Developing self-esteem really isn't the way to go. If you want to develop more empathy and compassion in your life the first person you need to target is you.
When it comes to developing empathy and compassion the very first person you need to focus on or target is yourself. You are the ultimate perceiver of your life experience, and the whole point of living, at the risk of coming across as trite, is to experience life. You might be one of those people who are much harder on yourself than other people. You might criticize yourself harshly, ruminate constantly over your perceived mistakes and shortcomings, and end up being your own worst enemy. Being unkind to yourself, too judgmental or worse, seeking to develop better self-esteem, is a self-defeating exercise and can lead to various issues which can impact on your social relationships with others and undermine your mental health and emotional well being.
Self esteem is a global or overall evaluation of self worth. It's a judgment. This is where you ask yourself whether you are a good person or a bad person. Many psychologists, and indeed many people see self-esteem as the ultimate marker of psychological health. There are reasons for this. There's plenty of research which shows that if you have low self-esteem, if you don't like yourself, then you're going to end up depressed, or end up with an anxiety disorder, you're going to start holding yourself up to all sorts of standards and experience all kinds of psychological problems. This may lead to you avoiding social contact with others, maybe an eating disorder, or at the more extreme end of things you will end up contemplating or even committing suicide.
However having self-esteem also comes with lots of different issues. The problems stem not so much from whether you have it or not, but in how you achieve it. You see in our culture, in order to have self-esteem you have to feel special and above average. Nobody sees being told that they're average or that what they do as being average as a compliment. If you get told that something you do is average or just 'okay' you might end up feeling crushed or wondering what was wrong. Being regarded as average is hardly ever seen as a compliment, but is far more seen as a criticism or even an insult.
This is where we have the problem with self-esteem - everybody needs to feel that they're above average, that they're special, exceptional, or excellent. This is what leads to a logical impossibility, because if everyone is striving to be above average and special, then what happens to the average? You see if you create this need to constantly feel above average all the time you can easily get caught up in playing all kinds of psychological games both with yourself and other people. This is where we start looking for ways to puff ourselves up and inflate our self-importance while negating the value of others and sometimes even putting other people down. This is so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison.
Some people can take this to extremes. This can lead to people being competitive, and this is probably what is fuelling an epidemic of narcissism and self-worship in our culture. This is what leads to a growing culture of narcissism and egotism or selfishness in society, or the transparent pursuit of naked self-interest. It can also be linked to more widespread bigotry, different forms of discrimination and social divisionism and all this is coming out of the movement and cultural attachment to self-esteem and its development.
There's a lot of nasty social dynamics and issues in relationships which can come from needing to feel that you are somehow more worthy or better than others just so that you can feel good about yourself. There's also an epidemic of bullying in our culture, not just in schools but also quite often in the workplace and even - if you're not fortunate to have a job right now - you can be bullied and intimidated by government officials. This culture starts in the education system and it starts with the emphasis on marks, grades, tests, and examination results. This is where children who are trying to develop a sense of self are taught that they only have value if they are doing 'better' than the other kids in their class. This is what teaches competition over cooperation and the importance of self-esteem over compassion and empathy for others who maybe don't do as well or are failing. This is rarely if ever questioned and so children grow up into adults believing that self-esteem is all important and that it's somehow okay to put others down to make yourself look good or better.
This carries right through into adulthood and is what fuels a lot of bigotry, discrimination and hatred towards others. This is why some people feel that their religious group, or ethnic group or political party is better than the other groups. This is all done to enhance our self-esteem. Most political parties have people in positions to promote equality and diversity but often what they don't realize is that many people are motivated to join a political party for reasons which are closely connected with their self-esteem. People are seeking validation for their personal beliefs and ideology, and they do this to feel better about themselves and this is generally what defeats the whole point of promoting equality and diversity, because generally there is competition over ideas and proposals and so as people are competing over who has the best ideas and proposals all kind of social and ideological divisions develop between different people within the party. Overcoming these conflicts and divisions is virtually impossible. When someone wins others have to lose and it is this culture of competitiveness which makes any pursuit of equality and diversity virtually meaningless.
