Enhancing our self-esteem seems like is a positive pursuit. After all, a sturdy sense of self-worth has the potential to buffer us from depression and anxiety, make us more confident when approaching people we think might reject us, and keep us from abusing drugs and alcohol Anxiety, Affect, Self-Esteem, and Stress: Mediation and Moderation Effects on Depression. Nima, A.A., Rosenberg, P., Archer, T., et al. PLoS Onne, 2013 Sep 9;8(9):e73265.
Managing Motivational Conflict: How Self-Esteem and Executive Resources Influence Self-Regulatory Responses to Risk. Cavallo, J.V., Holmes, J.G., Fitzsimons, G., et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012 Sep;103(3):430-51
Self-Esteem and the Initiation of Substance Use Among Adolescents. Richardson, C.G., Kwon, J.Y., and Ratner, P.A. Canadian Journal of Public Health. 2012 Nov 8;104(1):e60-3. .
Yet the pains we take to keep our egos afloat can come with some unintended negative consequences. It’s not that greater self-esteem is a bad goal; the issue is that focusing too much energy on pursuing it may come with personal and social costs that diminish the benefits.
The more concerned we are with raising our self-esteem, the greater the risk that we may become consumed by securing proof of our lovability, attractiveness, professional or academic prowess, or any other quality upon which we might base our status. That’s all fine and good, so long as we’re getting positive feedback in these arenas. “But when you base your self-worth on external things, you’ll likely perceive ‘failure’ in those things as an indictment of your value as a person,” says Lora Park, Ph.D., a self-esteem researcher and associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.
Plus, the emotional high of hearing how great we are is short-lived—and relying on evidence outside of ourselves to verify that we’re awesome may result in despair when we don’t get the feedback we’d hoped for What Constitutes Vulnerable Self-Esteem? Comparing the Prospective Effects of Low, Instable, and Contingent Self-Esteem on Depressive Symptoms. Sowislo, J.F., Orth, U., Meier, L.L. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2014 Nov;123(4):737-53. . Being overly dependent on external confirmations of our own value can encourage the type of psychological instability that breeds depression Effects of Contingent Self-Esteem on Depressive Symptoms and Suicidal Behavior. Lakey, C.E., Hirschk. J.K., Nelson, L.A., et al. Death Studies, 2014 Jul-Dec;38(6-10):563-70. , and repeated attempts to verify our own importance can make us more susceptible to feeling anxious and cause us to question our identity, Park adds.
Such downsides may be most severe for those low on self-esteem to begin with—exactly the people you might think need the biggest ego boosts of all. The more depressed someone is, the more they seem to desire enhanced self-esteem, yet the less pleasure they derive from the process of trying to attain it Investigating the Link Between Liking Versus Wanting Self-Esteem and Depression In a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adults. Bushman, B.J., Moeller, S.J., Konrath, S., et al. Journal of Personality, 2012 Oct;80(5):1453-69. .
Too much time spent obsessing over keeping our esteem at its fullest can also drive us toward—rather than away from—risky behaviors such as substance abuse, either in the interest of garnering approval and attention from peers (if our worth hinges on others’ acceptance) or as a means of escaping the unwanted pressure we feel when seeking unattainable proof that we’re perfect The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Crocker, J., & Park, L.E. Psychological Bulletin, 2004 May;130(3):392-414 .
Even repeating those positive affirmations (such as “I’m a loveable person”) that are so popular on Pinterest can drag down the moods of those who don’t see themselves in a positive light: Declaring how we think we should feel may simply confirm how far off the map our true self-worth really is. “While they may lift our self-esteem a degree or make us feel more successful in the moment, these kinds of things can’t compensate for the parts of ourselves that carry shame, worthlessness, or feelings that we’re not good enough,” explains therapist Noah Rubinstein, founder of GoodTherapy.org.
