We grew up with self-esteem
We grew up with this notion that to be happy, we needed to have good self-esteem. We were taught to be self-confident, assured, secure in ourselves. We were told to fake it till you make it, to project a sense of self-esteem even when we didn’t like ourselves. This thinking has morphed into a whole industry of self-help books, tapes, workshops, and more dedicated to helping people achieve this goal of good self-esteem.
Self-esteem has become the marker of mental wellbeing. If you have good self-esteem, you’re empowered, independent, healthy. When your self-esteem is terrible, you’re codependent, depressed, unhealthy, and sad. Good self-esteem is what some therapists push their patents towards, what people strive for, and generally well known as a significant goal of mental health.
But here’s the thing: self-esteem is bullshit.
Self-esteem is sold to us in pop psychology as the pinnacle of well-being. And while there are positive effects associated with having good self-esteem, the truth is it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
At its roots, self-esteem is a judgment about yourself. It’s asking the question, “am I good or am I bad?” The only way we can make that determination is to compare ourselves to others. Self-esteem is based on how we are different from other people, how we are unique, how we are better than other people. Or, on the flip side, we decide that we aren’t as good as this person over there, aren’t as unique as that person, that we don’t measure up to the people we admire.
Since self-esteem is a judgment about the self, trying to improve it can sometimes lead us to be inward focused to the point of selfishness. Or, we made hide things about ourselves, ashamed of what and who we are, so that other people don’t judge us harshly, bringing down our self-esteem. We might become angry at someone who says something critical about us because we are trying to protect our sense of self-worth, our judgment about ourselves. It’s thought that good self-esteem as a goal might be a good motivator, pushing people to be their best selves. But the truth is, it can lead to self-punishment and harshly dealing with ourselves when we fail to hit the mark.
The truth is, judgment-based thinking about ourselves will result in comparison to other people, and that contrast will lead us to either think of ourselves as better or worse than our fellow human beings.
So, what do we do with the bullshit of self-esteem? What do we do when we have been told from a very young age that good self-esteem is healthy, even if we have to think less of other people to boost it in ourselves?
We choose a different way.
Instead of trying to salvage self-esteem, somehow making it non-judgmental (hint: you can’t because it’s based upon a judgment of the self), we can choose a more holistic way of approaching ourselves witch, in turn, will change the way we relate to other people.
We choose the way of self-compassion.
Self-compassion isn’t letting yourself be lazy or indulgent. It’s not giving yourself a participation trophy. It’s not hiding from a critical eye convincing yourself that there is nothing you need to change. It’s not sitting around eating bonbons, playing the victim and insisting everyone treat you with velvet gloves.
Self-compassion is being gentle with yourself. It’s talking to yourself, not in a harsh or judgmental way, but like you would speak to a good friend. You wouldn’t tell your friend they are a failure and need to try harder, would you? Then why do we talk to ourselves this way? Self-compassion steps in when we fail and acknowledges the shortcoming, but also says to ourselves that it’s ok we didn’t do it perfectly, that we can try again, that it’s ok to be sad, to hurt, to feel your feelings.
Self-esteem tried so hard to get us to like ourselves. Self-compassion is here to teach us to love ourselves. It’s accepting and embracing yourself, not reacting to yourself with pure limbic system reactions. It’s engaging the mammalian part of our brains and turning off the fight or flight mechanism that we fall into when we are in danger, even if that danger is coming from harsh words and actions we do to ourselves.
Now, I’m not just making this up. There is research that shows that self-compassion is the best motivator for change, the best way to deal with hurt and criticism, and the best way to help us healthily interrelate to others. For more information on the research behind self-compassion, please check out the work of Dr. Kristin Neff.
Choosing self-compassion is choosing ourselves. Instead of our worth being determined on how we compare or measure up to other people, self-compassion embraces all of ourselves, failures, weaknesses, hurts, and wounds, and honestly treats each and every aspect of our psyche with gentleness, love, and acceptance. Can you imagine what it would be like to love yourself, to not be judgmental about your worth as good or bad, but to accept yourself as you are, knowing you have the capacity for growth? I don’t know about you, be that sounds like a mentally healthy person to me.
My name is Aaron J. Smith (aka CulturalSavage). I am in my thirties, a father, a writer, a dreamer, and kind of a mess.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 when I was 28. I write about what a life with a mental illness looks like. I’m an advocate for removing the stigma of mental health. I’ve been featured on HuffPost Live to talk about living with a mental illness and spoke in 2014 and 2015 at the Shattering Stigma conference.
I also am a follower of Jesus while being pretty cynical about the church. After growing up in church and spending nearly a decade years teaching, preaching, and leading music, I have been hurt by the church and am burnt out. So I write about what it means for me to be in a spiritual wilderness.
I’ve been blogging for 10 years or so and am in the never-ending process of writing. I currently am featured in Father Factor, Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 1), and was a staff writer for Bedlam Magazine. I am also a contributor to The Mighty and The Good Men Project.
My family and I live in Portland, OR.
Thanks for reading. If you like my words and my work, would you consider helping me support CulturalSavage?
I also am available for hire for a variety of services at aaronjsmithwriter.com