Another problem with self-esteem is that it is very much dependent on personal success. We only feel good about ourselves when we are successful in various areas of our life, work, money, relationships, friendships, health, and other areas of life that are important to us. But what happens when we fail? What happens when we don't meet our ideal standards? We feel bad, we feel terrible about ourselves. This is especially hard for women. This is because research shows that the number one domain in which many women invest their self-esteem is in how attractive they are. The standards for women are set so high. How can you feel so good about how you look and what you wear when you are looking at all these carefully Photoshopped images of feminine perfection with the designer clothes, shoes and accessories? But then even supermodels feel insecure when compared to other supermodels? It's different for both men and women particularly when you look at this developmentally from childhood. Boys and girls grow up feeling good about themselves with good self-esteem until the teenage years and then quite often once they are societally expected to be attractive the self-esteem for many girls and women can take a nosedive. With men that nosedive can come much later if they reach a certain age and they still haven't got it together in life, particularly when it comes to work and money.
You get off the treadmill of constantly chasing self-esteem by including yourself as a target for empathy and compassion. You are not perfect, because nobody is perfect, which is why we have this thing called human evolution. Practising empathy and compassion towards yourself is not a way of judging yourself positively but is really all about treating yourself with kindness, compassion and empathy. You're the only person who you spend your whole life with. You have no choice in the matter. So it stands to reason that if there's anyone who you need to be relating to with kindness and compassion, then it's got to be you. This means accepting yourself as you are, together with all your flaws, your failings and your mistakes.
This involves three core components.
The first component is to develop the habit of treating yourself with kindness as opposed to judging yourself harshly. You can treat yourself no differently from the way you treat a good friend, with encouragement, patience, empathy, understanding, gentleness. You see when you check to see how you treat yourself on a bad day or maybe when things aren't going so well, you might find that you're harsher and more cruel to yourself and in the language you use towards yourself. You might find that you say things to yourself, or about yourself, that you would never dream of saying to someone you cared about. You might even say things to yourself that you probably wouldn't even say to someone you didn't like very much. This is often how you can end up being your own worst enemy.
Practising kindness towards yourself reverses the pattern of being hard on yourself and treating yourself harshly. Often when we are hard on ourselves and treat ourselves harshly it is a habit we may have developed from our past, such as our childhood and something we learned from the way a parent or a teacher treated us in childhood. This is one of the side effects from having such powerful powers of memory. Through our minds we can make ourselves suffer in the present moment in ways which relate directly back to something which happened 5, 10, 20 or even 40 years ago. There is no reason for you not to treat yourself any differently from the way you treat a good friend. Besides often the way you treat yourself is often projected out to others and can reflect in how you treat other people. It becomes part of the vibe you give off to others. Therefore it's really in your own best interests to be kind to yourself wherever possible.
The second component is common humanity. You see where self-esteem causes you to ask "How am I different from others?" when you practice empathy and compassion towards yourself, you ask yourself "How am I the same as others? What have we got in common?" There are many things we have in common with each other? What does it mean to be human? Being human of course means having a mind, brain, senses and a body, but also very much what being human means is to be imperfect. This applies to every single human being on the planet. We are all imperfect, our lives are imperfect, we fail, we make mistakes, we get things wrong, we misunderstand, and every so often we screw things up completely. This is the shared human experience.
Often what happens, irrationally, when we notice something about ourselves such as when we fail to achieve an objective or we are struggling in life we feel as if something has gone wrong. This isn't normal. Things shouldn't be this way. You may be telling yourself that you shouldn't be failing to do what you set out to do. This is where you end up experiencing that feeling of abnormality and sense of separation from others and this is what is so psychologically damaging. Then we compound this and end up feeling so much worse because we believe that we are isolated in our suffering and imperfection. But this is exactly what connects us to other people.
The third and final component of practising empathy and compassion towards yourself is mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being with what is in the present moment. It means disassociating yourself from both the past and the future, the two states of possibility, and focussing only on the present reality. We need to focus on, recognize, acknowledge and validate the fact that we are failing and suffering. This is necessary so that we can give ourselves compassion and develop empathy.
