3 Reasons You Don’t Want High Self-Esteem

Dr. Kristin Neff at TedX Centennial Park

Dr. Kristin Neff

I am a self-compassion evangelist. I love spreading the good word about self-compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff

We know that low self-esteem is bad for us, but what makes high self-esteem dangerous? High self-esteem requires us to make a judgement of how worthy or unworthy, how good or bad, we are. While it’s true that high self-esteem, in and of itself, isn’t negative – the problem lies in how you get it – and these are three of the reasons:

  • Self-esteem is contingent on success – “we only feel good about ourselves when we succeed in those domains of life that are important to us.”  If we fail we feel terrible about ourselves.
  • Self-esteem requires that we judge ourselves to be better than average – better than most everyone around us. This leads to negative judgements of others in order to make ourselves appear better. It enables nasty social epidemics like bullying, which gives kids a way to feel more worth than another.
  • Self-esteem relies on criticism of ourselves and this activates our flight or fight response. It becomes chronic, since we cannot relax and let down our guard or we might fall to average or below. This saps our physical, mental and emotional energy and negatively impacts our ability to thrive. The constant experience of threat produces toxic stress chemicals that damage our bodies.

In her TedX talk, The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff shows us how we “get off the treadmill” of chasing self-esteem and this constant need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves  “Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively,” she says. “Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly.”

3 Core Components of Self-Compassion

Dr. Neff offers clear steps to engaging in self-compassion.

  • Self-Kindness – treat yourself like a very good friend. Notice your language toward yourself.
  • Common Humanity – ask yourself, how am I the same as others? Imperfection is a shared human experience.
  • Mindfulness – be with what is in the present moment, even suffering, even when the suffering is self-inflicted.

Dr. Neff touches on the source of our criticism and harshness toward ourselves and the benefits of choosing self-compassion in moments of what may appear to be failures.

“Just when self-esteem deserts you, self-compassion steps in and gives you a sense of being valuable, not because you’ve reached some standard, or you’ve judged yourself positively, but because you are a human being worthy of love in that moment.”

Dr. Kristin Neff

This is a Ted Talk worth watching, and when you get to the end where Kristin shares her own powerful, personal experience of an intense and public ‘failure’ I guarantee you’ll feel compassion.


PS – Do you speak gently to yourself? Have you noticed any self-criticism? When you do, see if you can pause, for just a moment. Say the words, “I love you.” It doesn’t have to be to anyone in particular, just let the words come out. Release any judgement about whether anything has changed and invite yourself to do it again the next time.


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