A few months old, but nonetheless a remarkable article from Psychology Today, “The Boom and Bust Ego” which details some recent reversals in self-esteem research, some of which bears a resemblance to certain dynamics we trumpet on this site. In particular, it seems that “contingent self-esteem” functions as a pretty terrific euphemism for “works righteousness.” And the various descriptions of how low self-esteem feeds on itself sounds quite a bit like living under a curse. That is, the scheme itself is pretty futile, with the attempt to establish esteem leading to either despair or (short-lived periods of) self-righteousness. The ego in this sense might as well be called the inner lawyer, constantly scrounging for evidence to prove or disprove a specific verdict.
While at face value ‘self-compassion’ sounds uncomfortably flaky, the semantics are probably important. Namely, unlike “self-affirmation” which calls a bad thing good (or denies its existence altogether — which, as the studies show, makes a person feel even worse), self-compassion — at least in the sense it’s being used here — acknowledges the bad as such and moves toward it anyway. I’m being generous, I know, but the notion doesn’t seem too far removed from what it might look like to internalize (the reality of external) grace, i.e. the boldness to claim that, on account of Christ, the compassion of God applies even to sinners like me, i.e. the self. This kind of non-contingency actually points people beyond the vicissitudes of their emotions rather than despairingly toward them, the only thing lacking being some basis for doing so–which is of course where we might chime in.
Regardless, it’s always amusing to see psychologists and/or scientists stumble upon dynamics that theologians have been talking about for hundreds of years. Reality being reality, after all… ht JD:
Direct attempts to build self-esteem generally do not work. A few years ago, Joanne Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, set out to test the notion that affirmations and other such self-talk make people feel better about themselves. The subjects in her study who started out with high self-esteem did report feeling a little better after engaging in positive self-talk. But those with low self-esteem—the very people you’d expect to use such techniques—felt worse. “The blithe recommendations to engage in positive self-statements are based on an intuition that they’ll work,” Wood says. “And they don’t, often.” Because these positive statements are so starkly different from the negative thoughts of the person with low self-esteem, they likely underscore the discouragingly long distance between where the person is and where she would like to be. The low-self-esteem sufferer is left feeling like a double failure.
Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, studies “contingent self-esteem,” or feelings of self-worth that depend on outside validation or praise in a particular realm that matters to a person. Scoring a victory in that particular area does raise self-esteem, but the boost doesn’t last. “How does it feel after you pass your dissertation orals?” asks Crocker. “You feel good for a day, but then your worries come back.”
The more a person’s self-esteem is contingent on particular outcomes, the harder she will crash if she fails. Success is not extra sweet for these people—but failure is extra bitter.
Contingent self-esteem is by definition a chimera. Even the most accomplished, beautiful, and celebrated human beings don’t get a steady stream of compliments and positive feedback. And chasing the chimera can, paradoxically, lead to self-sabotage. “When people want to boost self-esteem or avoid a drop, they may do things that undermine them as a whole,” says Crocker. Her research shows that those with contingent self-esteem often shy away from situations that might produce even a temporary dip in how they view themselves—which can make them more prone to failure: Imagine a surgeon reluctant to practice new techniques in the operating room because he might not do them perfectly at first—hardly an attitude that would help his career over time.
Now that the evidence is clear that chasing self-esteem either doesn’t work or leads people to self-defeating behaviors, it’s particularly tragic to acknowledge that we, as a culture, are more driven to chase ego-affirming highs than ever. Crocker and colleagues found that college students value boosts to their self-esteem (such as receiving a good grade or a compliment) more than any other pleasant activity they were asked about—including sex, favorite foods, drinking alcohol, seeing a best friend, or receiving a paycheck! The researchers interpret the findings as showing that students want boosts to their self-esteem even more than they actually “like” those things that inflate their egos. So much for young hedonism; they’d rather (joylessly) make the honor roll.
Perhaps the collective failure to raise low self-esteem, whether from racking up achievements in one’s field or howling out one’s own name, was a blessing in disguise. A few years ago, researchers like Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, started sounding the alarm on the dangers of too much self-esteem. Twenge and others believe that today’s twentysomethings—raised by parents who rewarded every burp and blink with “Good job!”—may in fact be a generation of entitled narcissists. There is such a thing as feeling too good about yourself, and it may be just as unhealthy as feeling inferior. It can lead to attention-seeking, a focus on appearance and status, and an inability to form real relationships.
As Joanne Wood has found, people with high self-esteem are automatically more likely than those with less to relish happy moments and force themselves out of funks. Those with low self-esteem confirm their negative beliefs about themselves, downplay their own moments of joy, and wallow in their low periods.
“When I don’t get a return call or email, I automatically assume the person is mad at me,” Rufus says. “And then there are my conversation hangovers. When I meet with someone, especially when it’s important or when it’s the first time, I go over it afterward, thinking ‘You idiot! Why didn’t you act more interested in them, why didn’t you say this, why did you forget that?’ I can’t just let the conversation be in the past and trust that I did the best I could.” In short, those with low self-esteem might be subtly choosing to gather proof of their unworthiness rather than enjoying their bright moments.
The pain of low self-esteem comes from being preoccupied with the idea that you don’t measure up. When you shift attention to something outside yourself, you might find relief. …the key to self-esteem issues was not to focus more energy and attention on them but less.
Neff sees self-compassion as being different from those old “affirmations” in that rather than glossing over one’s mistakes or imperfections as affirmations do, self-compassion acknowledges them—but also acknowledges that flaws are part of being human and that failure therefore connects us to others. Rather than comparing ourselves to other people and watching our self-esteem bounce around as a result, we can remind ourselves that everyone suffers and feels painful emotions. Studies have shown that those who are self-compassionate are less depressed and have stabler feelings of self-worth than others. They are less likely to ride the roller coaster of contingent self-esteem.
Or get in touch.