by Veronica J. Brodsky, Psy.D.
“Everyone has potential. To discover it is a road to success. To apply it is a road to happiness.”
The above statement has been my philosophy and core belief ever since I have established Interactive Discovery in 2007. However, one of the main challenges for me as a clinician is not only to recognize someone’s potential, but to help adults and children learn to recognize this within themselves. How can one apply their potential and their talent when they face struggles with low self-esteem on daily basis? While many educators, mental health providers and even politicians recognize the importance of self-esteem as a way to improve performance and feel more satisfied in life, we are still faced with many people feeling that they are simply not good enough. Most clinicians will attest that a common treatment plan goal, regardless of the presenting problem, is to improve self-worth and confidence and yet few feel that this is an easy goal to accomplish.
We all have a history and past that can influence how we experience ourselves. What is striking in my practice is that regardless of how bad or good one's past experience has been, the struggle with self-esteem is very similar across the board. It just varies in its intensity. One of the things I have observed over the span of 20 years of working and studying psychology, is that one common element the majority of my patients have is high self-criticism and low self-compassion. Teaching children and adults to be kind, loving, and gentle with themselves has been one of the most important, and yes, the most difficult aspects of my practice. Unwiring the habit of self-criticism is a lot more challenging than receiving a promotion at work, high grades in school, and being selected for an Ivy League college.
Recently I came across an article in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan about why self-compassion works better than self-esteem. This article resonated with what I have observed over the span of my work as therapist. In her interview with Dr. Christine Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, she speaks about how we as a society promote high self-esteem. However, what it actually means is to “feel special and above average.”
As a society, we are competitive. The term “keeping up with the Joneses” is an understatement. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others. We want a lot more than we need and feel that by obtaining things, status, senior positions, and real estate, we will be happier. In his book Happier, Tal Ben' Shahar, a Harvard professor of psychology, states that "While levels of material prosperity are on the rise so are levels of depression."
We want our kids to go to the best schools, get the best grades and be the best in everything –athletics, music, arts, social leadership; the list goes on and on. Kids know this & they feel it. Just the Middle School selection process in New York City is enough to make a healthy child develop anxiety, panic attacks and depression. If you didn't get "that" job, didn't get into "that" school, didn’t pass "that" test, what does it say about you? So when we equate our accomplishments with self-esteem, it is not surprising that we often don't feel good about ourselves, no matter how much we accomplish, because there will always be something that we didn't get. According to Neff, "When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most…The best way to think about the problem of self-esteem is not whether or not you have it, but what you do to get it... usually self-esteem is highly contingent on success."
I think it is very important to have goals, ambitions and purpose, but it is no less important to have self-compassion. Being gentle with yourself, setting realistic expectations, forgiving yourself for mistakes, allowing yourself to be taken care of, asking for help, making space and time to do something you truly enjoy and nurturing yourself helps to develop self-compassion. Neff suggests that self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion as you would treat those you care about -- your good friends, and your loved ones.” Without self-compassion, the road towards achieving our dreams can be self-destructive. Applying one's potential cannot lead to the road of happiness if self-compassion is missing.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier. New York: McGraw Hill Publication.
Khazan, O. (2016). Why self-compassion works better than self-esteem. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/05/why-self-compassion-works-better-than-self-esteem/481473/.