Why self-esteem actually makes us miserable

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You can find the original Elephant Journal article here. 


There’s a cruel voice inside my head that taunts me every so often.

It tells me that I’m just not good enough and that a part of me is lacking: I could be more accomplished, I could be more outgoing and confident.

In the past, I’ve worked hard to build my self-esteem—this includes exercising more, achieving higher grades in school, being more positive, and meeting more people. Although these in and of themselves are admirable goals, I found the pressure to meet my own standards overwhelming.

One time, I even tried documenting my efforts to stay positive through a series of video blogs, since I was well aware how negative I can be. Shortly after, however, this plan backfired. I would berate myself whenever I had a bad day; I didn’t seem to be significantly happier than what I had been before; I also slightly envied people who seemed more optimistic—all of which has made me felt worse.

So why has self-esteem failed me?

The problem with self-esteem is that filling it is essentially filling a void. It’s insatiable and depends on short-term gratifications. Even at times when my own self-esteem was rising, it was a fleeting moment because it was based on short-lived factors that cannot fully quench my ego. My ego wants more self-esteem in order to be enough. It tells me I should be more confident, prettier, smarter, popular, in order to be worthy.

Focusing on self-esteem has, ironically, made me too critical of myself and even disconnected from others because I became so immersed in my own problems.

Eventually, I’ve discovered that self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, is what helped me get through times in my life when I thought I hit rock bottom. When I was jobless and going through a break-up, I felt all kinds of negative emotions: anger, frustration, disappointment, and helplessness. I was able to let go of these negative feelings by connecting with humanity and being kinder to myself, which is the foundation for self-compassion—the notion that all human beings deserve kindness, and understanding.

Self-compassion seeks clarity and understanding by examining the individual in the context of the rest of humanity—looking at the experiences, environment, and culture the individual is subjected to. This makes self-compassion far less judgmental and more forgiving.

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is unconditional: it isn’t dependent on external circumstances and is always available. Studies have also shown that in comparison to self-esteem, “self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”

There are many ways to learn to become more self-compassionate. Here are six ways that I’ve found helpful:

1. Realize it’s part of the human experience to have fears, doubts, and setbacks.

I feel that human beings need to have these experiences in order to learn and grow. Accepting this fact has helped me to be more forgiving with myself. A helpful book that walked me through the negative feelings that I was having is a guided meditation book called Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.

2. Relate to other people’s suffering.

Sometimes I get so engrossed in my own problems that I forget that I’m not alone in my experience—that the rest of the world is also suffering. By hearing stories that I can relate to and/or find inspiration from, I can also see myself as part of a bigger picture; and suddenly, my problems seem so much smaller.

3. Understand how counterintuitive it is to be hard on ourselves.

Whenever we berate ourselves for not meeting certain expectations, we’ll end up feeling even less confident and drained.  Being hard on ourselves is a form of bullying: it’s essentially beating ourselves up for no good reason. I feel that focusing on self-esteem sets people up for this kind of mentality.

4. Find meaning in life through living our values.

There are certain things in life that cannot satisfy your ego: wealth, fame, and, of course, self-esteem. These things are grounds for me compare myself with others, which makes me feel more miserable. Instead, we can take control of our self-worth and happiness by living according to our values, as these things do not depend on external factors.

5. Accept the world as it is.

Our ideals and expectations can also be a source of unhappiness because reality doesn’t quite match up. Instead of being disappointed in ourselves and others, we can accept the imperfections of the world as it is.

6. Practice mindfulness.

Finally, lift your spirits by living in the moment: go for a nature walk, listen to music, and enjoy a good meal.

By focusing on self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, we’ll be better able to let go of the negative emotions that are holding us back from living our lives and experiencing joy.

 

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