The truth about self-esteem

Posted by Belle Beth Cooper

I’ve been thinking about self-esteem lately, and how you can never have too much of it (or so I thought). I wanted to find out more about how self-esteem works and how to give it a boost when it’s running low. I was surprised to find that self-esteem isn’t as straight-forward as I’d thought.

How does self-esteem affect us?

Self-esteem gets measured on a scale, but you generally only hear about the extreme ends of the scale: high and low self-esteem. I’d always thought I should be aiming for high self-esteem, but it’s not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

Although people with high self-esteem tend to think they’re more successful and happier, objective measurements show that they’re not. High self-esteem has been linked to narcissism, which encourages people to rate themselves higher, subjectively. High self-esteem has been linked to good job performance, but it’s yet to be proven that it’s actually caused by high self-esteem. It could, in fact, be that good job performance causes high self-esteem.

There’s some debate over whether self-esteem levels can be linked to other tendencies like violence or depression, though one research paper found no proof that either high or low self-esteem directly cause violence.

Still, the fact that high self-esteem relies on seeing ourselves in a good light has led some researchers to think self-compassion is a healthier alternative.

What is self-compassion?

If you think about self-esteem as being how we see ourselves and what we think about ourselves, self-compassion is more about how we treat ourselves. Self-compassion includes kindness and forgiveness of ourselves. It also incorporates acceptance that we’re all human, and as part of that, self-compassion leads to a more inclusive, accepting point of view.

Studies have shown that although self-compassion involves forgiving yourself for mistakes, it doesn’t make people any less likely to strive high. In fact, people with high levels of self-compassion are more likely to want to improve than those with high self-esteem. Self-compassion puts mistakes into perspective, but also makes us more likely to see our weaknesses as being changeable, whereas those with high self-esteem tend to attribute weaknesses and mistakes to external influences.

Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., says this is because self-esteem relies on external validation, and those with high self-esteem can’t afford to honestly evaluate their weaknesses. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to gently examine our weaknesses or mistakes, forgive ourselves and work towards improving in those areas.

Self-compassion has also been found to correlate with lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher levels of happiness, optimism and agreeableness.

What’s really interesting about self-compassion is that it can be more beneficial than high or low self-esteem in some situations. One study found that a practice job interview where participants had to talk about their weaknesses elicited more anxiety in those who identified as having both low and high self-esteem than in participants showing high levels of self-compassion.

In another study, imagining making a big mistake that let down a team (like forgetting your lines on stage or missing an important goal in a sports game) led to more negative self-evaluations from participants with low and high self-esteem when compared to those with high self-compassion, who were more forgiving of themselves.

How can we practice self-compassion?

This self-compassion thing sounds pretty good, right? People with lots of self-compassion still get things done, they’re just nice to themselves along the way. Plus, people with high levels of self-compassion tend to have high self-esteem as well, so you get the best of both worlds. Sounds like something worth pursuing to me.

The trouble with self-compassion is that it’s really a way of thinking; it’s all about how you respond to situations, but self-compassion resides in your mind, not in your actions—those are the results of having self-compassion. So it’s a tricky thing to establish. There aren’t really hard-and-fast how-to’s on improving your self-compassion. Here are a few suggestions to get you started, though, we can call these the three elements of self-compassion.

self-compassion

1. Remember that we’re all human

When you make a mistake, your project fails or you regret something you said, remind yourself that to err is human. Reminding yourself that everyone else makes mistakes as well is a good way to put your own missteps into perspective.

2. Be gentle with yourself

When you do make a mistake or go through a tough time, try not to be too hard on yourself. A good way to do this is to focus on what you can learn from the situation, rather than what went wrong. If you’re always learning and improving it’s much easier to find something positive in a bad situation.

One exercise that can help with this way of thinking is to imagine a good friend is having a tough time and practice responding to them. When you put someone else in that situation, it’s often much easier to respond compassionately than it is to yourself. Try picking a close friend to use as an example, and every time you’re hard on yourself, stop and imagine you’re talking to them instead.

3. Evaluate yourself honestly

One of the problems with self-esteem is that it tends to rely on external influences like getting a promotion, winning a competition or receiving compliments. To increase your self-compassion, try to honestly evaluate yourself, focusing on your actions and motivations rather than looking for external validation. This can help you to be more gentle with yourself, since you’ll be taking your good intentions into account every time you evaluate something that went wrong, rather than focusing on the results, which is external.

To help you express and take note of your feelings, you might want to try some self-compassion writing exercises. These prompts are really helpful in structuring a thoughtful writing process that gets your feelings onto paper so you can look at them more objectively.


None of this is easy, but with practice it’s possible to build up habits of being kind and understanding to ourselves, especially in tough moments. Over time, we can build these habits into an ongoing approach of self-compassion, which will likely lead us to having high self-esteem as a side-effect, anyway. If you can have both, why not, right?

Image credit: Neioo

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