Human beings are the only creatures who can make themselves miserable. Other animals certainly suffer when they experience negative events, but only humans can induce negative emotions through self-views, judgments, expectations, regrets and comparisons with others.
Because self-thought plays such a central role in human happiness and wellbeing, psychologists have devoted a good deal of attention to understanding how people think about themselves.
For many years, the experts have focused on self-esteem. Research has consistently shown that self-esteem is related to psychological wellbeing, suggesting that a positive self-image is an important ingredient in the recipe for a happy and successful life. Seeing this link between self-esteem and an array of desirable life outcomes, many parents bent over backwards to ensure that their children had positive views of themselves, teachers tried to provide feedback in ways that protected students’ self-esteem, and many people became convinced that self-esteem should be widely promoted as a remedy for personal problems and social ills.
The high-water mark of the self-esteem movement occurred in the 1980s when the California State Assembly authorised funds to raise the self-esteem of its citizens, with the lofty goal of solving problems such as child abuse, crime, addiction, unwanted pregnancy and welfare dependence. Some legislators even hoped that, as a side benefit, boosting self-esteem would enhance the state’s economy.
On one level, this emphasis on self-esteem seemed well-founded. Psychological research shows that success and wellbeing are associated with high self-esteem, and that people with lower self-esteem suffer a disproportionate share of emotional and behavioural problems.
Yet, self-esteem has not lived up to its billing. Not only are the relationships between self-esteem and positive outcomes weaker than many suppose, but a closer look at the evidence shows that self-esteem appears to be the result of success and wellbeing rather than their cause. Although thousands of studies demonstrate that high self-esteem is associated with many good things, virtually no evidence shows that self-esteem actually causes success, happiness or other desired outcomes.
Despite the failure of the self-esteem movement, no one would doubt that certain ways of thinking about oneself are more beneficial than others. We all know people who create a great deal of unhappiness for themselves simply by how they think about and react to the events in their lives.
Many people push themselves to meet their own unreasonable expectations, berate themselves for their flubs and failures, and blow their difficulties out of proportion. In an odd sort of way, these people are rather mean to themselves, treating themselves far more harshly than they treat other people. However, we all also know people who take a kinder and gentler approach to themselves. They might not always be happy with themselves, but they accept the fact that everyone has shortcomings and problems, and don’t criticise and condemn themselves unnecessarily for the normal problems of everyday life.
These two reactions to shortcomings, failures and problems might appear to reflect a difference in self-esteem but, in fact, the key difference involves not self-esteem but rather self-compassion. That is, the difference lies not so much in how people evaluate themselves (their self-esteem) but rather in how they treat themselves (their self-compassion). And, as it turns out, the latter appears to be far more important for wellbeing than the former.
Of course, people prefer to evaluate themselves favourably rather than unfavourably, but self-compassion has the power to influence people’s emotions and behaviours in ways that self-esteem does not.
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