Self-esteem or self-acceptance?
I apologise for the long delay since the last letter, I found it hard to write for much of last year. I felt like I needed some distance from the events to make sense and gain perspective. As we head back into lockdown, I realise I do feel different this time. With the vaccine we have entered a tunnel rather than a cave like the previous lockdowns. I am back on track now for a regular monthly musing. I am really trying to build a small and engaged group in the run up to publishing more this year so please send this to others and encourage them to sign up. I am also open to suggestions of topics or questions you would like addressed – just hit reply. Stay strong, keep breathing and watch for the snowdrops.
Many of us have experienced periods, long or short, of low self-esteem. Defined as holding a psychological mirror up, self-esteem is literally our judgement of ourselves. Almost purely based on our perception of how the world sees us, low self-esteem can be a major impediment to change, and a cause of ongoing anxiety or sadness. It can interfere with loving relationships and, in extreme cases, it can lead to arrogance or self-obsession, as we try to protect ourselves by projecting a sense of superiority or false confidence. In short, it underpins many psychological problems and is no fun to live with. There are however some practical ways of working with this.
Self-esteem really speaks to the stories we tell ourselves, our core beliefs about who we are. These tend to be formed early in life – at home, at school. Beliefs like, I am a failure, or I am worthless, are our interpretation of the comments and behaviour of a small number of people – family, teachers, peers – at key development points in our early lives. No one is born with low self-esteem.
We might tell ourselves that we are not good enough, that we are boring or stupid or ugly. Repeated over and over again, grooved like a record, this can make us feel sad, hopeless, anxious, tired and un-confident. This is what is happening when we are described as ‘getting in our own way’. In short, we stop trying due to the fear that we will fail, or we overcompensate by trying too hard. We tend to dwell on failings, and start to avoid people, places or situations creating a downward loop. We are constantly misinterpreting information negatively to confirm our low view of ourselves.
The psychologist Melanie Fennell likened self-esteem to a row of coat pegs Each peg being something that we hang our self-esteem on. Examples could be your job, your partner, money, looks, achievements, respect of colleagues, likes on social media, etc. These form a cushion between external events and your negative beliefs. Over reliance on one peg (e.g., work) means that when this peg breaks or is taken away, we face the full force of these negative beliefs. Even with a well-balanced and large set of pegs, we risk being destabilised by external events and again rocked by these negative beliefs. When people hang off our coat pegs and call them into doubt again, this triggers our critical self-talk. Even with a good set of pegs, our self-esteem is liable to go up and down, often without us realising or being able to control this.
So then is the solution just to boost self-esteem? This is definitely part of the solution but not the whole, and here there is a wrinkle. Research shows that high self-esteem is the result of working hard to get good grades in school, not the cause of the good grades (Baumeister and Tierney 2012). So here we have a classic chicken and egg conundrum; low self-esteem makes us less likely to try which makes results worse and reinforces the low self-esteem.
The key to unlocking this is moving from conditional self-esteem to unconditional self-acceptance. Unlike self-esteem, self-acceptance is around not judging yourself. Instead self-acceptance is looking at your actions and figuring out how to change those actions for a better result. Recognising that we are all fragile and fallible. Self-acceptance knows that we will make mistakes. In fact, failures and upsets are the only way to evolve. This also means focusing on accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment rather than as a way to boost your ego. Playing piano alone for the sake of it rather than needing an audience to validate your performance.
Instead of putting ourselves down constantly, we shift focus to curiously looking at actions, traits and experiences. When we meet someone who behaves in a way we think is offensive, change the question from ,“What is wrong with you?” to ,“What happened to you?”. Then try turning that question on ourselves. “What is wrong with me?”, becomes, “What happened to me and how can I start to understand and accept that?”.
Instead of seeing failing an exam as something that is making you a total failure, self-acceptance would look at the actions leading up to the failure, ( i.e., I didn’t prepare enough, I misread some of the questions, I rushed my answers) and look to improve on those next time. Or you may recognise that exam conditions are not where you are at your best, perhaps due to too much pressure being applied as a child.
As the psychologist Young pointed out, if you have a flat tyre you change the tyre, you do not write off the car and send it for scrap. You may hit a useless shot in tennis, but it does not make you useless, just as a wonderful shot does not make you Roger Federer. Cut yourself some slack!
Warmest wishes. Ed
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