Self-Esteem Separates

Here’s another take on scarcity consciousness from a different perspective from psychologist Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion. In this TED talk, Neff talks about the emphasis on self-esteem in psychology. Recently researchers have started revealing some significant limits to self-esteem for mental, emotional, spiritual and relational wellness. Neff says:

“If you have low self-esteem… you’re going to have all sorts of psychological problems. However, high self-esteem can also be problematic. The problem is not if you have it, it’s how you get it.”

How do we develop self-esteem? By comparing ourselves to others. By measuring our selves against others. Self-esteem, then, feeds into our perceived scarcity. When I am asking myself where I would place myself in comparison to others, I am bound to not feel adequate in some areas, if not many areas. I will feel I am not strong enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, creative enough, fit enough, safe enough or wealthy enough because, no matter what, there will be others who have more.

The quest for self-esteem can become a never-ending marathon of self-improvement. And it also feeds our consumerism and our capitalist mindset. I don’t just mean consuming material goods, but also services and spiritual practices (as discussed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in this book) to make us better and bolster our ego or self-esteem. It shows up in everything from the fashion and beauty industries, the nutrition and dieting industries, self-help workshops and books and spiritual retreats. It is the voice that tells us: “If I just do this treatment / cleanse / workbook / regimen / program, then I’ll be good enough…” and it keeps us too busy to notice what we do have that is beautiful. It also keeps us distracted from showing up for the people we care about.

Contrast this relentless and precarious pursuit with self-compassion, which Neff defines in her lovely, accessible way as having three components:

  1. treating ourselves with kindness. We can imagine the way that we would treat a beloved friend and bring that kindness to ourselves. We can show ourselves the patience and understanding we would extend to a young child and allow ourselves to make mistakes and be imperfect.
  2. seeing our common humanity. Feeling connected with others in our struggles and in our successes, rather than setting ourselves apart as abnormal, alone or special.
  3. practicing mindfulness. This is about simply bringing awareness of our suffering, neither exaggerating nor ignoring the pain.

Coming from this self-compassion perspective, there is no endpoint, just the work of these three practices day in and day out. We can then see others eye to eye, as we are working to remind ourselves that we are, all of us, in this together, doing our best at times, falling down sometimes, but always worthy of love.