This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald. Click here for the original article…
“What are some tips for improving my self esteem?”
You know who has really great self esteem? Donald Trump. He backs himself. He believes in his own skills, self worth and abilities. He is unshakable in his confidence and view of the world. He even believes he can be in charge of the most powerful country in the world, despite having no political experience.
And that tells you everything that is wrong with the idea of “self-esteem”.
It is a reasonable wish though, to feel better about one’s self. To feel more confident, like a better person. But better than what, or who?
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s self esteem was lauded as the key to life success. We were all encouraged to improve our self esteem, and to parent in ways that improved out children’s self esteem.
But what does it mean, to have esteem in one’s self?
It means two things that are particularly problematic. Firstly, it means being better than others. It is inherently competitive. And by raising oneself up, you also inevitably put yourself above others.
Secondly, it is conditional. Your feelings of esteem are reliant upon doing well, being good or being successful. Your worth is not inherent; it relies on success and ability.
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The most ridiculous outcome of this self esteem movement is participation prizes, the idea that there are no winners or losers, and everyone gets a prize: because it was thought (albeit with the best of intentions) that failing or losing would damage a child’s self esteem.
And this is how the construct of self esteem ultimately became dangerous. It doesn’t teach us how to fail, it doesn’t allow for mistakes and to simply be a fallible human.
Self esteem doesn’t give us wriggle room to be ourselves, in all its messy brilliance. It’s like the unforgiving boss who only accepts perfection and a good mood. Ultimately, much like Donald Trump, it’s a caricature of what it is to be a good, successful person.
My advice to you is to instead focus on self compassion, a concept I’ve touched on before.
Self compassion is the belief that we are worthy of love and care, just because we are alive. It is unconditional and forgiving. It is the idea that even in our failures we can be kind, and can learn from our mistakes.
Self compassion lives in the real world. It allows for winners and losers, because we all have different strengths and weaknesses. It allows for sadness, pain, and failure in the understanding that to feel these things is part of being human. It encourages us to treat ourselves with respect at all times, and ultimately to be a best friend to ourselves in our attitude and our behaviour.
Growing self compassion requires practice, and patience. It also requires a full acceptance of, and engagement with, reality.
Because the reality is we all lose sometimes. Hopefully, even Donald Trump.