Self-Esteem is Overrated. Here's Why Self-Compassion is Better

Self-Esteem is Overrated. Here's Why Self-Compassion is Better

by Robert N. Johansen
Ditch the binary metrics of good and bad self-esteem. When you and your clients focus on self-compassion instead, you’ll build better outcomes, nurture empathy and develop a more authentic therapeutic presence.
Filed Under: Relationships, Trauma/PTSD


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For decades, hordes of psychologists and those of similar ilk and inclination, have preached the gospel of self-esteem
For decades, hordes of psychologists and those of similar ilk and inclination, have preached the gospel of self-esteem as the agreed upon hallmark of sound good mental health. Admittedly, haven’t most of us been persuaded by the cogency and utility of this lionized concept? Its strongest advocates boast that it is the lone-star indicator of psychological and emotional health. Can you think of any other sole criterion of mental health that has the same gutsy, enveloping reach? But what exactly is self-esteem and how is it best achieved? In short, most would likely agree that’s a global assessment that yields a zero-one type metric — an either-or proposition. Simply, the esteem I have for myself is either “good” or “bad.” 

Those of our clients who are fortunate enough to have “good self-esteem" are to be admired and emulated while those who don’t have it are in need of psychological repair. Not surprisingly, low self-esteem is “transdiagnostic,” meaning its threads run throughout the fabric of many mental disorders. Still, how do we help our clients achieve it? Are there evidence-based methods for acquiring it? To me, and other critics, there is one big, seemingly obvious question ominously hovering over the traditional concept of self-esteem — shouldn’t one’s self-appraisal reflect the reality of one’s uneven and multifaceted development, which is rarely if ever, binary, and vastly more complicated and nuanced? Of equal concern; if one’s self-evaluations are too dichotomous, too rigidly black or white, cognitive inflexibility could easily upset the proverbial emotional applecart. 

One in 76 Trillion

Besides being problematically binary in concept and application, the conventional notion of self-esteem faces another problem in that it subsists upon a steady diet of interpersonal comparisons; in short, it “makes its living” on “I’m better (or less) than you — I’m special (or not).” One must see themself as set apart in some way, above average — where mediocrity is decried and even anathema. Imagine complimenting a friend by saying, “Good job! That was so average!” Further, all our clients can’t be above average; this is statistically illogical. However, whether they like it or not, their judgements of “better” or “worse” are entwined in the minefield of interpersonal politics and deeply embedded in everyday social commerce. Moreover, this “who is better, me or you,” juggernaut can be so thoroughly baked into their thinking that it steamrolls everything in its path. And clients are not always fully aware they’re doing it. Commonly, without a speck of thought, their esteem for themselves instinctively balloons when others praise them, and conversely, their egos deflate with the explosive speed of a pricked balloon the instant they are targeted with criticism or perceive any one to be more attractive socially, physically, professionally, financially, or otherwise.  

the conventional notion of self-esteem faces another problem in that it subsists upon a steady diet of interpersonal comparisons
Further, self-esteem can have an insatiable appetite that feeds upon an unending influx of accolades, the conspicuous trappings of social success — e.g., prestigious professions, high-paying jobs, big homes, luxury cars, and the like. Measured in these terms, the warm glow of success is rarely permanent and must be continuously re-lit, just as a healthy economy thrives upon never-ending consumerism.  

Of course, this familiar business of making comparisons flourishes across an expanse of social functions and activities of every kind both formal and informal. Classic example: On the sports field, scorekeeping is a precise and indispensable numerical gauge of the competition among individuals or teams — a comparison of athleticism. Imagine gauging the degree of sportsmanship or fun with the same precision. However, consider the plausible illegitimacy of making person-to-person comparisons from another perspective, one conducted on the larger “playing field” of our everyday lives. To explain, statisticians have calculated the probability of genetically duplicating any one of us is one in 76 trillion (the exception is homozygous or identical twins). Nature has gone to great lengths to ensure each of us is genomically unique. Given our uniqueness, should person-to-person comparisons be regarded as a valid metric?  

none of us occupies the same exact playing field
Granted, many of our clients make comparisons and for a variety of reasons, but isn’t it arguably more legitimate to make a “me-to-me” rather than a “me-to-you” comparison given that each of us has a unique set of genes — not to mention, a unique history of experience and learning which are even more individualizing? By this logic, none of us occupies the same exact “playing field.” For instance, compare two distinct types of self-dialogue: “I did better this time than I did the last time — maybe I’m improving” (a me-to-me” comparison more akin to the reasoning of self-compassion). As opposed to this, “I did better than John…but will I do better next time” (a me-to-you comparison more akin to the reasoning of self-esteem). 

