If you have a pulse, you have probably struggled with low self-esteem from time to time. You want to feel like a good person, but no matter what you try, you just can’t seem to find any lasting satisfaction with who you are. You accomplish something or receive praise from someone you admire and you feel good for a while, but it’s not long before you’re feeling like a schmuck again.
You spend countless hours wishing you could fix yourself because you think you are the problem. My thighs are too fat. I’m lazy. I’ll never measure up. You beat up on yourself or hide the parts of yourself you don’t like. You walk around convinced that you aren’t worthy of your friends or perhaps your job. At times you feel better, but it’s not long before you’re back to square one: schmuck.
But what if you have the problem all wrong? What if the problem isn’t you? What if the problem is how you relate to yourself? The way you buy into those negative thoughts? I’m not saying you’re flawless, and some amount of constructive criticism is a good thing, but how do you know those negative thoughts are true anyway? Have you ever had a thought that you were sure was true, but realized later that you were totally wrong? Has your mind ever been wrong about anything?
Like a machine, our minds are constantly pumping out thoughts. That’s their job. All day long we evaluate our surroundings, other people, and ourselves. But a lot of our thoughts, including thoughts about ourselves, are incomplete or even untrue. Like the meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, notes in Faith, our personal view of things can be like “Looking at the sky through a straw.” Our thoughts about ourselves may not appreciate the full reality of who we are.
If you’ve tried to fix your self-esteem and it hasn’t worked, why not try something different? Rather than indulging your negative thoughts about yourself, acknowledge them as just thoughts, which may or may not be true. One technique for seeing thought as just thoughts is to add I’m having the thought that___before whatever negative thought you’re having about yourself. Take a moment to try this with one of your negative thought about yourself. Close your eyes and really notice how you feel when you say the original thought versus when you add I’m having the thought that___. Most people tell me this practice helps them take their thoughts less seriously. It’s not a cure, but it illustrates the kind of shift we need to make in order to stop fighting low self-esteem and start overcoming it.
You may think that being hard on yourself is good for you, but research suggests that self-compassion is a better way of relating to yourself. Self-compassion is an aspect of mindfulness and a way of acknowledging your struggles while relating to yourself with kindness. It’s treating yourself like you would a loved one who’s having a hard time. According to the self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, highly self-critical people are more likely to be depressed and anxious and to have lower self-confidence. Dr. Neff points out that being harsh is not conducive to achieving goals. The challenges of life require a lot of emotional resources and self-criticism can deplete those resources. Her research has shown that self-compassionate people are actually more likely than highly self-critical people to stick with healthy goals like exercise and to keep trying if they fail. They are also better at facing and responding to past mistakes.
You may be convinced that being hard on yourself will make you a better person or that you deserve to feel bad about who you are, but remember that those are just thoughts too and there is no guarantee that any thought we have is based in wisdom. Rather than struggling with low self-esteem, spend your energy learning how to stop buying into it and see if you can bring more self-compassion to your life. Building new habits like these takes time and practice, but real freedom is worth the effort and you may find that the benefits will stretch far beyond your self-esteem.
© 2014 Christa Smith