For the past thirty years or so we have been bombarded with the importance of self-esteem. Self-esteem became a buzzword. As is often the case we, as a society, became obsessed with the result and not the process. This has given rise to well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed efforts such as trying to increase self-esteem through indiscriminate praise or affirmations which obscure unhealthy behaviours that need to be changed. Maintaining high but “empty” self-esteem is associated with narcissism and superiority, bullying, prejudice and an inflated, unrealistic view of ourselves. When we compare and evaluate ourselves in comparison to others, it can also lead to us putting others down in order to feel better about ourselves; or even raising others up so we feel worse. This meant that where people did try to build self-esteem (by such measures as eliminating competition in schools, “everyone gets a prize”, avoiding the concept of winners and losers), they actually took away the opportunity for many children to develop healthy self-esteem and resilience.
Basic self-esteem comes from our families and parents. If we feel that we have been seen and valued as a unique individual by our parents and family, then we carry that sense of security of having intrinsic value with us for life. If we don’t experience this, then we feel deeply that we are less than others, have always to be liked; that we have to please others; and we find it difficult to say no. The next level of self-esteem makes us more resilient and comes from working to overcome obstacles and disappointment. We follow a path, get knocked down and get back up again; we become more aware and appreciative, of our abilities, our capacity for moving forward, growing − not in spite of the obstacles but because of them. We all need to suffer, to feel disappointed, to make a come-back; that’s how we become more resilient.
Rather like our immune system which needs to be exposed to dirt, contamination, infection as children so that we are resistant as adults, so too our “self-esteem system” requires stress, adversity, suffering to become stronger, vital for a meaningful life.
The roots of healthy self-esteem lie in self-compassion. That means that you recognise that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. According to Kristin Neff:
Self-compassion involves acting kindly towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, where on earth did you get the idea that you were supposed to be perfect?
Self-esteem without self-compassion is simply empty arrogance and is an attempt to compensate for a deep seated sense of insecurity. By contrast, self-compassion is the basis of true self esteem.
In our society we mistake inflated ego for self-esteem. We try to “borrow” self-esteem from our car, our clothes, our job, our fake social media lives. We try to fill emptiness and basic lack of meaning with buying, consuming more stuff, which gives us a momentary relief but makes us feel even emptier.
This of course makes us into great little consumers. Ironically we try to fill the emptiness with stuff that causes more emptiness. It is really a type of addiction.
What many perceive as high self-esteem is really nothing more than a massive pumped-up ego, narcissism and a dangerously egocentric world view.
Apart from making us and others unhappy, it takes us away from such vital truths and perceptions such as, love, interconnection, inter-being, kindness, impermanence, gratitude and empathic joy.
Unless we can change our awareness, our perception and our behaviour, then as a species we are doomed and will suffer the same fate as 99% of all species on our beautiful planet: extinction, which is the rule, not the exception.
So what are you going to do about it? If you want a better future for this planet, for humanity, for your children, then wake up and be the change. No excuses!
Don’t know where to start? Learn more about self-compassion and other fundamental perceptions and practices in our retreats in Cantabria.
Become the change.