The Ideal Self vs. The Real Self

Carl Rogers dubbed the terms “ideal self” and “real self” to mean the person we would like to be, in contrast to the de facto person we are, respectively. In sync with Roger’s reasoning, self-esteem is tightly bridled to our aspirations. Our clients (and we, their therapists) are indeed aspiring creatures who set goals which, by contrast, differ from who they are, or what their abilities are, or what they currently possess. However, this chasm between what they would like to become or attain verses what they have attained, generates tension, and often desensitizes them to any fulfillment stemming from our past accomplishments. Or worse, it can discourage or even disable them by fomenting a crippling, demotivating discontent with themselves. And we often see the fruits of this painful labor in our clinical sessions, particularly with depressed and anxious clients. 

Despite all the homage we pay it, self-self-esteem has a discernable dark side
Maybe at their best, these same tensions create a “deficit motivation” that can energize goal-directed action. Certainly, many assume this deficit motivation or tension-filled chasm is necessary to mobilize our clients to take actions in pursuit of their goals. Again, however, the opposite often occurs, and they can become discouraged as their esteem is hinged to the achievement of the next success or accolade. But at their worst, unrealized goals, especially chronic ones, can breed a sense of failure leading to despair and self-contemptuousness. Despite all the homage we pay it, self-self-esteem has a discernable dark side: It promotes all or nothing, either or, forced choice self-evaluations, coupled with its “who’s better than who,” social comparisons and its insatiable appetite for unending social success, all of which may be self-esteem’s kryptonite. Fortunately, research on self-compassion, even amid personal failings, can spawn strong motivation that can be used in the pursuit of our goals without self-esteem’s clear pitfalls.  

Conspicuous vs. Inconspicuous Outcomes

Self-compassion, on the other hand, delivers all the benefits of self-esteem without its cognitive rigidity, its “either or’s” and “better than’s.” For example, self-compassion is not an either you have it, or you don’t proposition. In fact, it’s not an evaluation, or a comparison, nor is it contingent on fleeting social success. Instead, it is a deeply non-judgmental love relationship with the self for who and how I am. Further, this affirming self-approbation promotes how I am like others, not set apart from them. This sense of similarity and belonging is strongly correlated with feelings of well-being and is served with a healthy topping of deepening self and other understanding and forgiveness. Thus, self-compassion’s enrichments are not characterized by the usual metrics of success, the conspicuous outcomes we expect or hope for, but the inconspicuous ones as measured by a stable, enduring, and positive relationship with oneself.  

I hope I’ve planted a seed of self-compassion in my son’s fourteen-year-old brain that will germinate, even flourish into his adulthood
For example, consider this episode of “personal failing” couched within several subtle but far-reaching successes: As an adolescent, my son loved to play baseball. Once during a championship playoff, he struck out in the bottom of the ninth with two men on base with his team behind two to four. Had he hit a homerun or even a base hit, his team might have won a critical game with a dramatic comeback — a conspicuous outcome of success. But as is often the case, it didn’t happen, and my son was devastated. Days after the game, once his acute frustration and self-disappointment had softened, I surprised him by telling him I was proud of his unflinching determination and courage at home plate where he had made his best effort to hit the ball, despite the enormous personal and team pressures on him and that he had done this in the face of an uncertain outcome. I told him these were the inconspicuous outcomes or successes that had escaped his recognition and that of the crowd of spectators (mostly other moms and dads). I tried to explain that these qualities defined success in broader terms and were the very ones that would serve him best over time, even more than a self-exalting memory of a heroic hit. I remember thinking at the time, I hope I’ve planted a seed of self-compassion in my son’s fourteen-year-old brain that will germinate, even flourish into his adulthood 

A Quick Recipe for Self-Compassion

When genuinely “friending” others, aren’t we, and our clients in particular, unconditionally accepting, warm, supportive, respectful, and generous with praise, understanding and encouragement? The answer is unequivocally yes. Now, simply by reversing the flow of this patently compassionate prescription and dosing themselves with it, our clients have an excellent recipe for self-compassion. So, quiz them by asking these pertinent questions: Are you as compassionate to yourself as you are to your friends? Specifically, can you turn inward to your own internally siloed resources for self-compassion and reliably draw upon them to nurture and uplift yourself, especially during times of personal stress? Further, are you more likely to criticize than to praise and accept yourself? Similarly, are you as quick to exonerate yourself for your inevitable missteps and shortcomings as you are ready to forgive your friends? 

