Experiencing “good” self-esteem is a worthy goal. How can it not be when you consider that self-esteem means believing in one’s inherent value, feeling confident of being competent at some things considered important, and experiencing a quiet self-respect? And certainly, experiencing “low” self-esteem is something to avoid. After all, it’s associated with feelings like depression, anxiety, self-doubt, powerlessness, self-loathing, worthlessness, hopelessness, suppressed anger, and shame. And further, low self-esteem is associated with poor school and work performance and predisposes oneself to ill-considered or self-destructive behaviors.

Experiencing “good” self-esteem is, therefore, a good thing. And trying to overcome “poor” self-esteem is also a good thing. However, a problem can arise when a person with “low” self-esteem tries to raise their self-esteem, or when a teacher, therapist, friend or parent tries to raise the self-esteem of another person but goes about it the wrong way.

Usually unknowingly and unthinkingly, the person trying to engineer improved self-esteem for themselves or for another person chooses a strategy likely to backfire. The strategy taken is chosen because it seems like the obvious one or, even, the only one. This “natural” approach to increasing self-esteem is to tell oneself – or the object of one’s ministrations – that one is good enough or special in some way. This seems benign enough even if not, perhaps, particularly effective.

However, there is a hidden danger in such messaging: it can perpetuate the underlying schema that individuals need to judge themselves against other individuals or against ideals, that self-esteem is based on competition. And like in any competition, there will be winners and losers. And, to be frank, there will always be more losers than winners. The winners are in danger of developing a narcissistic self-regard, that is, one that is elevated but ultimately fragile and vulnerable to collapse. And the losers will feel confirmed in their most negative beliefs about themselves.

Further, both the “winners” and “losers” of this self-imposed competition against others’ worth or against some ideal – whether self-imposed or imposed by “society” – are in danger of continued and even deepened self-absorption and self-evaluation.

To be blunt – this is a losing strategy. Really there are no winners here.

So, what is the solution? It is to exit the internal game of comparative self-evaluative statements. Let me clarify. There is nothing wrong with thinking, for example, “Hmmm, I really could do better in parenting my kids” and to make behavioral changes to make that happen. The danger comes when a person starts comparing their current emotions or behaviors against that of others or an ideal and then making a value judgment about themselves. So, for example, rather than stopping with, “Hmmm I really could do better parenting my kids,” the person continues with self-labeling, “I’m a bad parent.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the opposite label is equally bad. Evaluating oneself as, for example, “a great parent” also leads to difficulties. Such self-imposed labels become self-fulfilling and constrain behavior. It becomes more important to protect one’s label than to act in the best way for the situation. Steven Hayes, the developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, writes that the conceptualized-self gains “regulatory power over behavior” and contributes to negative emotions, and to cognitive and behavioral inflexibility.

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So, ultimately, the better way to view self-esteem is to see it as not a goal in itself but as a worthy outcome. You may ask, “But isn’t goal and outcome nearly the same thing?” I see it differently. Goal means something narrower: it is something that is desired, planned for and for which direct action is taken. An outcome has a broader meaning: it can refer to a desired goal that was successfully reached, but it also can be a consequence or ‘side-effect’ of planning and acting toward some other goal. In this sense self-esteem is like happiness. Research tells us that if you strive for happiness you are likely to become less happy. Rather, happiness is an outcome of engaging in activities for their own sake, like spending time with friends or doggedly pursuing some meaningful career goal. When you spend time and effort on things important for you, only then are you likely to evaluate yourself as being happy. Likewise, if you strive to increase your self-esteem you may just end up suffering from worse or more fragile self-esteem.

What is the solution? It is self-acceptance and self-compassion. Rather than trying to be good enough, just be. Just breathe. Just act in ways that reflect what is important to you. Avoid labeling yourself, whether that label says “Great” or “Worthless.”

I’ll leave you with this thought. You know the golden rule, right? It is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

For some individuals, for those with low self-esteem, I advocate the inverse golden rule: “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” Some people are giving and kind to others while being hypercritical of themselves. They accept all kinds of shortcomings in family members and friends, but self-deprecate their own selves. For some people, it is important to remind them, “Hey, show yourself the same compassion you show to others.” And then just breathe.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“Love your darkness and you will find your light.”
– Vironika Tugaleva