Often we aren't aware of the fact that we are suffering, and this is especially true when our suffering is coming from our own harsh self-criticism. We can get so lost in the role of self-critic so identified with that part of ourselves that puts the back up straight saying "You are wrong. You should have done better." We often don't even notice the incredible pain we are causing ourselves. If we're not aware of what we are doing to ourselves with our harsh self-criticism, then we're not putting ourselves into a situation or mindset where we can practise empathy and compassion towards ourself or find the compassion that we need within ourselves.
We know that self-criticism is painful, so why do we do it? The main reason comes from our belief that we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves. Many people believe that if we are too kind to ourselves we will become self-indulgent and lazy. But is this really true? No it's not. If anything self-criticism undermines our motivation.
You see when we criticize ourselves we are tapping into our bodies' threat defence system or the reptilian brain. This system evolved so that if there was a threat to our physical person we would release adrenaline and cortisol and prepare for the flight or fight response. The system evolved for threats to our actual bodily self but in modern times the threat is not to our actual physical selves, but to our self-image. So we think a thought about ourselves that we don't like, that's some perceived flaw or imperfection, we feel threatened. So we attack the problem and as we attack the problem, we attack ourselves. With self-criticism there is the double whammy because we are both the attacker and the attacked.
So self-criticism releases a lot of cortisol. If you are constantly criticizing yourself, you have constantly high levels of stress. Eventually the body to protect itself will shut down and become "I'm depressed" in order to deal with all the stress and negativity. As you are probably aware depression is not an ideal motivational mindset.
But we're not just reptiles, we are also mammals. There's another way we can feel safe and that is through tapping into the mammalian caregiving system. Mammals are different from other animals in that they are born very immature and this means that a system had to be evolved in which the infant would want to stay close to the mother and stay safe. This means that our bodies or organisms are programmed to respond to warmth. to gentleness, gentle touch, soft vocalizations, So when we practise empathy and compassion towards ourselves we actually reduce our cortisol levels and release oxytocin and opiates. These are the feel good hormones. When we feel safe, and comforted and nurtured, we are in the optimal mindset to do our best.
Practising empathy and compassion towards yourself is an excellent way of improving and developing mental health and emotional wellbeing. It helps to reduce depression, anxiety, less stress, less perfectionism. It's also strongly associated with positive states, such as happiness, like satisfaction with life, and is also related to greater self-motivation and taking greater responsibility. It's also strongly associated with being better connected to others and having a stronger sense of connectedness to other people and this can also lead to making it easier to create interpersonal relationships and developing more positive, beneficial relationships with others.
Furthermore developing empathy and compassion towards yourself offers the exact same benefits as self-esteem, but without any of the pitfalls. This means that it is associated with stronger and more resilient mental health but it's not associated with the narcissism, constant competitiveness, constant social comparison and the ego-defensive aggression and melodrama. It also provides a much more stable sense of self-worth and self-value than self-esteem does because it doesn't collapse or fall apart when you fail or make mistakes. Just when self-esteem fails and fades empathy and compassion towards yourself steps in and reminds you that even if things are bad or you have failed, you still have value, and you are also not different to anyone else who is failing and struggling out there. This is not because you've achieved something or judge yourself positively, but you have value simply because you are an imperfect human being and worthy of kindness and compassion.
If you are interested in developing empathy and compassion towards yourself in an environment and community of like-minded, supportive people with similar interests you might want to consider joining our community and perhaps helping out with development of our community, which is focussed on the development of empathy and compassion towards ourselves and others. Participation is completely free of charge. You'd be very welcome to join our network, participate in discussions on our message board and even get involved in helping to develop community projects which bring people together in the community to develop empathy and compassion.
Qultura is a system for figuring out your Principle and Process - the existential core of your life - through the development of empathy and community. The core principle and philosophy is simple and easy to learn.Learn more
The development of empathy is fundamental to human evolution. But to be capable of developing empathy you need to take off your societal mask and be real and prepared to live your truth.Learn more