I am a true believer, a devout but amateurish practitioner/proselytizer of self-compassion in both my professional and personal life. I’ve found self-compassion to be a challenging but worthy lodestar that very gently nudges me and my clients upward to the highest quality of self-care and love. When self-compassion is most needed, it can be elusive, difficult to access or apply. Here is another personal example to further explain what I mean: I treated a severely abused adult survivor of intense and chronic early childhood trauma. Sadly, her symptoms would peak and trough unpredictably and, all too often, would overwhelm her diminished abilities to regulate her emotions. During one never-to-forget session, after making what I thought was a kind, empathic comment, the patient suddenly erupted in a firestorm of crude expletives, dropping the “F-bomb” repeatedly throughout her intense diatribe. All this full-throated venom was launched at me because I had inadvertently jabbed at a raw, and extremely sensitive psychological nerve.  

For a painfully embarrassing moment, I convinced myself that other clinicians never find themselves in these same indignant circumstances
While under attack, the sheer volume and malicious content of her verbal salvos made them especially transmissible, and I was instantly infected with deep self-doubt about my professional abilities. For what felt like a brief eternity I agonized in recriminating self-interrogation: “Had I committed a ‘clinical crime’ of some type. Had my clinical clumsiness harmed my patient?” For a painfully embarrassing moment, I convinced myself that other clinicians never find themselves in these same indignant circumstances; they don’t make the same mistakes.  

Almost as quickly as it had started, my patient's fury ended with a remorseful, “I'm really sorry, I just go crazy sometimes.” With her contrite admission, my abrupt and steep dive into self-reproach was replaced with a moment of mutually felt awkwardness while we stared at each other as if to say, “So, what do we do now?” Mercifully, her sincere apology, combined with my prior efforts to learn self-compassion, sped the retrieval of my professional composure, despite the maelstrom of emotion we'd both just endured. Before the session was over, I was fully recovered and back to the business of trying to accurately empathize. Most importantly, I awoke to the fact that my first negative reactions were self-esteem based they were the regrettable by-products of comparing myself to a nonexistent, illusory ideal clinician. You know, the one who is always unerring, competent, confident, and who never reacts, or in this case, overreacts to their emotionally dysregulated patient. 


It's cliche but still valid to say, relationships require work
A much-welcomed calm began to settle back over me. Practicing self-compassion had worked (I acknowledge that it came easier following her apology). I pictured myself digging out from under a needless and self-imposed misadventure of being buried alive in the debris of self-condemnation. Further, I focused on my therapeutic intentions and how they had been benevolent and forced myself to remember that all therapists make mistakes. With these efforts, empathy for myself rose, like Lazarus from the dead. But self-empathy came first, a necessary precursor followed by a revival of my empathy for my patient in that order. It's cliche but still valid to say, relationships require work, but the relationship with our self-compassion is the one needing the greatest amount of never-ending work. And when done well, it can change how we view others, even “difficult others.” In fact, we may be no more compassionate to others than we are compassionate towards ourselves. I highly recommend it. 


Final Questions for Thought 

How important is the concept of self-esteem in your own clinical work? 

How did the author’s argument “sit with you” regarding the concept of self-esteem? 

In what ways does the concept of self-compassion resonate with you personally? Professionally? 

Robert N. Johansen Robert N. Johansen, PhD., is a member of the American Psychological Association and the co-director of the Cerritos Psychological Center, where he has been in practice for over forty years, specializing in couple’s therapy and supervising interns. Robert has coauthored two books on the new couple’s treatment model, Need Management Therapy and coauthored a professional journal article on the same model. He has taught at several universities and colleges including UCLA, and lectured at the Milton Erickson International Foundation, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, NPR, ABC radio, University of California Educational TV, and continuing education at Alliant International University. He has been married for forty-one years and has two adult children and three grandchildren. He enjoys traveling with his wife, tennis, restauranting, and going to the theater. This essay is based on the book Need Management Therapy (NMT): A New Science of Love, Intimacy, and Relationships by the author, Robert N. Johansen and Todd W. Gaffney (2021, Archway Publishing).