To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison, But this strategy comes at a price -it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.Kristin Neff
We live in a highly competitive world that reveres self-confidence and self-assuredness to strive more, work hard and to aim for the best. We rely excessively on our self-esteem to achieve our aspirations, goals and ambitions. As a result, we tend to be hard on ourselves hoping that it is a way to motivate ourselves towards greater success without realising that self-esteem is not a constant in life. Self-esteem is a self-evaluation against one or more criteria to reach expected standards. These evaluations can be in areas like our intelligence, natural abilities, skill or worthiness. Because the relative significance of these areas changes with age and stages in life, our self esteem also changes accordingly. For instance, if your high self-esteem is because you are likeable, loveable or successful, it gets affected negatively when you receive a negative feedback or when you face a failure. Moments of low self-esteem often leads to feelings of unworthiness, self-blame, self-criticism and discouragement to avoid fear and shame. In other words, our self-worth and sense of personal competence or efficacy that very much is the reason for our confidence tends to fail us when we need them the most.
Emphasis on self-esteem builds wrong self-concept
Our self-concept is our sense of self and whether it is positive or negative is always based upon our experiences, perceptions and assessment of ourself and it encompasses one’s self-esteem. Self-concept is detailed idea about who one is and includes personal and social identity. Hence, one’s experiences or comments or feedback about them from social interactions influence one’s self-concept. Whereas self-esteem is the self evaluation of a person about him/her own self. It describes how much one values their own self, and is the attitude one holds on ones own self.
Competitive self-esteem in kids leads to more problems like isolation, loneliness and prejudice. Mistakes and failure makes them insecure and anxious that they give up early when faced with future challenges. Such emphasis on high self-esteem from an early age results in forming an unhealthy self-concept that limits your opportunities and gets in the way of living your life to your best potential. As adults, when we believe that high self-esteem is important in order to be competent, for life success and happiness, we constantly strive to feel good about ourselves. We pursue it based on feeling special and above average or better than others and use it as a way to motivate to achieve more. But the truth is, while we always strive to feel good about ourselves, remain on top, or achieve more, we cannot escape failure, mistakes, suffering or disappointment sometimes. Situations where you find yourself amongst many, where you are no longer considered special or no longer standing out, or face a failure, you resort to self flagellation, anxiety and depression. Also, the toxic idea that we have to think well of ourselves at all times to be confident, successful can lead to its own set of problems including narcissism, ego-based self and avoiding challenging situations that threaten one’s self-concept.
Why self-esteem is not sustainable over long-term?
Both personal observation and social interaction affect one’s self-concept and self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be confident and ambitious, however, the way you pursue it, makes it unsustainable in the long run. For instance, being overly dependent on achievement, external approval or praise, your self-esteem can go up and down in response to external circumstances. Or undermining others to maintain high self-regard leads to narcissism. Such approach often fails to boost your confidence, especially when you fail or experience a setback as it leads to judging oneself harshly and prevents you from taking action to reach our goals. Also, we cannot always prevent ourselves from experiencing low self-esteem or protect ourselves from events that lower your self-esteem like rejection or personal failure and others. Over-emphasis on self-esteem further leads to :
One of the key requirement for self-improvement is having a realistic assessment of where we stand of our strengths and limitations. Convincing ourselves that we are better than we are leads to complacency and thinking we are worse than we are leads to low confidence and self-sabotage.
Most people believe they are above average and better than others on almost every trait. Such belief keeps them away from feelings of inadequacy and the need of constant positive self-evaluation creates self-enhancement bias or the tendency to think of ourselves as superior to others. In order to maintain our self-esteem, we boast about ourselves and put others down.
When our self-esteem rests solely on the successful competition against others, social comparisons and competition leads to disconnection where we tend to see others as obstacles to overcome in order to keep or maintain our position.
Assessment of our self-esteem is not always accurate because our perceptions often get distorted by our previous experiences. For instance, a person growing up in a perfectionist environment may view himself as always falling short of others’ expectations and as a result, might perceive himself as a ‘failure’ or ‘not good enough’. This happens without that person’s own understanding, regardless of whether true or not. Living up or down to the labels given by others keeps one under constant pressure or need to continually evaluate oneself positively.
