You’ve probably heard that self-esteem is important, but you may not know exactly what to do if you’re not feeling so great about yourself. In today’s post, I’ll review what self-esteem is, what factors affect it, and discuss ways psychologists have found that we can increase our self-esteem. I’ll also discuss how we can work to cultivate a mindset called self-compassion, which helps us to stay resilient when we experience temporary setbacks.
What is self-esteem? Self-esteem can be defined as our overall assessment (positive or negative) of ourselves. Contrary to what you might think, having high self-esteem doesn’t mean thinking that you’re better than others—it simply means thinking that you’re just as capable, qualified, and deserving as other people. Sometimes researchers measure self-esteem as a “trait” (how you generally feel about yourself), and other times researchers measure “state” self-esteem (how you feel about yourself right now). Self-esteem has been measured a variety of ways; however, the most widely used measure of self-esteem is also perhaps the most direct measure: it’s a short 10-question survey. If you’re interested in trying out this survey for yourself, you can find the questions here: http://www.yorku.ca/rokada/psyctest/rosenbrg.pdf.
What factors affect our self-esteem? The psychologist Jennifer Crocker has developed a concept called contingencies of self-worth, which are areas that our self-esteem is contingent on. For example, you may care a lot about being a good parent, being a student, being a friend, or being an athlete. If so, each of these areas are ones that your self-esteem is contingent on. In one study investigating this, research participants were asked to report on their acceptances and rejections when applying to graduate school. The researchers found that participants’ self-esteem increased when they were accepted and decreased when they received a rejection letter, and this effect was especially strong for students whose self-esteem was contingent on academics.
Researchers have also looked at whether or not our self-esteem is stable over time. According to the psychologist Michael Kernis, some people tend to have relatively stable self-esteem: their self-esteem remains more or less the same from day to day, while other people tend to experience more fluctuations in their self-esteem. For example, someone with unstable self-esteem might feel great about themselves on a day when they succeeded at an an important work project, but then doubt themselves the next day after being rejected by a potential date. Researchers have found that unstable self-esteem is associated with lower well-being, symptoms of depression, having a less clear sense of self, and being more affected by life’s daily hassles. In one study, it was found that people with high but unstable self-esteem were more likely to respond defensively than individuals with high, stable self-esteem. In other words, it’s not just one’s level of self-esteem that matters but also how our self-esteem changes over time.
Do other factors matter more than self-esteem? Recently, the psychologist Kristin Neff has suggested that self-compassion might be even more important than self-esteem in helping us to get through tough times. Self-compassion refers to how we treat ourselves when we experience negative events. People high in self-compassion treat themselves with kindness and understanding when bad things happen. There are three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness involves silencing your inner critic and being kind and gentle with yourself. Common humanity involves seeing your experience as part of being human, and reminding yourself that failures and setbacks can happen to anyone. Mindfulness involves being aware of and open to the emotions you experience. Researchers have found that self-compassion is associated with many measures of well-being, including happiness, optimism, and positive emotions and that, as self-compassion increases, well-being does too.
One way self-compassion may help when we’re facing tough times is to make the setbacks we face less threatening. According to Kristin Neff and her colleagues, “One reason that self-compassion may be more beneficial than self-esteem is that it tends to be available precisely when self-esteem fails. Personal flaws and shortcomings can be approached in a kind and balanced manner that recognizes that imperfection is part of the human condition, even when self-evaluations are negative.” In other words, self-compassion can help us to be more kind and understanding towards ourselves, even when things aren’t going exactly how we want them to.
How can self-esteem be increased? If your self-esteem isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, there are a variety of strategies psychologists have developed that can help. Read on for some suggestions:
- Recognize your successes. One way to work on your self-esteem is to take time to focus on the things that you do well—try listing things that make you feel good about yourself or things you’ve been successful at. However, when you’re taking stock of your successes, it’s also important to avoid perfectionism, since focusing on being perfect can prevent us from recognizing all of the things we have achieved.
- Cultivate self-compassion. In addition to recognizing your successes, it’s also important to treat yourself kindly when you experience setbacks. Kristin Neff’s website offers a variety of resources (including written activities and guided meditations). One activity asks you to imagine how you would treat a close friend who is going through a difficult situation. This activity is a good reminder that we should treat ourselves with the same compassion that we extend to others.
- Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT works to help challenge maladaptive thoughts that people have developed about themselves and the world around them. For example, someone with low self-esteem may think, “I am a failure” if they don’t get the promotion at work they applied for. In CBT, a therapist works with the client to help develop more helpful cognitions about the situation, such as, “Maybe that promotion wasn’t the right job for me” or, “Maybe this is a chance to pursue a job that I would be better suited for.”
- Do something for someone else. Another way to feel better about yourself is to do something kind for another person. In fact, research has found that spending money on others is related to well-being. However, although being kind to others can be beneficial to our own self-esteem, it’s also important to be mindful and make sure you don’t neglect your own needs while taking care of others.
Self-esteem is important to well-being, but if you’re not feeling great about yourself, there are many things you can do to raise your self-esteem and take temporary setbacks in stride. In particular, focusing on successes, helping others, using techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy, and increasing self-compassion can all help you to feel better about yourself.
- Crocker, J., Sommers, S. R., & Luhtanen, R. K. (2002). Hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled: Contingencies of self-worth and graduate school admissions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(9), 1275-1286.
- Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., Chen, S., & Nisbett, R.E. (2013). Social Psychology (Third Edition), W. W. Norton & Company.
- Nauert, R. Healthy Self-Esteem Defined.
- Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude towards oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.
- Neff, K.D., Rude, S.S., Kirkpatrick, K.L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 908-916.
- Neff, K.D., Kirkpatrick, K.L, & Rude, S.S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.
- Grohol, J.M. 6 Tips to Improve Your Self-Esteem.
- Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
- Tartakovsky, M. Self-Esteem Struggles and Strategies That Can Help.
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.