Is self-esteem a useful concept?

14 Feb 2022

I’ve always been a bit wary when people go all-in on suggesting the “improve yourself” school of thought for dealing with self-esteem issues.

At various points in my life I have seriously committed to “working on myself,” but looking back, despite all the effort I put in (and how much I thought it might have been working), that method never really managed to shift how I felt.

The same is true of the opposite school of “accept yourself.” It always seemed that this was like forcefully trying to build a second self-attitude in your mind like some kind of gundam mech, setting it against your Godzilla kaiju self-critic in an epic battle and hoping the new one wins. “Be kinder to yourself, you idiot!” I was never convinced I could change my self-image by force.

The simple, common model for self-esteem problems frames them as having two variables:

  • a measure of a quality about ourselves
  • our perceived idea of what is an acceptable level of quality

Problems arise when the measure is a lot less than the standard.

We can immediately see this implies self-esteem issues can be solved in two completely different ways: we can either increase our own qualities; or we can re-adjust our image of ourselves.

It’s clear that neither of these approaches are suitable for general advice. Some people’s self-judgement can be wildly off, and they will only hurt themselves more if they try “improving”. Body dysmorphic disorder is an extreme example of this. Unfortunately, conventional advice doesn’t seem to grasp this at all. For some things, you will be endlessly told that you need to work harder, or increase your “value.” For others, you will be told that you’re ok the way you are, and the pressure you feel should be pushed back and challenged. Yes, this one-sided advice may work for some people, but that might not be you.

If you choose the way of the warrior—to frame as “self-improvement”—there are various possible outcomes:

  • You achieve your goals and feel great. You feel no pressure to continue further on the path, and your self-esteem feels good. (Some people think this is impossible, but I’m not convinced.)
  • You achieve but don’t feel great; your standards go up, or you start to worry about something else. You feel that your self-image, while improved, is fragile. You might not even know why you remain unsatisfied or where the pressure is coming from.
  • You find it difficult and unsustainable to make progress, and your effort fluctuates.
  • You feel like you are making progress, but really you are burying your pain under ideas of “mastering yourself” or excessive “self-discipline.” You constantly put off attempting your true goals until “after you’ve sorted yourself out” with your current ones.
  • You become terrified of “cope” and can’t imagine being happy with “lower standards.”

Similarly, there are many possibilities if you frame it as re-adjusting your mindset:

  • You achieve a deep acceptance and completely fix your self-esteem issues; you don’t see it at all as “cope,” but the concepts of standards and value disappear completely.
  • You make some progress but find you can’t fully accept yourself; there is some internal conflict you can’t resolve yet.
  • You feel so deep in an emotional pit you don’t know how to begin. Self-love seems an alien concept.
  • You explain away your pain, or shift it onto something or someone else as blame, and have trouble acknowledging it.
  • You tell yourself it’s not worth trying to “improve,” because surely people who have what you want are still unsatisfied for some other reason, or it’s not that good anyway.
  • You convince yourself you don’t actually want to change—that you’d be sacrificing your own individuality.

There’s a chicken and egg situation here. It’s surely easier to work on mechanics when we’re already in a good mindset: it feels like there’s less at stake, and our effort is more sustainable and healthy. However, we can’t ignore that social standards do exist and have an effect on us. If we’re really starved for positive feedback, finding a self-loving mindset might be really hard without some mechanics first.

So we’ve got a situation where we tend to focus on one of two things; each of which might or might not bring us happiness; seem to rely on each other to work; but appear undesirable to someone with the opposite mindset. This really sucks!

I don’t have any strong way to end this article, because, well, this is one of Life’s Big Mysteries. But I think there’s some important things to keep in mind if someone is taking steps to address a low sense of self-worth.

  • I think it’s possible to chase things too much, as well as not enough. Some big names agree: the Buddha rejected both indulgence and ascetism as the path to nirvana, instead walking the “Middle Way”. It would be ideal if we could have a deep, accepting, compassionate view of ourselves, from which we could freely choose how much to conform to social reality, seeing it as the game it is and feeling minimal threat.

  • One thing I notice when comparing the possibilities above is that the mindset approach is the only one which has the possibility of escaping the idea that the self has a measurable value at all. I think this is a good sign that the above concept of self-esteem might be “wrong” in some way, and that starting out with introspection and some good mental grounding will go a long way, even if you do then “improve.”

  • It is possible to feel like you are doing something to combat your fears and insecurities, when actually you are avoiding them in elaborate ways. You may engage in safety behaviours which merely placate the sense of danger without actually readjusting how you feel about the things you fear. This is possible in both approaches.

  • I think it’s possible that, while many people understand “self-love” is important, they don’t fully comprehend what love is, or they deny themselves it. They might be fortunate enough to have close friends, and loving family, or a partner, but they still don’t really understand the feelings those people have for them. Compliments get brushed off and reciprocations mumbled out. We can think we love ourselves, even when we don’t.

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