Always striving to improve your self-esteem in order to feel good about yourself results in self-criticism and judgement. It is simply not possible to be better than everyone all the time and when we lose or fail, we tend to feel highly self-critical where your inner critical voice tends to reign in to lower your worthiness when you want to embark on a personal or professional goal.
So, How to develop realistic perception about oneself or improve your self-concept?We can do so by developing self-compassion. Instead of endlessly chasing self-esteem and being hard on ourselves, we can work towards being compassionate towards self that paves the way for more authenticity, improved confidence and self-concept.
Self-compassion builds better self-concept
Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher in the field of self-compassion and author of the book- Self compassion, self-compassion has three core elements. First, it requires self-kindness. Being understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than beating ourselves up with self-criticism. Self compassion is treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care and positive regard , as you would treat those you care about. Our self-concept improves when we recognise that being imperfect, failing and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so we tend to be gentler with ourselves when confronted with difficult experiences.
Second, being compassionate requires common humanity. Recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of human experience and that we all go through, rather than it is being something that happens to me alone allows us to be less judgmental about our personal failings. Recognising that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by external factors such as familiarity, culture and genetic conditions improves our overall self-concept.
And Third, It requires mindful awareness. Self-compassion requires a balanced approach towards our negative emotions so that they are neither exaggerated or suppressed. Relating our personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering -then putting our own situation into a larger perspective. Mindful acceptance of negative thoughts and emotions that come into our awareness leads to healthy self-image.
Self-compassion & personal growth & productivity
Many of us have many misconceptions about self-compassion as we consider it as being self indulgent or that it undermines motivation. Many of us fear that being kinder to ourselves will make us look weak or lazy and incompetent. But the opposite is true. Research shows that self-compassion is positively associated with emotional resilience, optimism, happiness, curiosity and desire to grow and change in ways that lead to increasing your productivity. And in a way self-compassion is positively associated with satisfaction, emotional and social connectedness and negatively associated with depression, anxiety and rumination, thought suppression and perfectionism. Here is how it is an important skill to develop when it comes to personal growth and productivity.
- Compassion for self also boosts compassion for others and increases your inclination to grow and change despite the potential risk involved. Self-compassion thus is a key leadership skill to develop and to adopt a growth mindset.
- Treating self with kindness and without judgment alleviates fears about social disapproval where you can approach difficult experiences with positive attitude. You view yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view.
- Develop positive sense of self-worth. Self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable in the the long -term than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.
- The element of self kindness helps shift your perspective of how you relate to failure, mistakes and difficulty as part of what it means to be human and you are more likely to get back up and try again.
- The element of mindful awareness reduces negative self-talk and self-blame and helps you cope better with negative emotions, pain, addiction and PTSD symptoms.
- Enhances intrinsic motivation as you become less self-critical towards your failures, so you are more likely to try again more likely and take personal initiative and take action to reach their goals.
- Realistic self-perception of self helps you develop growth mindset at personal and professional level -to work on your weaknesses, to enhance skills and change unhelpful habits.
- Approaching negative feedback from a compassionate and understanding perspective leads to learning and improvement.
How to develop an unconditional positive self-regard
Self-compassion provides similar benefits of self-esteem but without our self-evaluation being based on comparing to others. When we treat ourselves with compassion unconditionally, we are better able to perceive our real worthiness which is the foundation for personal and professional improvement. However, most of us don’t know how to develop an unconditional positive self-regard. Self-compassion is a new way of relating to ourselves and here are some do’s and don’ts in doing so.
Do away with self-criticism
The first step towards self-compassion is to do away with self-hate and criticising yourself. The desire to achieve high self-esteem leads to self-criticism. When you indulge in self-criticism, your inner-critic takes over thereby creating a negative perception of yourself. When things get harder, use a compassionate voice to motivate yourself to realise your goals with kindness, support and understanding, rather than harsh criticism. Accept everything about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses to make a positive connection with your inner-critic.
