I think they’re on the wrong track.
While having a healthy amount of self-esteem can be helpful, there are aspects of self-esteem – and the pursuit of self-esteem – that can be harmful and hinder your ability to bounce back in life.
Researchers call this “contingent self-esteem.”
When we base our worth on something in particular such as physical appearance, work/school achievements or sports, the way we feel about ourselves is contingent on how we do in those endeavors.
If we do well, we feel great! But if we fail – and we’re human so there is no doubt we will fail sometimes – we feel awful about ourselves.
So, what are our options?
We can work so hard in our chosen contingency that we won’t fail and feel bad. (But we’ve already discussed the nature of humanness and failure above.)
Or we can avoid putting ourselves at risk of failure by not trying something new or self-sabotaging so we can say things like, “It’s not that I failed – it’s just that I didn’t really try very hard.”
People who come to me seeking more self-esteem are inevitably walking this tightrope of fear-of-failure/success-sabotaging and assuming that what they need is more self-esteem to help them hold their balance.
Not so much.
1. Take on an “others first” attitude.
Self-esteem, of course, is very “me” centered.
It turns out the best way to feel good about ourselves is to be more “you” centered.
Goals directed at being constructive, supportive, and responsive to others lead to feelings of connectedness, closeness to others, social support, and trust, as well as reduced feelings of conflict, loneliness, fear, and confusion. Compassionate goals appear to engender a sense of worth and connectedness without the devastating drops that come after feedback suggestive of failure. ~ Scientific American Mind magazine
Instead of working until midnight at your job to help yourself be successful so you’ll feel good, why not work hard to help the other members of your team or provide for your family?
2. Be self-compassionate.
Self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate. When the fickle fancy of self-esteem deserts us, the all-encompassing embrace of self-compassion is there, patiently waiting. – Kristen Neff, PhD, eminent self-compassion researcher
I have talked about self-compassion in depth elsewhere, but I think the best thing to ask yourself is, “If it were my friend in this situation, how would I treat her? Would I say, ‘You just need to work harder’ or ‘You’ll never be the best person on this team if you don’t train your body to the point of injury’?”
Be your own best friend and apply some compassion to yourself.
3. Have a ‘get-better’ goal rather than a ‘be-good’ goal.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, notes that many people set goals for themselves that have to do with being good at something.
People who base their self-worth on contingencies are pros at doing this. They won’t let themselves off the hook until they’re the best at whatever it is they are doing.
Again, do you see how this sets you up for failure? We can’t all be the best at something because someone has to be at least second-best!
A better way to set goals in line with self-compassion is to focus on getting better at something.
Seeing mistakes and failures as an inevitable part of getting better at a task or way of being allows us to learn and grow rather than limiting our experiences for the sake of contingent self-esteem.
4. Let go of self-judging.
If we were to design a new self-esteem movement, it would teach people to reduce focus on the worth of the self altogether because any action designed to enhance self-esteem is destined to have, at best, temporary benefits and most likely will fail because such actions are motivated by a toxic preoccupation with self-judgment. – Jennifer Crocker, PhD and Jessica J. Carnevale, Scientific American Mind magazine.
Letting go of self-judgment is hard. And it’s a practice, not something we can do right away.
One of the best ways to practice is to meditate mindfully for a period of time. Start of with a short interval of five minutes.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath as it comes in and out of your nose. Try to notice the coolness of the inhale and the warmth of the exhale.
That’s all you have to do for five minutes. Just sit and notice your breath.
What you’ll find, though, is that your mind will almost immediately start to wander. And, it’s likely that when you notice your mind wandering, you’ll think something like this, “Oh, I’m not good at this! I couldn’t even keep my mind focused for ten seconds!”
See the judgment there? “I’m not good at this.”
When you notice your mind flitting around, also notice what you say to yourself about your meditation practice.
If you notice judgmental thoughts, simply allow them to float away and return to your breath.
Learning to be less judgmental for even five minutes can infiltrate the rest of your day and, if you continue the practice, the rest of your life.
Try these four approaches to life and I think you’ll find yourself on much firmer footing than that tightrope of self-esteem.
Crocker, J. & Carnevale, J.J. (2013, September/October.) Letting Go of Self-Esteem. Scientific American Mind, 24(4), 27-33.
Halvorson, Heidi G. (2011), Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Harvard Business Review Blog Network.
Neff, K. (2011.) Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. William Morrow.
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Last reviewed: 24 Jun 2014