For a long time researchers saw self-esteem as the measure of psychological wellbeing, as the lack of self-esteem can be linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and low functioning. The market is booming with self-help books that encourage us to see the good in ourselves. Yet, how many people can say that they truly feel good about themselves? Feeling good is such a fleeting thing, especially as feeling good is often related to external life events, as well as our personal sense of succeeding. Self-esteem has become linked to the pressure to stand out in some way and ‘good enough’ doesn’t do. Feeling worthy becomes something we need to earn. Most of us don’t feel worthy simply because we are human with all of the fallibility that comes with it. Being described as: average, fine or ‘as good as most people’, seems like an insult to our self-esteem.The problem is that it is simply impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time and yet everyone has a need to feel worthy.
If our sense of self-worth is linked to life being favourable and us being popular, clever, beautiful etc. then what do we do with our flawed humanity? What happens to self-esteem when we do something embarrassing, are made redundant, suffer from depression, fail to be a good friend or face a relationship breakdown? How can we truly feel worthy if we don’t acknowledge our weaknesses? In our shared human experience we all experience emotional pain, loss, rejection, loneliness and other unwelcome emotions, regardless of social position, income, popularity or physical appearance. In these moments we often feel deep shame, as though we are the only one’s who struggle, as though this is not meant to happen or as if we only have to try harder.
New research into compassion shows that we cause ourselves incredible amounts of emotional pain if our self-esteem is built on an ideal rather than what life really holds in store for each and everyone of us. We often feel like we need to hide our fallible sides. As a consequence self-worth risks becoming a facade rather than a deeply felt connection with ourselves and others.
How do I work with issues of low Self-esteem?
In Gestalt psychotherapy the ‘paradoxical theory of change’ says that the more one attempts to be who one is not, the more one remains the same. Conversely, the paradox is that change happens as a result of full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different.
In therapy we will look at incorporating a fuller view of who the client is into their self-concept. It may at times be painful to acknowledge the sides in us that we prefer to keep outside of our awareness. However, the paradox is that the more we acknowledge our imperfections with kindness, the more open we become for true change to occur. Research has shown that a compassionate response enables us much more to face our challenges and to do what it takes to either overcome them or to accept them. Self-compassion helps us to become more available to face whatever life throws at us.
Self-compassion consists of being mindful of our experience without trying to change it or resist it. It means responding to our own suffering in a kind and warm way that allows us to soften to our struggle. The ability for self-compassion means that our sense of connection is not dependent on us being brilliant all the time. At times when things are not going our way, we can still feel self worth, even when we are not successful.
Clients have fed back that they have developed a much deeper sense of self-worth through this work and feel a deeper connection with themselves and others.
To find out more about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion here is a video of Dr. Kristin Neff (Professor at the University of Texas):
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"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.”
Psychotherapy Brighton and Lewes