I’ve always had trouble with the phrase ‘Self Esteem.’ We all think we know what it means but try to define it in a sentence.
‘An evaluation or appraisal of ones self worth.’ ‘Valuing yourself,’ ‘How I feel about who I am.’ But how is that measured? By whom? On what scale?
The huge majority of work on the subject addresses low self esteem but we know that people, particularly young people, who have an inflated, entitled attitude to the world often have high self esteem:
“Likewise, people with high self-esteem think they make better impressions, have stronger friendships and have better romantic lives than other people, but the data don't support their self-flattering views. If anything, people who love themselves too much sometimes annoy other people by their defensive or know-it-all attitudes. Self-esteem doesn't predict who will make a good leader, and some work (including that of psychologist Robert Hogan writing in the Harvard Business Review) has found humility rather than self-esteem to be a key trait of successful leaders.”
I see people who are suffering from a lack of confidence; from years of being told they’re rubbish or from being told they are wonderful but not believing it (usually because the people telling them didn’t believe it either.) I’ve met people with brittle smiles who have been repeating affirmations about how great they are, often fed to them by other people with brittle smiles neither of whom actually believe any of it. And then there’s the pseudo-science of The Secret which blames you for being such an idiot and totally crap at manifesting high self-esteem.
(The quantum mechanics that The Secret and its offshoots has plundered is beautiful, profound and barely understood by the peer-reviewed scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to it, let alone anyone else. As with diluted understandings of Karma it’s ridiculous to suggest ‘You want and deserve your horrible life, the Sultan of Brunei wants and deserves his privileged life.’ The real message, as with so much of the self help industry is ‘This is all your fault,’ which seems calculated to keep you in need of further guidance, teaching, courses and books from people making money from it.)
Over the years, I've taught workshops on self esteem referring to the research and using tried and tested techniques but felt it was somehow missing the mark of authenticity. Eventually, I stopped teaching this workshop when I felt it put me in the same category as the brittle smilers. And there’s still something to say about how we feel about ourselves in the world.
Self-Compassion looks as if it may have some good answers:
“Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin is the pioneer of self-compassion as a tool to promote psychological healing, well-being, and better relationships. She contrasts self-compassion with self-esteem in that it does not require us to elevate ourselves above other people and compete with them. While high self-esteem is generally based on evidence of superior achievement, self-compassion is a more constant personal quality, in which we value ourselves and treat ourselves kindly just because we are human.”
That’s a message I can relax with – that simply by virtue of our existence we are worthy of the same care, respect and healthy relationships as anyone else. Not because we work harder or achieved more or anything else, but just because we exist. That’s the message from counselling research too, that if the counsellor prizes the client, doesn’t judge them and is genuine in relationship with them then the chances are that therapy will work. This is an attitude not a set of techniques, and it’s a damn sight harder than chanting affirmations. I think it’s worth the effort.