Psychology has had a long love affair with the idea of self-esteem – the concept that our self-worth is bound up in perceiving ourselves as being good at things that matter to us.
Research shows that low self-esteem is linked with a wide range of poor life outcomes. Intuitively it makes sense to try to boost self-esteem as an effort to inoculate ourselves against this.
But what if striving towards self-esteem was not necessarily associated with lasting happiness and potentially linked to a range of negative outcomes?
Below is a brilliant article by Professor Steven Hayes from the University of Nevada, and co-founder of ACT, on why we should stop chasing self-esteem and rather focus on developing self-compassion.
Is Self-Compassion More Important Than Self-Esteem?
By Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D.
Is it important to love yourself?
It seems that depends on how you do it.
Few concepts in popular psychology have gotten more attention over the last few decades than self-esteem and its importance in life success and long-term mental health. Of course, much of this discussion has focused on young people, and how families, parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors can provide the proper psychological environment to help them grow into functional, mature, mentally stable adults.
Research shows that low self-esteem correlates with poorer mental health outcomes across the board1, increased likelihood of suicide attempts2, and difficulty developing supportive social relationships.3 Research also shows that trying to raise low self-esteem artificially comes with its own set of problems, including tendencies toward narcissism, antisocial behavior4, and avoiding challenging activities that may threaten one’s self-concept.5
This division in the research has led to a division amongst psychologists about how important self-esteem is, whether or not it’s useful to help people improve their self-esteem, and what the best practices are for accomplishing that.
In one camp, you have people who believe improving self-esteem is of paramount importance. On the other side of the fence are those who feel the whole concept of self-esteem is overrated and that it’s more critical to develop realistic perceptions about oneself.
But what if we’ve been asking the wrong questions all along? What if the self-esteem discussion is like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon?
New research is suggesting this may indeed be the case, and that a new concept — self-compassion — could be vastly more important than self-esteem when it comes to long-term mental health and success.
Why the Self-Esteem Model Is Flawed
The root problem with the self-esteem model comes down to some fundamental realities about language and cognition that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced all as one word) was designed to address.
The way psychologists classically treat issues with self-esteem is by having clients track their internal dialog — especially their negative self talk — and then employ a number of tactics to counter those negative statements with more positive (or at least more realistic) ones. Others attempt to stop the thoughts, distract themselves from them, or to self sooth.
Put bluntly, these techniques don’t work very well. The ACT research community has shown this over and over again. There are many reasons that techniques like distraction and thought stopping tend not to work — too many to go into all of them here. For a full discussion you can see my professional book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or my trade book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. For the purposes of our discussion here, we will look at one aspect of this: How fighting a thought increases its believability.
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