Low-Self Esteem and Other Superpowers
From self-esteem to self acceptance.
Posted Oct 20, 2020
Self-esteem is such a popular term and we widely use it to refer to a vast collection of issues and problems. Here’s a list of some of the things we might associate with low self-esteem:
- Not feeling very confident
- A lack of assertiveness or an inability to set boundaries with other people
- Say yes or agreeing to please others
- Not feeling very good about ourselves
- Feeling like a doormat
- Being critical of ourselves
- Feeling our worth is low
- Not knowing who we are
Reading through this list, I’m sure you can think about at least one time when some of this could have described you. Maybe more than one. I know that’s definitely the case for me. Does that mean we have low self-esteem? Almost certainly not. Because catch this: As you read through the list, maybe you have found yourself agreeing with, for example, “not feeling very confident.” I’m willing to bet you can probably think of other times in life when you have felt confident. Or if you found yourself agreeing that you say yes to please people, you can likely think of times when you don’t say yes or please others. It kind of depends on the situation. It’s rare that a label can capture all parts of us across all possible contexts.
Perhaps you can see how applying a global evaluation such as “Low Self-Esteem” to a person could be problematic.
Over the years, researchers and clinicians worked to identify low self-esteem, and they of course also worked on a solution. This was, quite naturally, to increase self-esteem. If low is bad, then high is good. This makes perfect sense. Except it didn’t quite play out as expected.
The self-esteem movement has now focused for decades on improving self-esteem, so they’ve had plenty of time to get it right. Although the substantial research body shows that it is possible to increase self-esteem (or at least people’s self-report of it) it wasn’t shown to be all that helpful. A famous review of over 20,000 self-esteem studies concluded that boosting self-esteem does not cause any demonstrable benefits (Baumeister et al 2003). In fact, inflated self-esteem has been linked with unhelpful individualism, narcissism, and reduced co-operation with others.
Oof. Quite a blow to your ah, self-esteem.
It turns out that the solution to the self-esteem problem is somewhat counter-intuitive and unexpected. And by solution, I mean something that produces outcomes of life satisfaction, well-being, deep connection with others, aka happiness. Rather than working to strive to be someone fundamentally different from who we are, it's working on accepting deep down who we are.
This is often referred to as self-acceptance. Accepting ourselves can feel counter-intuitive in Western culture, which frequently equates better with more and can lead to a never-ending quest for improvements. Often, relentless betterment is based on underlying self-stories such as: “I am not enough” (including all of the variants, such as “failure”, “fraud”, “weak”, “damaged” etc.). These stories place us in a position of being less than others, and therefore the notion of improvements can quickly turn toxic, amidst a rating game, where we almost always compare ourselves unfavourably.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that we don’t get stuck in life. The multitude of ways we get stuck is rather large. But stuck doesn’t mean we are fundamentally broken as human beings.
"Stuck not broken” is an important part of moving forward. And this allows us to make space for our flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, we get to see that all of these are simply part of being human and that none of them are the enemy or anything to run away from. In fact, these parts of ourselves we carry connects us with our common humanity. Rather than excluding us, they're our ticket into the human race—in a genuine, authentic way.
Ask yourself, what kind of person are you most drawn to? Is it someone who only ever lets you see how perfect they are? Or someone who is willing to be more vulnerable and let you see the whole of them? As you answer this question, you might ask yourself how you may choose to hold yourself and your vulnerabilities? Is it possible to hold them with tenderness and care as you recognise the superpower that is wrapped in them?
A final quote that speaks to this:
The rejection of our common fate makes us strangers to each other. The election of that fate, in love, reveals us as one body. The election of that fate, in love, reveals us as one body. —Sebastian Moore.
A version of this post also appeared on newharbinger.com
Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1–44.