In the field of education it’s common to assume that self-esteem and academic performance are closely linked, and that if you want to maximize students’ potential you need to boost their self-esteem.
Its also common to hear that bullies are people with low self-esteem, and that if you want them to be more respectful of others then their self-esteem needs to be boosted.
Most of this received wisdom has been shown to be highly questionable, or even untrue. It seems that people who do well academically have high self-esteem as a result—not the other way around.
And I’m sure almost every student can think of times they were convinced they were going to fail an exam but performed excellently, or were confident they were going to do well and instead did miserably. Where was the correlation between self-esteem and performance there?
Also, the term self-esteem covers a wide variety of behaviors, from an honest assessment of one’s strengths to outright narcissism and conceit. Bullies, in fact, frequently esteem themselves as being more important than others. They bully in order to remind themselves—and others—of their high status. Misguided attempts to “boost” their already high self-esteem merely leads to greater self-inflation.
Self-esteem is where our sense of well-being comes from thinking that we, as a whole, are worthy because of particular abilities or qualities we have. One definition is “a feeling of satisfaction that someone has in himself or herself and his or her own abilities.” Another is “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities.” We base our confidence and feeling good about ourselves on our ability to be good at things. We think well of ourselves because of the part of us we’re proud of. And so we may relate to ourselves with a certain degree of kindness when things are going well.
But what about when things aren’t going so well? Our self-esteem may crumble when our weaknesses are exposed, or when things in life aren’t going well. If we focus on self-esteem, then when we’re faced with challenges we’re less likely to be kind to ourselves. The very fact that we’re experiencing difficulties may be taken as a sign that we’re not competent and that we’re not worthy. We may blame ourselves for failing, or even just for suffering, and this makes us suffer even more. We may end up choosing to “protect” ourselves from an awareness of difficulties by pretending they don’t exist, or by blaming others or by focusing on their faults to distract ourselves from our own. We may chronically avoid challenges, because it’s possible to convince ourselves that we would have succeeded had we wanted to.
Self-compassion is very different from self-esteem. Self-compassion is simply relating to ourselves kindly, especially when things are tough. When we discover weaknesses in ourselves, we don’t need to deny them. We simply acknowledge the fact that we are imperfect, and offer a kind and compassionate response to ourselves. Rather than rejecting parts of ourselves, we accept ourselves.
Self-esteem means making judgements about parts of us being “bad” or unacceptable. Self-compassion simply recognizes that parts of us suffer, and offers support to any part of us that’s struggling. Self-esteem is divisive. Self-compassion integrates and heals.
There are always people who think that accepting and being kind to ourselves when we fail to meet our expectations is going to cause us to fail even more. They think that self-compassion will lead to reduced expectations and to letting ourselves off the hook. But this isn’t the case. People who score highly for self-compassion have greater emotional resilience. They know how to deal with failure and difficulties. They’re able to give themselves reassurance and support as they face challenges. And as a result, they’re less likely to give up when the going gets tough.
When we’re self-compassionate we recognize that some of our actions and habits are unhelpful and lead to ourselves and others suffering. And when we see such things in ourselves we don’t encourage them. In fact, we see that our long-term welfare is connected with overcoming such flaws. But we don’t beat ourselves us, since we recognize that doing so is just another unhelpful habit to be overcome.
Self-compassion gives us a good feeling about ourselves, because kindness and compassion lead to reduced inner conflict and to feelings of well-being. Compassion has also been shown to activate the brain’s “pleasure centers.” Self-compassion helps us to feel confident about ourselves because our default mode is to offer ourselves encouragement. Encouragement leads to confidence, as most of us know from experience.
In this way, self-compassion offers us the potential benefits of self-esteem (confidence, feeling good about ourselves) without its drawbacks (avoiding challenges, self-inflation, and self-blame).
Moreover, while high self-esteem can lead to us behaving unkindly to others (think of any narcissistic boss you’ve ever had) self-compassion naturally leads to our having compassion for others. When our default response is to offer kindness and support, this doesn’t stop at the supposed “boundaries” of our own being, but spills over into our relations with others. Self-compassionate individuals are compassionate towards others as well.
As the Buddha said, “Looking after oneself, one looks after others; looking after others, one looks after oneself.”