The problem with self-esteem
Our society has always thought that it is a wonderful thing to have high self-esteem. What is not generally commented on is the negative effect that comes into play, because assessing self-esteem involves making comparisons with others and this can lead to a degree of narcissism or depression.
Kristin Neff, an expert in this field, explains that at Year three, girls and boys have about the same level of self-esteem. By Year 6, girls are judging themselves very harshly on their appearance and dramatic drops in self-esteem occur. Boys generally don’t do this and their levels of self-esteem stay about the same as they were in Year three.
Neff introduces a far healthier concept called self-compassion, which is about treating ourselves as we would as if we were meeting another person. It is about relating to ourselves with kindness and embracing ourselves as we are. There are three main components:
- Treating ourselves as we would treat others, with kindness, flaws and all.
- Believing that we have imperfections because we are human, and that everyone has them. Sometimes our perception of our imperfections can isolate us socially.
- Mindfulness thinking, which is about focusing on what is happening in the present, rather than hypothesising about the future and unlikely calamities; and ruminating on past events.
Embracing these components causes the release of “happy” brain hormones ie. Oxytocin and serotonin, and decreases the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Social comparisons involved in judging self-esteem, cause the production of cortisol which leads to increased feelings of stress and can lead to depression and unhealthy behaviours.
Compassion is strongly linked to mental well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, better relationships, increased motivation, healthier life choices and increased self-responsibility.
We need to practice changing our thinking to switch from a self-esteem mindset to a self-compassion mindset. Like any skill, practise is required to develop new neuronal pathways which, with repetition, will become automatic thoughts. So, we need to practise changing from judging our self-esteem to embracing our compassion towards ourselves. Then we need to teach our children how to do it before they develop harsh judgements of themselves. This means starting on this process when they are in Year three!!
Kristin Neff has a web page with free exercises to help build self-compassion at http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises.