Too much self-esteem is not good for you


THAT'S MEN:‘Nice to see you. You’re looking really average today.”

How would you like that for a greeting? Not very much, I expect.

Like most us us, you probably suffer from what is called “the better than average effect”. It needs little explanation. We like to think we are above average and even if we secretly believe we fail to measure up, we will certainly not thank another person for pointing this out.

It’s all tied into self-esteem; average just won’t do. That’s the problem with the idea that we must cultivate high self-esteem at all costs. This demand has been part of the Western mindset for some decades now and it has not made the world a noticeably happier place.

Dr Kristin Neff who has written and researched widely on the subject of self-compassion (of which more later) says in an interview on the noetic.orgwebsite: “There’s an epidemic of narcissism in our culture. All the emphasis on self-esteem over the last 20 years or so has led to the highest levels of narcissism ever recorded, especially among college students and this is a problem.”

Narcissism is a psychological condition in which you really, really believe the world revolves around you. Other people only have walk-on parts in your drama. Like the mythical Narcissus, you are head over heels in love with yourself. This is very bad for relationships – other people don’t like to be disregarded and this is what the narcissist does to them.

Good thing

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that most people who try to cultivate high self-esteem are narcissistic. But while high self-esteem used to be put forward as an entirely good thing, it isn’t always so.

“People who are prejudiced, for example, have very high self-esteem; that’s how they get their self-esteem – ‘I’m better than you’. Bullies often have high self-esteem, which they get in the same way,” she says.

The main problem with high self-esteem, though, is that you have to judge yourself in a positive way all the time. To maintain high self-esteem you have to keep winning. But who wants to live like that, as you can’t possibly win all the time?

Disenchantment with the high self-esteem movement has led to a growth in interest in self-compassion.

Self-esteem is about how I judge myself; self-compassion is about how I relate to myself. It’s about understanding that most of my human failings are shared with the rest of humanity and I don’t have to attack myself over them. It is about being kind to myself – being friends with myself even (or especially) when I fall flat on my face.

It’s about catching that vicious self-talk we go on with in our heads and shushing it, pointing out that everybody makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. It’s about accepting we have a lot less control over our flawed selves than we like to think.

Desirable effects

In her research at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr Neff has found that the self-compassionate approach has some interesting and desirable effects:

Self-compassionate care-givers suffer less compassion fatigue because they give themselves the chance to recharge their emotional batteries and thereby avoid getting burned out.

Self-compassionate people in romantic relationships are more giving towards their partners because they are not looking for their partners to boost their self-esteem or to meet all their needs.

Self-compassionate people are more highly motivated and set higher standards for themselves; it’s safe for them to do so because they know they are not going to beat themselves up if they fail.

Self-compassion can be a difficult concept to accept and to practice because self-criticism comes so naturally to most of us. But try it and see. You might like the results.

Dr Neff’s noetic.orginterview is at noeticneff and her website has plenty of interesting material.

Padraig O’Morain ( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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