Many scientific studies have linked high self-esteem to positive factors, such as good health, happiness, well-being, and success at home and work. That is why lot of countries – with the United States foremost among them – have invested in programs to increase self-esteem for many decades. Thousands of self-help manuals have been published, and they are popular in Estonia as well. Then again, the hoped-for benefits to well-being, health, and success haven’t followed, according to Kerttu Mäger, a master’s student in psychology at the University of Tartu who analyzed self-esteem and self-compassion in her master’s thesis.
Why is this so? There are many incentives that can boost self-esteem for a little while: a good grade at school, promotion, increased salary (or some other work-related victory), praise, compliments, a large number of Facebook likes, etc. These things can make most people feel better – even to such an extent that students may value the factors increasing self-esteem more than sex, their favorite food, or meeting a best friend. This is according to scientists Bushman and Moeller in their article “Sweets, sex or self-esteem?”.
At the same time, it has not been convincingly proven that interventions aimed at increasing self-esteem can do it in a lasting manner and bring about success at school or in other fields. For example, Roy Baumeister, one of the leading social psychologists, has teamed up with other scientists to research situations where researchers have tried to raise the self-esteem of students who are not doing so well at school. It turned out that those students had worse exam results on average than those whose self-esteem was “left alone”. While it is true that good grades at school and high self-esteem are linked, it could rather be claimed that good grades push our self-esteem higher, not that high self-esteem helps us to get good grades.
There are more and more studies leading to greater doubt about the supreme position of self-esteem and the rationality of trying to raise it artificially. It has turned out that high self-esteem can be related to many negative factors as well, such as selfishness, narcissism, self-delusion, unwise decisions, etc.
In addition to this, many people tend to overestimate themselves. For example, different studies indicate that up to 90% of drivers think that their driving skills are better than average. Statistically, this is just not possible. Overestimating one’s skills as a driver can lead to excessive risk-taking and traffic accidents, according to the scientific article “I am a better driver than you think”.
Thus, self-esteem is quite paradoxical: it can bring about some good, but it does the opposite as well. It is still not actually clear what makes self-esteem harmful or beneficial. I concentrated on this question in my master’s thesis.
What is self-esteem? What is self-compassion?
To put it simply, self-esteem is about valuing oneself: to have positive or negative evaluations and attitudes towards oneself. It is only natural that people want to feel worthy. But appreciating oneself may be based on very different mechanisms and factors. It has turned out that many of those are not entirely positive at all.
For example, self-esteem may have roots in social comparisons and success: in the wish to prove oneself, to be better than others, or to win and achieve. On the other hand, as I found in my master’s thesis, along with reassurance from other studies, the cause of high self-esteem can also be benevolence and empathy towards oneself. That is called self-compassion.
In my thesis I studied whether self-compassion could be one of the mechanisms behind optimal, healthy self-esteem. To get a better overview of the interconnections between self-esteem and self-compassion, we studied this in two ways with our research group.
One method involved participants filling out questionnaires measuring self-esteem and self-compassion. The other was an innovative method, developed in our research group under the supervision of Andero Uusberg. It involved a test that allowed us to measure both self-esteem and self-compassion in a slightly stealthier manner, so that the participant would not realize exactly what was being measured (IAT, Implicit Associations Test).
In this test the participant has to put the words that appear on the screen into the right categories as quickly as possible, without knowing exactly what those conducting the test are researching. Later, taking into account the participant’s reaction, it is possible to figure out which connections in his or her brain are more active. Based on this, it is possible to estimate and evaluate the self-esteem and/or self-compassion of a person. A good accord between explicit self-esteem (consciously acknowledged by the participant) and implicit self-esteem (not consciously acknowledged by the participant) hints at optimal, healthy self-esteem.
The study showed that people who are friendlier towards themselves have more optimal, healthier self-esteem. However, since it was the first time that we used such an implicit evaluation tool for measuring self-compassion, we can only talk about general tendencies at the moment. To arrive at better conclusions, the tests that were used should definitely be improved.
