Self-esteem is about whether or not we’re “good enough,” or “okay,” or “adequate.” It comes down to black or white, either we’re normal, or something’s wrong with us. We grow up with this distorted thinking from childhood. As kids we’re taught it’s black or white, you’re good or bad, a success or failure. Well-meaning family, friends, and even therapists often feed into this black and white thinking, telling you “you’re not a failure you’re a success”, or “you’re not bad, you’re good,” still leaving you in doubt. Positive, or healthy self-esteem, generally means you consider yourself a “good person” and “fairly normal” however you define that. Self-esteem is also tied in with self-worth, which can also be very black or white, you’re worthy or unworthy, and also can take extremes where some might believe that they are more worthy than others, or that they are totally worthless. Either way is toxic.
As adults we can understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures- that we are all alike in certain ways and unique in others. There’s no black or white definition or cut-off for what makes a person “good enough” or “okay.” If we all have flaws and imperfections, then we are all “okay” and we all have room for improvement. So then what is the value of asking ourselves whether we are “good enough or not?” That is a very defensive, judgmental, and anxiety-provoking question to even ask, and just asking this question causes unbelievable emotional suffering.
So the concept of self-esteem only causes insecurities and anxiety. We all have positive and negative traits, we make mistakes, and I believe that asking this question, about whether we’re normal or not, prevents people from growing, because it assumes that only abnormal people need to change or to pursue self-growth. That’s just B.S.
My brother, a therapist, asked me what would replace the concept of self-esteem? Why does it need to be replaced? What role does that concept fulfill, if we decide that we can all improve ourselves and grow throughout our lives?
But if we must replace the concept of self-esteem here is how we can do it:
1) Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, no one is more worthy than anyone else, we don’t judge others and no one has a right to judge us. This includes acceptance of ourselves the way we are, and others the way they are, and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is non-judgementalness.
2) Work on self growth and improving ourselves for our entire life. Embrace it, enjoy it, and encourage others. Get rid of the defensiveness, the judging, the blame, and the guilt!
3) Determine your values, and your priorities in life, and live them.
4) Learn and practice mindfulness, being present, focused, and not judging.
5) Don’t expect or wait for your thinking from childhood to change. It’s there, embedded in you. That self-doubt, that black and white question about whether or not you’re good enough will be there, practicing these steps will help you work around it.
As David Burns, M.D., well-known cognitive therapist writes, “Self-esteem is not a useful concept.”