worry that you are going to lose your focus or your ‘edge’.  Yet research has shown that the opposite is true – focus is actually associated with emotional resilience rather than with high self-esteem. 

Benefits of Self-Compassion


When I came across Dr Neff’s research I was intrigued to find out more.  The research found that self-compassion:
  • makes you acknowledge your flaws and limitations
  • helps you to be more realistic and optimistic
  • fosters greater emotional resilience
  • leads to more caring behaviour
  • reduces levels of stress and frustration
  • increases productivity
[tweetshare tweet=”You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. — Louise L. Hay” username=”alisonw30″] 

Test your Self-Compassion Level

You can test your current level of self-compassion over at self-compassion.org
The test measures how self-compassionate you are on a scale of 1 to 5. 
My score of 2.88 puts me in the ‘moderate’ band. 
I was quite pleased with this result as a couple of years ago I would have been firmly in the low part of the scale! 
The test breaks self-compassion down further into a number of different dimensions. This gives you a better indication of what you can work on.
In my own case, I could improve my scores on self-judgement and over-identification.  This definitely resonated.  I know I can be pretty hard on myself at times and can easily get caught up in emotion and rumination!

How to Practice Self-Compassion

Dr Neff gives a range of exercises for practising and improving self-compassion.
My personal favourites are ‘how would you treat a friend’ and ‘exploring self-compassion through writing’.

1. How Would you Treat a Friend?

I recently watched a thought-provoking Ted Talk by psychologist Dr Guy Winch entitled ‘Why we all need to practice emotional first aid’.
In the talk, Dr Winch tells the story of a lady who goes on a blind date to a bar.  After 10 minutes, the guy stands up and says ‘sorry, I’m not interested’ and walks out.  The lady is understandably upset and phones her friend.  Her friend tells her ‘what do you expect, you are fat and boring, why would anyone want to date you?!’
Shocking?  Of course, this wasn’t really the lady’s friend telling her this. It was her own self-critic making a point of kicking her whilst she was down!
So how to stop this habit of beating ourselves up??
Step one in Dr Neff’s exercise is to think how you would you respond to a friend who is feeling bad.  Write down how you would respond to your friend (particularly if you were feeling on top of your game!)  Write down what you would and wouldn’t do, what you would and wouldn’t say and what tone of voice you would use.
The next step is to think about when you’re feeling bad.  Maybe something hasn’t gone quite to plan or you’ve made a mistake at work.  Again write down what you would and wouldn’t do, what you would and wouldn’t say and what tone of voice you would use. 
Then examine if there is a difference between the two approaches.  I’m betting that there is?!  Ask yourself why this is, what leads you to treat yourself in a different way to how you would treat others?
Then note down what you think might change if you were to respond to yourself in the same way you would respond to a friend.

2. Write Yourself a Letter

Take something you are unhappy about and write yourself a compassionate letter.  In the letter express acceptance, understanding and encouragement.
Try to write the letter from the perspective of an imaginary friend who loves you unconditionally
Ask yourself what your friend would wish to convey to you from a position of compassionate understanding What would they tell you to remind you that you are only human and that you have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else?
Dr Neff says “as you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness”.
Another way to cultivate self-compassion is to practice mindfulness meditation.  This can help with possible over-identification and negative rumination.  Mindfulness is about being aware of thoughts and emotions without trying to change anything.
Also, try to take notice of the words your ‘inner critic’ uses.  How might you address yourself in a more compassionate way?
Finally, if you feel you could do with some help with any of the exercises, it may be a good idea to speak with a therapist or coach.

“Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to.  Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.” —Pema Chodron

I would love to hear what you think?  Do you think we focus too much on self-esteem?  Would a shift to self-compassion be helpful?  Have you had any success with this approach?

I’m taking part in the Wellbeing Wonders linky with Becca from Beccas Blogs It Out and Emma from Sunshine and Rain.

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  1. Angela Cooling

    Its really interesting to read a different perspective on self esteem and confidence. I have my own struggles too in this area.. Mindfulness definitely helps to shift the focus of being compassionate and accepting. Thanks Alison!

    1. Alison

      Hi Angela, glad you found it interesting, I certainly did too! Although my self compassion has improved, I’m definitely going to give the exercises a go! 🙂

  2. Amanda

    I love this! There has been too much focus on self-esteem resulting in the participation medal ridiculousness that doesn’t allow children to excel in their own ways. Self-compassion is a much healthier thing to focus on. Thanks!

  3. Emma

    This has been a really insightful read. I think we’re all guilty of assessing our own worth by what others think of us and this can be incredibly damaging. Being compassionate is always a good thing and I think showing compassion to ourselves should be the first step.

  4. Brittany

    Interesting perspective! Having been working on this issue for some time, I think having both self compassion and a healthy self esteem are important. I think they go hand in hand, since you need a healthy self esteem to set boundaries and to respect yourself. I’ve allowed myself to be mistreated by other people and sometimes even myself simply because I never thought I was worth anything. But to beat the I’m not good enough mentality, self compassion is incredibly important and something we need to do more of in our achievement focused world. Nice article !

    1. Alison

      Hi, thanks for stopping by. I think you are right, we need both. I think the problem arises with relying wholly on self esteem. It was a bit of a revelation for me to read in Dr Neff’s research how dependent self esteem is on external factors. It is something I struggle with too, I’m working on my self critic and not being so hard on myself!

  5. Kate

    I do think there has been a lot of focus on building our self-esteem — I’m definitely the kind of gal who would beat myself over because I had very low self-confidence which is just horrible!
    I feel like self-conpassion is self-esteem’s kinder cousin. And I feel there’s a little bit of difference between being compassionate to yourself and loving yourself. I love that quote by Pema Chodron because I really agree with them: self-compassion is self-acceptance. Awesome post!

    x Kate | https://allthetrinkets.wordpress.com

    1. Alison

      Thanks Kate, I like that, “self-compassion is self-esteem’s kinder cousin”, good way to look at it 🙂

  6. Kat

    I really like those exercises that you wrote about. Thinking about how you would treat a friend is so important. I really enjoy mindfulness – I do a lot of this at the end of the day with my students. I find they really like the time to sit and reflect and meditate. It’s made a big difference in the way they treat other people!

    1. Alison

      Hi Kat, thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree mindfulness meditation is really helpful! Dr Neff has a number of meditations specifically around compassion so I am currently working my way through those and finding them helpful 🙂

  7. Geraldine

    That’s so true Alison, thanks for posting this! I never thought of having self-esteem in this manner but it is so true. Once you build it up, you have to keep it there and protect that self-esteem from getting hurt and I guess as you have more, you become much more sensitive too, which is no fun.

    1. Alison

      Hi Geraldine, I hadn’t thought about that way either previously. It’s been a bit of a revelation!

  8. Corrie

    At first when I saw the title of the post I thought “Wait, what? Give up on self-esteem?” but this totally makes sense! Self-Compassion gives you the right perspective on how you view yourself and others. After all, it’s hard to serve and be kind to others if you can’t be kind to yourself.

    Excellent post!

    1. Alison

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad to see my headline got your attention 😁 Glad you enjoyed my post 🙂

  9. Marie

    That was a very interesting read and something I would like to come back to. I will bookmark this, read again, click all the links and try to put it into practice. Thank you.

    1. Alison

      Hi Marie

      It is definitely worth clicking the links, Dr Neff’s work is awesome! There are lots of useful resources on her website 🙂

  10. Becca

    I really struggle with low self esteem and self criticism, so this was a brilliant read! Thank you x

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