If you were raised in the modern US school system, odds are that you were bombarded with messaging to boost that notorious-yet-intangible quality called self-esteem.
You were told that you were worthy. You were told that you were great. You were given some sort of trophy that said that you were the best at something.
There is a dark side to all this hoopla about self-esteem, however. In my experience, it actually seems to set people up for crises later in life. Here is why.
The common definition of self-esteem is something like “confidence in one's own worth or abilities.” A fundamental belief behind the self-esteem movement is that we all have qualities and talents that make us special and great.
In order to have self-esteem, we must evaluate ourselves and figure out the ways in which we are “a winner.” Celebrating those qualities builds self-esteem.
My client Tiffany has built her self-esteem around her intelligence.
My client Tim has built his self-esteem around his ability to lead people.
My client Heather has built her self-esteem around her creativity.
What have you built your self-esteem around? What is the one thing about yourself that, when times are rough, you say to yourself “well, at least I have X!"
This all sounds great, right? But what happens when, one day, you don’t deliver on this amazingly estimable quality of yours? What happens to Tiffany when she asks a stupid question? What happens to Tim when his team falters? What happens to Heather when she has writer’s block?
These situations lead to despair, because the one thing that you have pinned all of your self-worth upon is suddenly no longer there. And without it, you feel disoriented and unsure of yourself.
I see this all the time. Entrepreneurs move to the Bay Area thinking that they are successful and wealthy, only to find that there are many others here who are more successful, wealthier, and even younger than they are! Graduate students enter MIT thinking that they are smart and motivated, only to find that there are many others smarter and more motivated than they are. They begin to doubt that they are "a winner," and fall into depression and crisis.
Can you relate? When in your life did you have a crisis of identity, realizing that perhaps you weren’t as great as you thought you were?
Here is what works much better than self-esteem: self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is the idea that however you are, whatever you do, it’s enough. You don’t need to have a trophy in anything to love and celebrate yourself. You don’t need to compare, or stack up, or execute anything perfectly. However you are is fine, without exception.
When you live from a place of radical self-acceptance, your contentment with yourself is not based on any event or evaluation. Got a raise at work? That is nice. Got laid off? That stinks, because you won’t get to buy that house you wanted… but it doesn’t fundamentally change how you feel about yourself.
How skilled are you at self-acceptance? Put another way, how often do you find yourself criticizing yourself? How often do you find yourself thinking thoughts like:
I should have been more eloquent at that meeting!
I should have been more patient with my kid!
I should have gotten more done with my day!
Each time you think one of these thoughts, you are rejecting yourself. What would it feel like to accept yourself instead? To be content with any event that came your way, simply because you were a part of it?
For those of you who have kids, you probably have experienced this feeling with them. You go to your 3-year-old’s preschool dance performance. He misses most of his cues. He gets distracted by the inflatable palm tree next to him. He starts scratching himself… on stage. And yet, you are simply delighted to watch him up there. He can do no wrong in your eyes. You eagerly record every precious moment on your iPhone.
What would it feel like to feel that way about yourself?
So here is my challenge to you: practice radical self-acceptance with yourself this week. Celebrate yourself not because you are great, but because you are you. Even if you only find one way to do it this week, it will make a huge difference.