By Mandy X. Hu

‘When I compare myself to fellow-PhD candidates I feel like I’m not doing good enough. I feel like I’m failing my PhD.’

Her eyes are dejected. I know she’s waiting for me to say something that makes her feel better, like: ‘Your colleagues may be good at this, but you are probably better at that.’ Or: ‘Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but I’m sure you’ll gain more expertise later in your trajectory.’

Instead I ask: ‘What if you are?’

She looks at me with surprise: ‘What if I am... failing?’

I nod. ‘Why would that be a bad thing?’

She starts protesting: ‘Well, that’s not an option. If I work hard enough I should be able to do it. And if I can’t do it… I would feel very bad about myself.’

‘So the way you feel about yourself depends on your achievements? How does that make you feel?’

A moment of silence.

‘Now you put it like that, it doesn’t feel right.’

The flaw in self-esteem

When are we allowed to feel good about ourselves? When we do a good job? When we’ve been productive? When we’re a step ahead in the never-ending contest with our peers? Most of us have learned to build up and rely on our ‘self-esteem’ in order to feel good about ourselves. Self-esteem can be defined as ‘the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively, often in comparisons with others’. Have your parents told you that ‘if you just set your mind to it, you can do anything’? Did your teachers encourage you with the words ‘everyone is good at something’? They all meant well of course, but there’s a flaw in this self-esteem mindset. First of all, none of us can be good at everything or anything all the time, so we are bound to evaluate ourselves badly at some point. Second, our self-esteem is very much dependent on the people we are surrounded by. For instance, it makes a whole lot of a difference whether we compare our athletic abilities with a bunch of professional athletes or with our couch potato friends. Third, even if we could take a reliable sample of people like ourselves, chances are that we’re mediocre or below the mean in virtually all traits deemed important in our society, and hard work won’t get us to level up significantly. So what if there is no good reason to evaluate ourselves positively in comparison with others? What then?

The evolutionary and cultural drive behind self-esteem

From an evolutionary and cultural perspective it makes sense that we want to be highly esteemed in the eyes of the people around us. As social binding became beneficial for our survival, we evolved behavior that is valued by others and makes us fit within the group. As our consciousness evolved we gained the ability to imagine how others perceive us and we became protective and critical towards this image. On top of this evolutionary predisposition, we are stimulated by our culture to keep ‘improving’ ourselves in order to get higher self-esteem. Most of us are so identified with the cultural standards of what it means to be an ‘esteemed’ person, that we don’t realize that these are merely human ideals instead of universal truths. And what purpose do these ideals serve? They are the cornerstone of capitalism. Our culture keeps telling us that we are not quite good enough so that we keep spending money on improving ourselves and feeding our self-esteem. So our genes and our environment got us into this self-esteem trap. Seems like a hopeless situation, right? But I’m not writing this story to make you despair. Rather, I’m writing it to make you aware of the self-esteem illusion and to present an alternative choice.

The freedom of self-compassion

What is the alternative? Self-compassion. Research has shown that self-compassion has more beneficial effects than high self-esteem, including more emotional stability and feelings of connection.1 Self-compassion means embracing ourselves with kindness and understanding, also – or especially – when we fail or feel inadequate, because we’re intrinsically worthy. People often fear that they won’t achieve anything in life if they let go of their high demands and self-criticism. What I believe is that letting go of the fear-based motivations revolving around ourselves, creates space to get in touch with what we really care about. And that kind of intrinsic motivation can make the world a kinder place.

‘So what if you are already worthy, regardless of your achievements? What if you didn’t have to earn or deserve it?’ I asked her.

‘Love myself for no reason? I would be free.’

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1Neff, KD. Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and personality psychology compass. 2011;5(1):1-12.