By cultivating a more balanced internal dialogue, you can make a more positive connection with yourself. Be motivated to reach your goals not because you are inadequate as you are, but because you care about yourself and want to reach your full potential.
Related read: How to make positive connection with your inner critic
Stop being unkind to yourself.
Being kind to yourself means is to show caring attitude and compassionate care towards yourself. You can do so comforting your difficult or negative emotions. Sometimes it requires protecting by saying ‘no’ to harsh, negative inner voice, and by figuring out what we need and giving it to ourselves. Being kind to yourself requires being open to ‘what is’ and not to blame or judge yourself. When you try to be kinder to yourself, overwhelming or painful emotions may arise as you may recall times when you felt ignored, rejected or invalidated. When this happens, it’s important to not to fall back into old habits of using a self-criticism as motivator. Instead, process your hopes, dreams and fears in a more compassionate way through mindful awareness and by developing an optimistic view through self-appreciation.
Write a compassionate letter to yourself
You can find your compassionate voice by writing a letter to yourself whenever you struggle to feel inadequate or when you want to help motivate yourself to overcome challenges or a failure. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but gets easier with practice. Write it from the compassionate part of yourself to the part of yourself that is struggling or dislike. To write a compassionate letter, take something you are unhappy about with yourself, and express acceptance, understanding and encouragement for yourself about it. Describe how it makes you feel by being honest. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you are struggling with. In a compassionate way, ask yourself, what are the things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, more fulfilled and avoid judging yourself.
Develop Mindful awareness
Hardship, worry, difficulty is inevitable, but when we resist them, it adds more to our misery and frustration. Feelings of frustration and denial are because we think things should be other than they are or we hope that if we don’t think about a problem, it will go away. Research shows that when we try to suppress our unwanted shouts or feelings, they just get stronger. Moreover, when we avoid or suppress negative thoughts or emotions, we can’t see them clearly and respond with compassion. Mindfulness with self-compassion gives us the safety needed to see difficult experience with less resistance. When we are mindful of our struggles, and respond to ourselves with compassion and kindness, and support in times of difficulty, things start to change. We can embrace ourselves despite inner and outer imperfections.
Meditate to help you work through challenging emotions and to improve your ability to handle situations in a more rational way. An easy to remember tool for practicing meditation is the Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation. — Recognise your thoughts, behaviours or emotions that are affecting you. Allow the thoughts, emotions or sensations we have recognised simply be there. Investigate the reasons with curiosity and with the desire to know the truth with kindness. And to rest in natural awareness to separate yourself from the limiting sensations, emotions or stories. Acknowledging the presence of our judgment by becoming increasingly mindful of our inner critical voice and feelings of inadequacy, creates space that awakens your caring and helps you make wiser choices. Each time you recognise, this is unworthiness..this is fear..this is hurt.. you are poised to de-condition the old self-criticising ways and compassion arises naturally.
Space for Self-reflection
So, How self-compassionate are you? How often do you show unconditional positive regard towards self?
Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?
How judgmental and disapproving are you about your flaws and inadequacies?
Do you see the difficulties as part of life that everyone goes through or Do you get consumed by feelings of inadequacy ?
How tolerant and patient are you towards those aspects of your personality you don’t like?
How approving are you of your emotions when things aren’t working for you?
when you experience difficulties?
Do you always try to hold yourself in high regard even if it means undermining others?
When you fail at something, do you get hard on yourself or do you keep things in perspective?
With self-compassion, you value yourself by not because you’ve judged yourself positively and others negatively, but you intrinsically believe that you deserve your care and concern and you can achieve your goals without being hard on self. Instead of judging and criticising oneself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, you become supportive of self and understanding when confronted with personal failings.
The more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves, the more we will increase the habit of self-compassion. Instead of emphasising on self-esteem, developing an unconditional positive self regard helps you embrace yourself with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. You can save yourself from endless self-judgment and can tap into your inner kindness, love and connection.