We live in a world where the idea of having good self-esteem has been the focus of many self-development books and indeed a prime component of therapeutic work. But how important is it really? And are we perhaps missing some other concept that could be more important?
We do know that poor self-esteem is closely associated with many problems in life – poor mental health, under achievement, failure to reach goals – and as coaches we worry that our clients need more advanced professional help if they present with such low self-esteem that we feel their progress would be impeded. However, research is also showing that trying to raise self-esteem by artificial means, brings its own set of problems! A person can develop narcissistic tendencies, antisocial behaviour and be even more reluctant to try activities that may challenge their self-concept further. (Mueller and Dweck, 1998.)
Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps increasing self-compassion is a better approach?
Why focusing on building self-esteem alone may not be the best contributor to a happier, healthier life
One of the most common ways of addressing low self-esteem is to help a client become aware of the language they use, their negative self-talk, and help them replace these ideas with more positive (or realistic) language.
Or we may attempt to help them distract themselves from these thoughts.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) put forward other ideas.
By fighting the thought, it gives weight to its reality. There must be something wrong with the individual who is having it? The more they fight it, the more power they give it. (Hayes, 2014).
We will all feel inadequate and insecure at times. Events will threaten our self-esteem. Instead of putting pressure on ourselves to hold ourselves in high esteem – unrealistically at all times – maybe we should be learning to respond to those situations and feelings with self-compassion instead.
What is self-compassion?
Dr. Kirstin Neff defines self-compassion has having three components during the tough times.
- Treating oneself kindly
- Recognising ones struggles as part of the shared human experience
- Holding one’s painful thoughts as feelings in mindful awareness
So, with this view in mind, whether your thoughts are negative or positive isn’t really the issue. It’s how you respond to those thoughts that matters.
- First, we notice the thought, without getting attached to it. (We can do this by being mindful.)
- Second, we understand that these thoughts are commons to all people and part of what we share as humans, and
- Thirdly, treat ourselves with kindness and stop beating ourselves up!
Does it work? Research suggests it does. When children with low self-esteem were taught self-compassion, their mental health was less affected than those who were supported in improving self-esteem. (Marshall 2015.)
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) puts focus on increasing self-compassion by improving psychological flexibility. By detaching from our thoughts, while being aware of their existence, and using skills that include self-kindness, we can protect and build our mental health.
As coaches, we don’t have to throw out all the techniques we have learnt about thought stopping and disputing negativity, but perhaps it would be more important to help clients learn the art of self-compassion as a very first step. Food for thought!
Hayes (2014). Is Self-Compassion more important than Self-Esteem? www.huffingtonpost.com/id306621789?mt+8
Mueller, C.M., and Dweck, C.S.(1998) Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75(1): 33-52
Marshall, S. et al (2015). Self-compassion protects against the negative effects of low self-esteem: A longitudinal study in a large adolescent sample. Personality and Individual Differences. 74:116-121