You probably heard that self-esteem is one of the most important things for leading a productive, successful, pleasurable life. But the term is a little confusing – does it mean self-worth? Self-respect? How do you know your self-esteem is too low and how much of it is too much? What is the optimal level of self-esteem?
Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-esteem as “belief and confidence in your own ability and value”. Self-esteem is also often defined as “One’s own sense of self-worth or personal value”. What is problematic in this concept is that it refers to “worthiness” and “value” of the human being.
The Illusion of Self-Esteem
Let’s stop for a second and see what value means: “The regard that something is held to deserve”. Indirectly, the term “self-esteem”, therefore, suggests that holding ourselves in high regard is something to be deserved. It suggests that we need to have certain traits or do certain things to earn to be “worth” of respect and love. It inevitably includes self-evaluation. But here is the thing…
You are “worthy”, “valuable” and “deserving”, if you want to use these poor terms, simply because you exist, because you are alive. There is no such thing as “more valuable” or “less valuable” person. Achievements, skills, talents, or some qualities or lack of those can’t determine our human value, because our worthiness is already set simply by our existence.
It is important to note that self-esteem is a concept different from self-efficacy, which refers to how well you believe you’ll handle future actions, it represents your belief in your own abilities. Someone can be appreciated by many people, accomplish great things, be successful in several areas, and those are all amazing things that are certainly pleasant. You may achieve greater happiness or more efficiency by achieving your goals or by believing in your abilities, but that doesn’t increase your intrinsic worth, nor do your failures can lower your human value.
Chasing Self-Esteem Won’t Make You Happier – Maybe Even the Opposite
Another problem with the concept of self-esteem, other than the fact that it is based on non-existent, or at least unhealthy, premises of “worthiness” and “value”, is that it also obliquely requires comparison with other people. Evaluation can’t exist without comparison to some “standard” or some external object. Therefore, determining our own worth means we first have to compare ourselves with others. As Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) claims: “Self-esteem theoretically rests upon an often inaccurate and unstable global rating of the self in comparison to others”. This necessarily means that, to have high self-esteem, we need to feel above-average. You can easily see it in the simple fact that today, in our culture, being seen as average is considered an insult. But for every human being to be special and above average is logically impossible.
Trying to see yourself as better than others all the time is exhausting and can easily lead to self-criticism. To retain superiority, we have to meet very high standards. As soon as our feelings of superiority slip – which is inevitable because there are so many different people in this world and there is always someone better, smarter, prettier etc. – our self-esteem easily goes down.
For a long time, mental health professionals believed that high self-esteem is a predictor of greater happiness and life satisfaction. However, as much as this notion seems like common sense, research shows that there is no scientific evidence of a correlation between higher self-esteem and pleasurable living.
Another study states: “Self-esteem in the West is not based upon an unconditional appreciation of the intrinsic worth of all persons. (…) Research, in fact, demonstrates that high self-esteem displays associations with a broad range of psychosocial dysfunctions, including, for example, narcissism, poor empathy, depreciation of others, prejudice, aggression, and distorted self-knowledge”.
Okay, if not self-esteem, then what? Well, there is actually a healthier alternative to self-esteem that really predicts better mental health, greater life satisfaction, and overall happiness – self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
“Self-compassion means that the individual fully and unconditionally accepts herself whether or not she behaves intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect or love her” (Ellis 2005, p. 38).
Self-compassion is the way of treating yourself – in a supportive and non-judgmental way, with kindness, understanding, and love. Being self-compassionate mean that you recognize previously mentioned notion about all humans having value simply by the fact they exist in this world, not by the set of traits and abilities they possess. Self-compassion encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, without forcing yourself to meet some high standards to feel that you are okay as a person. It allows you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view without evaluating or comparing yourself with others.
Why Nurturing Self-Compassion Over Building Self-Esteem?
Opposite to high self-esteem, studies haven’t found any negative effects of self-compassion yet. In fact, self-compassion predicts better psychosocial adjustment and resilience while avoiding the liabilities associated with high self-esteem.
Self-compassion gives us a more stable sense of self-love because it comes from within. On the other hand, as it’s based on comparison with others, self-esteem is unstable because it depends on external circumstances. This often results in having a more negative emotional reaction or protecting behaviours when people evaluate us negatively or even neutrally because we are trying to protect our self-esteem from collapsing. With self-compassion, in contrast, we don’t need to defend or protect ourselves from negative feedback, because we know that it won’t affect how we see ourselves as a person.
Self-compassion provides emotional safety to see ourselves as we really are. Instead of labelling ourselves as good or bad, as of high-value or worthless, we should accept our flaws with an open heart, take responsibility for our behaviour and choices, and still be kind to ourselves. It’s okay that we are imperfect humans leading imperfect lives, and we don’t need to strive to be “better” than others to love ourselves or hold ourselves in high regard.
