It seems we all want to know how to improve self-esteem these days.
Life can be hard. And who is usually hardest on you? Yourself. There’s that negative voice in your head criticizing you. And sometimes you can’t shut it up.
So the answer is to boost your self-esteem, right? We’ve seen an explosion of this kind of thinking lately, that self-esteem is the answer to everything.
But it’s had some negative effects on the world too — like an epidemic of narcissism.
This emphasis on high self-esteem at all costs has also led to a worrying trend toward increasing narcissism. Twenge and colleagues examined the scores of more than fifteen thousand college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1987 and 2006. During the twenty-year period, scores went through the roof, with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations.
Oh, and there’s one other teensy weensy little problem with trying to boost self-esteem to deal with that critical voice…
It doesn’t work.
Self-esteem ain’t the answer
This focus on improving self-esteem got to the point where the State of California started a task force and gave it $250,000 a year to raise children’s self-esteem.
They expected this to boost grades and reduce bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and drug abuse.
Guess what? It was a total failure in almost every category.
Reports on the efficacy of California’s self-esteem initiative, for instance, suggest that it was a total failure. Hardly any of the program’s hoped-for outcomes were achieved.
What?!? Self-esteem is supposed to cure everything, right? Wrong.
Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of healthy behavior. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.
In one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors.
(For the science-based secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)
Uh-oh. The cure-all is a cure-nothing. So what do we do?
Researchers have found an answer to feeling much better about yourself — but it’s not improving self-esteem.
Forget self-esteem. Try self-compassion
Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. Why?
Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.
The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion appears to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernible downsides. The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem—self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened.
Self-compassion reduces anxiety. Self-esteem doesn’t.
Participants’ self-compassion levels, but not their self-esteem levels, predicted how much anxiety they felt. In other words, self-compassionate students reported feeling less self-conscious and nervous than those who lacked self-compassion, presumably because they felt okay admitting and talking about their weak points. Students with high self-esteem, by contrast, were no less anxious than those with low self-esteem, having been thrown off balance by the challenge of discussing their failings.
When you’re self-compassionate you feel less embarrassed when you screw up. Self-esteem doesn’t help here.
Another study required people to imagine being in potentially embarrassing situations: being on a sports team and blowing a big game, for instance, or performing in a play and forgetting one’s lines. How would participants feel if something like this happened to them? Self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally. Instead, they said they would take things in their stride, thinking thoughts like “Everybody goofs up now and then” and “In the long run, this doesn’t really matter.” Having high self-esteem, however, made little difference. Those with both high and low self-esteem were equally likely to have thoughts like “I’m such a loser” or “I wish I could die.” Once again, high self-esteem tends to come up empty-handed when the chips are down.
Want to feel more self-worth? Guess who wins? Yup. Self-compassion.
…self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.
And guess who’s more likely to be narcissistic? Those with self-esteem, not self-compassion.
In fact, a striking finding of the study was that people with high self-esteem were much more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem. In contrast, self-compassion was completely unassociated with narcissism. (The reason there wasn’t a negative association is because people who lack self-compassion don’t tend to be narcissistic, either.)
Want a better love life? Self-compassion improves romantic relationships. Self-esteem doesn’t.
The results of our study indicated that self-compassionate people did in fact have happier and more satisfying romantic relationships than those who lacked self-compassion. This is largely because self-compassionate participants were described by their partners as being more accepting and nonjudgmental than those who lacked self-compassion… High self-esteem, it should be noted, did not appear to do a whole hell of a lot for couples. Self-esteem was not associated with happier, healthier relationships, and people with high self-esteem weren’t described by their partners as being any more accepting, caring, or supportive in their relationships than those who lacked self-esteem.
(For more on shortcuts to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)
I could go on and on. But I’m sure you’re already saying, “Just tell me how to do it, Eric!” Fair enough.
Don’t worry. It’s not hard
There are a number of ways to boost self-compassion but I’m going to focus on one here because it’s epically simple:
I want you to talk to yourself. Nicely.
Next time that voice in your head starts saying critical things, reframe the thoughts into something positive and forgiving.
The best way to counteract self-criticism, therefore, is to understand it, have compassion for it, and then replace it with a kinder response… Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a kind, friendly, positive way.
Maybe you’re not buying it. Talking to yourself not doing it for you? Imagine someone who loves you saying the kind words instead. Research shows this delivers serious results.
Practitioners first instruct patients to generate an image of a safe place to help counter any fears that may arise. They are then instructed to create an ideal image of a caring and compassionate figure… The training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame.
Say you blow your diet and eat a whole bag of cookies. Now that voice in your head is beating you up. How would your loving grandma address the issue? Probably with less criticism and more like this…
“Darling, I know you ate that bag of cookies because you’re feeling really sad right now and you thought it would cheer you up. But you feel even worse and are not feeling good in your body. I want you to be happy, so why don’t you take a long walk so you feel better?”
You need to dispute the negative thoughts and reframe them into something positive. Every time that critical voice starts yammering, instead imagine Grandma giving supportive advice.
You forgive others all the time. You need to start forgiving yourself more often.
(For more on quieting that voice in your head, click here.)
Okay, let’s round it up and put it to use.
Next time that critical voice in your head starts going and you think you need a self-esteem boost, instead reach for some self-compassion:
- Reframe whatever the voice says into something more positive.
- If it helps you more, visualize a compassionate figure and have them say it to you.
Yes, it’s that simple.
When we focus on self-esteem, we often build ourselves up by comparing ourselves to others. In the end, this is a losing strategy. Even if we come out ahead, it still distances us from other people and that’s no path to happiness.
By remembering that everybody screws up you not only engage your compassion muscles but you also draw yourself closer to others. You’re not better or worse. We’re all imperfect. And that’s okay. And it unites everyone.
As researcher Kristin Neff explains in her book:
Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.
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