We aren’t the only ones who end up suffering as a consequence of trying to bolster our senses of self. The desire to maintain high self-esteem can also lead us to be hostile toward anyone who offers up evidence that we aren’t as special or flawless as we’d hoped to appear Students Aggress Against Professors In Reaction to Receiving Poor Grades: An Effect Moderated by Student Narcissism and Self-Esteem. Vaillancourt, T., Aggressive Behavior, 2013 Jan;39(1):71-84. . See, when we want to protect our own superiority, we’re also much more likely to blame or put down other people to feel better about ourselves Compensating, Resisting, and Breaking: A Meta-Analytic Examination. vanDellen, M.R., Campbell, W.K., Hoyle, R.H., et al. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2011 Feb;15(1):51-74. . (Something to keep in mind the next time you witness a friend fat-shame an acquaintance or overhear a colleague whispering about a coworker’s wardrobe.)
And even if we’re not outright jerks, the more effort we put into proving our self-worth, the less empathetic, supportive, and present we act toward our peers Does Self-Threat Promote Social Connection? The Role of Self-Esteem and Contingencies of Self-Worth. Park, L.E., Maner, J.K. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009 Jan;96(1):203-17. . Though we may think that dodging perceived threats to our self-image leaves us better off, insulting people who don’t constantly praise us—or writing off ones whom we fear surpass us in looks, career success, or other markers of status—prevents us from truly connecting with others, which is a fundamental human need, Park says.
Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem
Don't get us wrong: No one’s advising we stop all attempts to up our confidence. But we might do well to shift our focus toward an alternative way of feeling great in our skin that comes at much lower psychological price.
The first step is to swap out self-criticism for self-inquiry. “When someone becomes curious about the many parts of themselves while keeping judgment aside, they begin to listen to those parts, childhood wounds and all,” Rubinstein says. “In so doing, they’re brought closer to that vulnerable feeling that fuels all that perfectionism in the first place.”
And with help from a trusted mental health professional, he adds, people can practice a totally un-American skill that has the same upsides of high self-esteem minus its icky repercussions—that of self-compassion. “Learning to be self-compassionate requires revising the extreme thoughts, beliefs, and feelings people have held onto for years,” Rubinstein says. “Because so many of us have been taught to ‘suck it up,’ few of us have learned to be tender to ourselves.”
Instead of measuring ourselves against others, berating ourselves for making mistakes, and gritting our teeth during difficult times, self-compassion involves the acceptance that mistakes aren’t only inevitable, they’re a part of what unites us with the rest of humanity. Read: We all do it—and therefore it’s not only OK but natural for us to err too. (Whew!)
It’s no easy task, but the benefits of self-compassion seem entirely worth the effort (and bravery). Opting to care for ourselves in lieu of self-criticism or self-pity soothes our central nervous system’s reactivity to threats Self-Compassion Training Modulates Alpha-Amylase, Heart Rate Variability, and Subjective Responses to Social Evaluative Threat in Women. Arch, J.J., Brown, K.W., Dean, D.J., et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014 Apr;42:49-58. , cuing our bodies to feel secure, safe, and less isolated from others Meeting Suffering with Kindness: Effects of a Brief Self-Compassion Intervention for Female College Students. Smeets, E., Neff, K., Alberts, H., et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2014 Sep;70(9):794-807. .
In contrast to self-esteem, which can bias us against acknowledging undesirable aspects of ourselves, self-compassion appears to help unhinge people from defensive behaviors that keep them from owning up to their errors. As a result of accepting imperfections without ruminating over their impact on our self-image, our ability to get over them increases, as does our overall mental health.
Studies have also demonstrated that self-compassion ups our ability to improve upon our shortcomings, steels our stamina to persist in achieving goals we may have previously failed to reach, inclines us to apologize for transgressions, and motivates us to avoid replicating those misdeeds in the future. Plus, the more apt we are to engage in self-compassion, the more likely we are to compromise and exhibit concern for the wellbeing of others—likely, researchers believe, because the mindfulness involved in cutting ourselves a break fortifies our ability to assume alternative perspectives and viewpoints.
If you’re struggling to feel better about yourself, know that you likely won’t enjoy any boosts to your ego if the reason it’s being raised doesn’t come from within. True resilience comes from the ability to accept and respect our shortcomings, challenge ourselves to correct our mistakes, and forgive ourselves when we fall on our butts.
Since that self-compassion comes with the physical and mental benefits, instead of striving so hard to prove what you’re worth or seek approval that you’re good enough, know that you are—even when you screw up. We all make mistakes, so cut yourself some slack.