Self-Compassion: The Basis for Healthy Self-Conceptualization and the Building Block for Self-Esteem
There are times as a therapist when you say things to clients that ‘go against the grain’ and are likely to elicit a VERY confused look. One of those times is when I tell clients I do not want them to prioritize their self-esteem. Before they write me off as being totally unhelpful or out of touch, I explain that instead, I encourage all my clients to prioritize self-worth.
Reading that, you might be wondering, what the heck is the difference? Does it matter? The intent behind this blog post is to clear that up.
First off, I must give credit where credit is due. Kristin Neff led a Tedx talk in 2013 titled, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.” I stumbled across it several years ago and it inspired the line of thinking this is all based on.
Here is a link for anyone interested:
After watching Dr. Neff speak about the research she’d participated in on self-esteem, it felt like a lightbulb went on. Issues I was consistently seeing clients grapple with suddenly took on an entirely new and more nuanced meaning.
What I came to recognize that day is self-esteem based solely on self-efficacy as a concept is flawed, because it is only externally dependent.
Self-efficacy is the belief that we do things well. Put another way, it is the belief that we are capable and competent at what we do.
As a result, self-efficacy is inherently comparative. To have high self-efficacy, we must feel that we are above some ‘average.’ Smarter than average, funnier than average, prettier than average, more talented, more successful, more powerful, more admired, (the list goes on). We are pressured to be more than the AVERAGE we’re exposed to.
As Dr. Neff puts it, in our culture, “It is an insult to be average.” This need to be "more" fuels competition and perfectionism, which are detrimental to mental health in many ways. It causes pressure to build and build as we try to constantly achieve the next thing.
Do you see the problem with everyone’s self-esteem being dependent on being considered above average? Simply put, it is impossible for all of us to be above average at the same time. When taken to the extreme, the need to be above average inspires bullying, cutting down others to make ourselves feel better, stereotypes and other harmful forms of prejudice, ruthless business practices, and the list goes on.
The constant seeking of above-averageness is made all the more impossible in the era of the internet and social media. At any moment, we have access to someone smarter, funnier, prettier, stronger, more successful, more admired etc. etc. etc. than we are. Goodbye self-esteem, hello feelings of inadequacy.
Whatever measure of external worthiness you use, be it talent and abilities, appearance, work performance, social status, how successful our children are… Feeling average or – heaven forbid – BELOW average in any of these domains can destroy our self-esteem. This can cause a seemingly endless downward or upward spiral because the pressure never stops.
My biggest gripe with self-esteem: not one of those aforementioned measures represents our inherent worthiness as human beings. They are all external factors that merely demonstrate achievements or successes that individual cultures decide are important. It ignores the core of who we are as human beings.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: Each and every one of us is inherently worthy simply by existing. If that sentence stirred some discomfort in you, it’s your cultural conditioning talking!
We live in a capitalistic culture. A population of people who recognize their inherent worthiness sure does not sell gym memberships, cosmetic procedures, expensive fashion choices, or the latest technology advancements. Wanting those things is ABSOLUTELY OKAY! By no means do I want to shame anyone for that or tell everybody to give up what makes them feel good. As long as it comes from a place of interest and desire, not pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses' at the expense of your mental wellness, I'm on board.
Now that we’ve established that self-esteem based only on self-efficacy is a limiting concept in many ways, let’s dive into the healthy alternative: SELF-WORTH.
(Additionally, Dr. Neff discusses several really important components and benefits of self-compassion and I highly suggest watching the full Tedx talk to hear her speak about them!)
What is self-worth? It is a deep internal acknowledgment that we are valuable and worthy as human beings. It does not ebb and flow based on external perceptions or achievements. It is fixed, static, unshakable. It exists despite failures we experience or qualities we dislike about ourselves. It does not increase or decrease with praise or criticism. Our social status, talents and abilities, appearance, and achievements are all factors that will fluctuate over time. Yet, we remain inherently worthy of love, belonging, and acceptance.
High self-esteem is something that must be constantly worked towards over a lifetime, while self-worth only requires an in the moment compassionate acknowledgment that every single human being is of value and worth - including ourselves.
Sounds easy, right? I know in practice this is much harder, especially for the perfectionists out there. I’d be remiss if I ignored the real impacts that threats to self-esteem have on our lives. It hurts when we struggle to meet a goal. It stings to fall short of expectations (whether set by others or ourselves).
But if our view of self is entirely dependent on external factors, we will remain in a vicious cycle with no resolution. For this reason, I tell my clients to PRIORITIZE self-worth as the basis of their self-esteem. Often, they find that by giving loving attention to their inherent worthiness as a human being, they are less likely to fall into patterns of harsh self-criticism and judgment. Their kindness toward themselves grows, and their self-esteem flourishes, too.
To get started prioritizing self-worth over self-efficacy, begin with this question: What makes human beings special and valuable? Then, what makes me special and valuable? If your answers to each of those questions feel pretty far apart, that’s likely a great place to start. You, as you are, today, with no changes or alterations, are worthy of love and belonging. Humans are an above-average concept. It’s a miracle we even exist. Remind yourself as many times as it takes to begin feeling true.
Honeybee is excited to share that Emily will be joining the practice after the completion of her internship, and we are hoping to start scheduling her with clients in February 2023. To get on her waitlist, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to get scheduled sooner than later. She will be accepting BCBS in network insurance, is able to provide a super bill for all other insurances, and will accept private pay including a limited number of sliding scale spots.