We hear a lot of talk in the therapy field about self-esteem. After all, we’re all expected to have positive self-esteem. It’s the key to feeling good about ourselves and our lives, or so we’re told. High self-esteem is linked to achievement, success, good health, ideal weight, having the right job, having the right partner, getting good grades, etc. – all forms of getting and doing the right things so we can feel good about ourselves.
Low self-esteem is linked to dissatisfaction, self-criticism, indecision, people pleasing, perfectionism – just plain never feeling good enough. Low self-esteem is linked to depression and anxiety. And it’s a devastating side effect of trauma, where people who think they are somehow damaged because of some traumatic experience – be it childhood abuse, some sort of accident or battlefield trauma often experienced by veterans. Trauma survivors with PTSD often struggle with self-esteem – trying to find a way back to feeling good about themselves, while they navigate the anxiety, depression and intrusive, traumatic memories that are the echo of traumatic experiences.
But I think self-esteem is over rated. The more I work in psychotherapy, the more I come to believe that self-esteem is much less important than self-compassion.
That’s right – self-compassion.
I spend a lot of time in therapy sessions with people who struggle with self-esteem – people who are trying to find the path to feeling good about themselves, to feel good about their achievements, to feel like they’re good enough, or to feel like they simply are enough. Self-esteem issues are the common cold of psychotherapy.
The problem with our obsession with self-esteem is that all that pressure to feel good about ourselves, to do more and be more simply makes it harder to appreciate ourselves for who we are and we’ve already achieved. It makes it harder to appreciate ourselves for the traumas we’ve survived, or for just getting up and showing up when the depression or anxiety make us feel like we’re wading through molasses every day. And during those times when we fall short (as we all do), it makes it harder to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, accept out failures and shortcomings and move on.
So, here’s the question: If someone you love is struggling with depression, anxiety, falling short of their own expectations, would you offer that person compassion? Might you offer something like, “you’re doing the best you can, it’s ok. I’m here for you.”
But what if you’re the one who’s having a difficult passage? Can you offer yourself the same compassion and kindness that you would offer to anyone else? To paraphrase the late Stephen Levine, if you stub your toe, and it really hurts, would you bang on it, yell at it, demand it get over it quickly? Or would you treat it gently, with love, bandage it and do what you needed to do to heal it?
What would it be like if you offered yourself the same compassion and healing that you would offer your best friend during difficult times? What if you could look in the mirror and gently say, “it’s okay, you’re doing the best you can.”
People always respond better to kindness and compassion than to harsh criticism and demands that they do better. Insisting on positive self-esteem has this implicit demand that we do better and be better. And if we just try harder, we can finally feel good about ourselves. Self-compassion suggests that we take a deep breath and acknowledge that we are doing the best we can. Yes, we can do better. But we have ample time to improve without being so harsh on ourselves.
In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz suggests “always do your best.” He defines your best as whatever you’re doing now. Sure, you may have done better last week, or may do better next week. But causes and conditions were different last week, and they will be next week. So, whatever you’re doing right now is good enough. It’s a compassionate approach. Recognizing that we’re doing the best we can in the present situation is the essence of self-compassion.
Often when I talk about kindness and self-compassion, people respond with the idea that they have to be hard on themselves to stay motivated to do better. But I would suggest that being hard on yourself only drains the energy we need to move forward by exacerbating depression and anxiety. I’d also suggest that being compassionate is not the same as being complacent, self-indulgent or lowering our standards.
You can stay motivated toward your goals and aspirations without adding the burden of self-criticism and perfectionism. A child learns much more easily through positive reinforcement than through constant criticism. I believe that is also true for us as adults. The truth is that people in difficult situations find criticism to be demoralizing, exhausting and demotivating. At the same time compassion and positive affirmation help people find the energy to navigate difficult times and help stave off depression and anxiety. It doesn’t matter whether that criticism is from another person, or from our own internal thoughts.
The chances are that you would get rid of someone who criticized you as harshly as some of us criticize ourselves, especially when times are hard. You would also really appreciate someone who was kind, compassionate and encouraging. Self-compassion suggests that we offer ourselves that same kindness, compassion and encouragement that we would find so helpful coming from another person.
In fact, ask yourself how things might change if you offered yourself the same compassion and support you would offer to a friend who is struggling. Or when things are hard, just say to yourself, “It’s okay (your name), it’s okay.” You might also try looking at yourself in the mirror once a day and repeating three times: “Hello (you), I love you and accept you completely.” I know, it may seem a little hokey, but try it every morning for two weeks and see what happens.
It is true that in this culture self-criticism is a norm, and is often thought of as an important part of motivation and achievement. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can choose to be compassionate with yourself at any time. It’ll make your life easier. And when you fall down, or experience a set-back, self-compassion will make it easier to get back up and move more confidently through your life.