External factors vs. self-compassion as the foundation for self-esteem
So, why aren’t all kinds of self-esteem always good? It has to do with the previously stated fact that one of the mechanisms of self-esteem is a system based on evaluations and comparisons, focusing on high standards, letting one’s “good” sides show, proving one’s great value to oneself and others. This self-esteem mechanism, based on comparisons and success, is classically at the core of many studies and programs in the field of self-esteem. This mechanism ensures that if everything goes successfully, the person evaluates him-/herself highly, experiences positive emotions, and feels proud.
But self-esteem that is based only on external factors and standards can be quite vulnerable and unstable. Praise and good feelings from success can often last only for a short time. Therefore, a situation that is interpreted as a failure can result in negative emotions, such as shame, disappointment, or helplessness. The person may feel less worthy and his or her self-esteem might decrease.
Scientific studies have shown that people whose self-esteem is mostly based on meeting external standards and outside praise feel strongly threatened in negative situations, resort easily to defending personal mistakes when solving problems, can be aggressive towards their peers, and avoid taking responsibility. They are more inclined towards risky behaviour as well, including alcohol abuse for managing tension and improving one’s mood after failures. Links to higher risk of depression and suicide have also been found.
However, as previously stated, enjoying achievements and victories is not the only mechanism for self-appreciation. The other self-esteem mechanism incorporates self-compassion, which means treating oneself in a friendly, humane, mindful manner – during stressful times also. According to researchers of self-compassion it provides a stable, positive foundation for appreciating oneself, without being based on social comparison, calculation, or meeting ideal standards.
It has also been discovered that appreciating oneself on the grounds of empathy and friendliness helps to achieve inspiring long-time goals and supports the person psychologically better than the ego-boosting mechanism fuelled by victories and achievements. In addition to all this, self-compassion helps to cope better with negative life events. It allows one to adapt an accepting and open attitude towards problems, including one’s own shortcomings. People who are self-compassionate do not get stuck in negative thoughts for long periods of time, take responsibility for solving problems, and are not prone to aggressive defense of their mistakes. Self-compassion increases the belief that complicated situations can be overcome, as well as the motivation to implement changes and work on personal faults.
One could say that if self-esteem that is based on success and winnings does not offer a good psychological toolbox at the moments when the success subsides, then self-esteem based on self-compassion supports a person better in difficult situations. For example, when negative thoughts such as “I’m not good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m worthless”, etc. increase in tough moments, there is a great probability that if the person’s self-esteem is based only on success, it can lead to a great contradiction. If the person feels that he or she always has to perform ideally, to be “the best version of myself”, or sees negative thoughts as a sign of weakness and is critical towards his or her shortcomings, then he or she has nothing to rely on during difficult times.
On the other hand, when a person values him-/herself based on self-compassion, when he or she accepts that all people feel bad sometimes, that no one is perfect, and that even at hard times one should have a kind and emphatic attitude towards him-/herself, he or she has a better starting position at dealing with the negative events and can value oneself despite the backlashes.
One of the reasons why people who are friendlier towards themselves have optimal self-esteem could be that they know their emotions better. They are aware and responsive to their inner experiences and this is mirrored in their self-esteem as well. In addition, it is known that one of the aspects of self-compassion, mindfulness, is related to self-awareness and plays an important part in self-regulation.
The good news is that self-compassion can be increased with different interventions. Training one’s self-compassion has been linked to various psychological benefits, such as increased self-efficiency, optimism, and general well-being. The obligation to achieve things and win as a requirement to feeling better unavoidably brings about tensions both in adults and children, the latter often being encouraged from an early age to compete and be better than their peers.
In conclusion, it could be said that instead of using one’s energy to increase one’s self-esteem through endless competition and trying to achieve something – “to be better than the neighbour” – as well as being hard on oneself in situations where it was not possible to be better, the smarter strategy to get to the point of psychological well-being would be cultivating self-compassion.
One can learn more about self-compassion from the YouTube channel of Kristin Neff, a researcher on self-compassion.
When it comes to materials translated into Estonian, the following offer both interesting reading and practical exercises: “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World”, by Mark Williams (Professor at Oxford University) and Danny Penman; “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist studying being conscious; and “Life with Full Attention: A Practical Course in Mindfulness” by Maitreyabandhu, a meditation teacher.
The Estonian version of this post was first published in ERR Novaator.