As a clinician, I believe that self-esteem (as a treatment goal or as a self-help goal) is overrated. I am a far bigger fan of self-acceptance. Here are some thoughts regarding self-esteem and self-acceptance.
On Conditionality of Self-Estimation & Unconditionality of Self-Acceptance
However you slice it self-esteem begins with self-judgment. After all, to estimate is to evaluate, to appraise, i.e. to judge. Judgment is when we evaluate something against a standard, against a condition of worth and value. As such, self-estimation is inherently conditional.
Through the process of self-estimation we try to see if we meet a certain condition of worth. If we do, we have self-esteem. If we don’t, we don’t. This dichotomous, dualistic, conditional view of self cuts us apart and fragments our wholeness.
The process of self-evaluation is never over. As we go from one situation to another our evaluation of ourselves changes. If I play chess with my neighbor, I feel like a king. If I play it with a grand-master, I feel like a pawn. This is the inherent instability of self-esteem: it is dependent on the circumstance and the yardsticks of worth by which we evaluate ourselves.
Self-acceptance is different. It is unconditional. Self-acceptance is a once-and-for-all conclusion that you are what you are, that you are doing the best you can at any given point in time. Whereas self-evaluation is based in comparison (between you and others or between what you are and what you think you should be), self-acceptance is based in reality of who you actually are at any given point in time. Whereas self-esteem is based on arbitrary and subjective yardsticks of worth, self-acceptance requires no yardsticks or measurements or evaluations and is, therefore, error-free.
Self-Esteem is Self-Consciousness, Self-Acceptance is Self-Awareness
Self-esteem is self-evaluation, i.e. self-judgment. Judgment makes us uncomfortable. When judged (either by others or by our observing selves) we end up feeling self-conscious.
Self-acceptance works differently: it doesn’t paralyze; instead, it frees up. A self-accepting mind is aware of one’s self and doesn’t get lost in the mirror of social comparisons. Approval seekers, on the other hand, are perpetually self-conscious. They want to see how they look in the mirror of others’ minds. They solicit feedback. They cling to praise.
Self-accepting minds seek nothing – they go about their business, focused on what’s important to them, not oblivious but immune to others’ disapproval. They know who they are and that others’ approval doesn’t fundamentally change anything about them. They are self-aware.
Self-acceptance is an acknowledgment of the reality of what you are: a life in progress. Whereas self-esteem is a recurring life performance evaluation, self-acceptance is evaluation-proof tenure. Whereas self-evaluation is inherently dependent on arbitrary definitions of worth and value, self-acceptance is independent of evaluation and is, therefore, immune to the ebb and flow of circumstance. And as such, self-acceptance sets you circumstance-free.
Adapted from Present Perfect: a Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go (Somov, P., New Harbinger, 2010)