For many years self-esteem was a self-help buzzword. I remember countless discussions about ways to build our children’s self-esteem, and I still have a lot of clients say to me, “I don’t have a good self-esteem." They often feel this poor self-concept is at the root of their struggles.
Self-esteem seemed like a solid idea. We should esteem ourselves, respect and admire ourselves! We’d all be so much better off, but sadly, like many “seems like a good idea” concepts, the research into self-esteem doesn’t show that “good self-esteem” is well correlated with good mental health.
For one thing, people with narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies rate themselves very high in self-esteem, and yet their mental health, their pro-social functioning, and their ability to be generally kind and caring people is often deeply impaired.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with liking yourself, being proud of your accomplishments, or generally being happy with who you are. But the qualities we often associate with “having a good self-esteem” often include things like ‘never feeling bad about myself’ or ‘not questioning my abilities’ or ‘feeling confident all/most the time’ or ‘knowing I’m smart’ or ‘defending my opinions’.
The concept of self-esteem is problematic because these feelings tend to be fairly unstable. Self-esteem is strongly context-dependent. If we are asked about self-esteem just after acing a math test, we will rate ourselves very differently than just after being dumped by the love of our life. We are often unaware of our emotional context when contemplating such questions. Did I just finish vacation or a frustrating commute? Am I tired or hungry? And we can sometimes miss the bigger picture.
Another problem with focusing on self-esteem is that respecting and admiring ourselves isn’t always an appropriate response to our behaviors. Sometimes we all do things that are not in line with our goals and values. Sometimes we are wrong. Often we are blind to our flaws. Sometimes our behaviors are not respectable nor admirable. If we react to our poor choices or limitations by protecting our self-image (esteem is about image), by justifying our bad behaviors in order to tell ourselves a story that protects our self-esteem, (I’m not wrong, I’m the smartest person in this room!) then we are not responding from our best selves nor are we growing.
And this desire to grow (or growth mindset) is another flaw in the self-esteem theory. The notion of “good self-esteem” is often rooted in “fixed mindset” thinking. Things like “being smart” or “being talented” or “being strong” all imply that “being smart” is something you are, rather than something that you must work toward becoming. The research on this topic is clear and overwhelming: believing in “fixed traits” like “talent” or “intelligence” is an incorrect model (we don’t work that way) and ineffective. We get smarter, more talented and even more loving as we practice these behaviors, and we stagnate when we protect our image. It is much more effective to focus on the lessons learned, the hard work and the effort.
Another flaw-- many of the things that boost our self-esteem are entirely outside of our control. It’s much easier to have good self-esteem if we are tall, rich, white, attractive, skinny, able-bodied, and neurotypical. This self-esteem boost is unstable and tricky because we all know (on some level) that our worth should not be (and isn’t) rooted in these things, and yet people in possession of rich parents do experience an unfair and totally unearned (and ultimately unreliable) boost to their self-esteem. It can be equally confusing if we are rich and pretty, and still don’t have good self-esteem. The question can then become, “what’s wrong with me?”
Finally, the notion of self-esteem doesn’t fully acknowledge our human nature as communal creatures. I often hear my clients say “I know I should not care about what people think of me” and then go on to describe the ways in which other’s judgments are deeply painful for them to experience. We often view self-esteem as the solution to this problem. If I just loved myself enough, admired myself enough, I would not care anymore if other people judge me. Sadly, we just don’t work this way.
As long as we care about belonging, we will find judgement painful, and acceptance satisfying. The only way to entirely separate our “self-esteem” from other people’s opinions of us, is to stop caring if we belong. And if we stop caring about belonging we become psychopaths (then we could all have high self-esteem!)(I’m serious, psychopaths really do have great self-esteem.)
This is not to say that your self-concept is doomed to languish unless you get constant validation. It’s only to say that you do care. We all care what people think, even when we think we shouldn’t, and high self-esteem will not protect us from feeling that pain. The resilience we are looking for, the resilience to judgment, to shame, to failure, and disappointment, and even trauma is not rooted in good self-esteem.
We will all sometimes experience negative feelings. We will fail. We will have moments of self-doubt and lack of confidence. We will be rejected and dumped and this is going to hurt. We feel guilty for things we have done (and sometimes for things we haven’t done). We will not always respect or admire ourselves, and this is not only unavoidable, it’s absolutely necessary to the learning process (this is why people with narcissistic tendencies tend to get stuck, lack of deep honest self-reflection). All of these things are painful (and unavoidable)(and necessary) and rarely associated with our concepts of “good self-esteem”.
So if good self-esteem isn’t a sign of excellent mental health or good coping skills, and having a good self-esteem won’t solve my problems then do we have any idea what approach is helpful? Well, yes we do. Research strongly indicates that the concepts of self-acceptance and self-compassion are far more useful.
So, how are these different from self-esteem? First they aren’t about “feeling good” or even feeling “confident." They are about accepting that sometimes I will feel bad, and insecure, and that I can learn to accept and cope with those as normal human emotions rather than “overcome” or deny them. Secondly, they are about compassionately accepting our strengths and limitations and seeing ourselves as we are rather than as we feel we should be.
Many of my clients shy away from the ideas of self-compassion and self-acceptance. They often feel they “don’t deserve” it or fear that self-acceptance looks like “giving up” or “settling." Another really common fear is that if they accept themselves as they are, they won’t feel any motivation to grow and develop and move toward a better life and better choices.
It seems counterintuitive that accepting what is, accepting who we are, leads us toward growth, and yet it works. Over and over again I witness the power and energy that enters into my clients as they learn to accept themselves, because they learn that their desire to learn and grow is a part of who they are. Letting go of the demands of “who we should be” frees up our energy and potential to become our best selves.
Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.