“Self esteem”. It’s supposed to be a good thing to have, but what exactly is it? And if it’s a good thing to have, how do we get more of it?
Let’s look at these questions.
Self Esteem is Inherently Shaky
The term “Self esteem” refers to a positive judgment we give ourselves about certain qualities we have, or things that we do. So in IFS terms, it’s something that’s created by a critic part of us. This critic has the job of evaluating various aspects of who we are or what we do, and then coming up with a good approval rating.
Unfortunately, this process makes our self esteem pretty shaky for several reasons.
First of all, a positive judgment is always in danger of being reversed. This may occur simply because critics are much more likely to give negative than positive judgments. They also tend to use comparison with others, or with some ideal self image, to help them decide whether to give a positive or negative judgment. If those around us start to do better than us, or we raise our expectations of ourselves, then the positive judgment can easily become negative, and it’s bye-bye self esteem.
Second, we tend to value in ourselves whatever the larger culture tells us is worthwhile. Currently, what our culture most values are looks, success and money. The problem with all of these things is that we can lose them – we get older, we get fired, we get ill and run through all our savings. And then we automatically lose our self esteem too.
Third, IFS tells us that our self esteem critic, just like other critics, is in fact a protector for an inner child, or exile. This exile fears that it’s bad and worthless. The critic tries to protect us from these painful feelings of worthlessness by telling us that we are in fact worthy. But despite its best intentions, no protector is 100% effective, and the fears of the exile leak through anyway. This leaves us with a nagging feeling that even though we are judging ourselves positively, the truth is that we are actually bad and worthless.
A Better Way With Self Compassion
So there has to be a better way, right?
And luckily there is. Rather than relying on the shaky approval of a critic, it’s based on the much deeper and truer quality of self compassion. So what is self compassion?
Self compassion is the quality within us that approaches all our parts and everything we are with loving kindness. It is never ever judgmental, but is deeply interested in understanding how our parts came to be the way they are. It inherently sees all parts of us as valuable, as deserving to be treated with respect and understanding. It knows that all our protectors, even our harshest critics and craziest firefighters, are trying to act in our best interests, even if their methods leave something to be desired. It knows that given the right conditions, our protectors can transform into truly valuable supporters. And it also knows that the pain of all our exiles can heal into a deep, joyful engagement with life.
In other words, self compassion knows that every part of us, no matter how dysfunctional it appears, is actually a diamond in the rough. Knowing this, it loves, respects and values absolutely everything that we are. So when we bring an attitude of self compassion to the various parts of ourselves, we are automatically valuing them. We esteem them all.
So we discover that self-esteem is not a thing to be obtained through the actions of a critic. Rather it the knowledge that we are inherently valuable, the knowledge that arises as we bring an attitude of compassion to ourselves. It’s about opening our hearts to ourselves, about loving and appreciating every single part of who we are. Self compassion means that we treat ourselves with the same kindness, care and compassion that we treat those we care about—our good friends, and our loved ones.
And most important, it means that we do not criticize ourselves when we do not meet our goals. We know that we are still of worth, regardless of the success of our enterprises, and regardless of the successes of others. This self love gives us an indestructible sense of our own worth and preciousness which carries us through life’s inevitable failures with love, trust, optimism and grace.