Today, it would be really difficult to find anyone who’s not using at least one form of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and many more became an inevitable part of our lives. And it can be great – isn’t the quick way to connect with your loved ones and share your experiences with each other in seconds amazing? Isn’t the opportunity to quickly consume any type of information you’re interested in, from educational to entertaining, simply awesome?
Yes, if you have a healthy relationship with social media. But, sometimes, it can be easy to forget what it really means.
Social Media and Mental Health
While some studies claim the relationship between mental health and usage of social media is still vague, others have found that higher social media use could have the negative effect on our mental health in forms of anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, more negative body image, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. Which effect social media will have on your mental health depends on numerous different factors, such as the way you use it or the amount of time spent on social media.
You already know that it’s easy to fall into a dark hole of scrolling through your social media feed for hours. You also know how awful you can feel afterward. But you don’t have to give up social media completely to avoid its negative effects. If you use it the right way and have a couple of things in mind, social media can have a positive presence in your life. Here are some tips to stay happy and healthy online.
1. It’s All a Filter – And That’s Okay
We all want to be loved. We also want to leave a good impression on people. It feels great when people see us as fun, smart, pretty, successful (be free to add your own ideal set of characteristics ?). That is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with enjoying compliments and wanting people to think good about you – it’s our natural tendency – as long as:
A) …it doesn’t become an obsession for you, where you don’t let people see anything that is, by your standard, less than perfect or socially desirable. If this sounds a little like you, THIS is the article that might be useful.
B) …you’re aware that other people have this desire too, and social media allows them to fulfill it.
When scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook, always remember that social media allows people to show you only the parts of them they want you to see. You usually won’t see the photo of your neighbor brushing their teeth or having a headache. However, you WILL see them enjoying a cocktail on a rooftop bar or receiving an award for something awesome. Your friends on social media have a bunch of amazing and also not-so-great moments in their lives, but it’s such an easy thing to forget. It’s so easy to get caught in a trap of believing that what you see on social media is the whole reality. So, what should you do?
Imagine social media as a filter between you and other people that lets through only positive snapshots of their lives. That is what you see on your feed. It doesn’t mean people are lying or they’re “fake”; it just means they’re showing you only certain, chosen parts of their lives. Always remember to approach social media with this mindset.
2. Comparison is a Strong Weapon Against Your Happiness
If you understand the previous point – how people show us only a filtered picture of their lives on social media – then you realize that comparing yourself to other people online makes no sense. You’re different people with different set of characteristics, abilities, connections, life circumstances and many more! Comparing your whole life, including all its ups and downs, with a polished picture of someone else’s is not a fair battle.
Comparison opens door to envy, loneliness, bitterness and a whole bunch of other unhealthy emotions you don’t want in your life. Why, then, you let the comparison do it when it won’t increase the quality of your life in any way? The answer: because it’s an automatic reaction.
Comparison is pointless – unless you want to destroy your happiness – then it’s a powerful tool.
There are two ways to fight comparison. One is to consciously choose to notice when you start comparing yourself to others and stop. Yes, simply put an end to it right that moment. Log out, tell yourself you’re doing the pointless thing again, unfollow the person.
The other way is to turn this automatism into your advantage by reformatting comparison into an inspiration. Remember that someone else’s happiness does not minimize your own, nor you’re doing something wrong for having a different life than that person. Instead, set your own goals, and let some of the social media posts you see serve as an inspiration and motivation to pursue them. Instead of getting jealous and falling down the rut of self-pity, you can be grateful for the inspiration that moves you towards your goal.
Your only competition is your former self.
3. No, You’re NOT Missing Out
Do you automatically reach out your phone because maybe something interesting or exciting is happening online and you might miss it? What if others are having an amazing time and you’re not there to see it? If this sounds like you, you’re maybe experiencing fear of missing out or, popularly, FOMO.
FOMO is the type of a general anxiety over the idea that others are having more exciting and fun experiences elsewhere while we’re not involved. This term is in use for more than 20 years, but more and more people are experiencing it with the rise of social media. In fact, one study showed that FOMO is the strongest contributing factor to social media addiction among youth.
What is often happening when you’re glued to your phone searching for fun online is that you’re trying to escape the reality around you.
Are you satisfied with what is going on right now in your life? Try to pinpoint the reason why getting lost in social media feed is more interesting than being involved in the present moment. Writing it on a piece of paper might be useful. Now, what can be some possible solutions? Running away from reality is not one of them.
Another thing that might help you combat this unpleasant feeling of missing out is mindfulness. When you’re fully present, when you’re consciously paying attention to every moment of your life without judgment, you are making the active decision to enjoy things and people around you.
Being on social media can create some positive experiences in your life, but it can also become an additional stressor. If you feel that social media is impacting your mood more than it should, or you feel like it’s taking significantly more time of your day than you’d want and you find it hard to control, consider reaching out and speaking with someone. There is always a solution, and you don’t have to search for it alone.