Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror

So just to review, self-esteem is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” On the face of it, that sounds like an ideal way to be, right? It certainly aligns with Western culture’s emphasis on competition and individuality. It’s a cutthroat world (so the thinking goes); you’d best give yourself a pep talk in front of the mirror each morning about all your fabulous qualities so you can go out there and beat everyone else at whatever game you’re playing. Eat instead of getting eaten.

The problem, as Kristin Neff explains in her book Self: Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is that on both the macro and micro levels, our nation’s obsession with self-esteem has let us down.

On the macro level, there’s the correlation I mentioned earlier between the widespread emphasis on raising self-esteem and an increase in narcissism, or egocentrism. Mass egocentrism unravels the social fabric—if we’re busy staring at our reflections, we’re not available to connect to and support one another. Actually it’s even worse than that—narcissistic people tend to get mean when their inflated sense of themselves is punctured. Egocentrism also contributes to a surreal atmosphere in which many people are more impressed with themselves—and convinced that others are too—than is actually the case.

Another serious problem resulting from our obsession with self-esteem is grade inflation, which actually disinhibits striving to do one’s best. American students lag behind students from other countries in most ways, yet operate under the delusion that they’re the brightest on the planet—and when a kid gets an A for lifting her pinky finger, who can blame her?

A third problem with wide implications is that self-esteem is strongly influenced by the judgments of strangers. That means we’re allowing people who don’t know us at all to determine our self-worth. Our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem aligns with the high value we place on individuality—yet ironically, self-esteem leads us to want to fit in. And that makes us vulnerable to forces investing vast resources in figuring out how to shape our preferences and behaviors in a creepy sci-fi way.

Self-esteem disappoints on the individual, subjective level as well. One cause for this has to do with the fact that self-esteem tends to be tied to things we value. If I’m driven by self-esteem, I’m motivated to work on endeavors I care about and avoid ones I don’t. But there might be some things I don’t care about that would be good to work on anyway, like getting good grades or being on time. In this way, self-esteem can limit me. On the flip side, I might waste my time struggling to achieve something I value but that I’m not suited to, like being a supermodel. (Although I’m sure if I really decided to become a supermodel I could do so … this is all about moi, right?)

Because self-esteem is dependent on external measures, it keeps us on a roller coaster of elation and dejection, depending on the feedback of others and on how well we achieve our goals. The successes we experience can become addictive—when I achieve something, I get a rush of good feeling, which pushes me to strive in order to replicate the rush. No time to smell the roses in this scenario.

People with inflated self-esteem often end up lonely. Others may be initially attracted to a narcissist only to realize that the individual doesn’t really have energy for them (except to the extent that he tries to keep them around to reflect back his greatness).

Lastly, self-esteem is based on narrow, static self-judgements, not a rich, nuanced appreciation of our constantly evolving nature. We radically shrink our perceptions of ourselves and reality when we depend on self-esteem to feel good.

Are you sufficiently primed to hear about self-compassion and why it's so preferable? Coming up in Part 3.