Tag Archives: self-compassion

Self-esteem, Self-compassion, and Why “Tough Love” Doesn’t Work

Psychotherapy is a great tool for people who want to build self-esteem, jump-start their personal growth, and cope better with stress. The hardest part of actually building self-esteem has to do with letting go of “tough love” approaches to feeling better that seem intuitively right, but don’t work. But first:

What is self-esteem?

People are accustomed to hearing pop culture definitions of self-esteem that equate it to “confidence” or even arrogance. But self-esteem as most therapists understand it has nothing to do with thinking you’re great all the time. It means that your behavior shows self-respect and self-compassion, even in the face of negative feedback from those around you.

What kinds of behavior shows self respect? Some examples would be maintaining your own safety, taking good care of your body, behaving with dignity and compassion towards yourself, being able to acknowledge and make changes based on both praise and criticism (without taking either too seriously), treating others with basic dignity and respect even when they are behaving badly, being able to stand up for yourself, knowing what you think and how you feel, and taking your own perceptions and feelings seriously as you make decisions.

“How did I get here?”

When healthy self-esteem feels out of reach, the beginning step in therapy is often to explore how you got here. The first questions we ask are things like, “How have certain beliefs about yourself developed? In what context? How did they make sense given the context in which you grew up? How do those beliefs serve you now?” Understanding why and taking it a little less personally can help you begin to consider changing those beliefs.

Tough love.

The reason it’s really the “why” of self-esteem is important, is that beliefs that we have held since childhood can be very, very stubborn, and there can be a lot of shame and other icky feelings attached to them, as well as resistance to changing them. A lot of us have this vague sense that the “fix” for feeling bad about ourselves is to reinforce those negative thoughts and double down by being extra hard on ourselves (“tough love”) — in other words, relying on shame, perfectionism, and self-criticism for motivation.

Many, many people strongly believe in the tough love approach and have a hard time giving it up. If I have self-compassion, doesn’t that mean I’m being easy on myself? Letting myself get away with stuff? Well, for one thing, if you are really compassionate and respectful toward yourself, you know that what feels good in the moment isn’t always really what you need, so no. If you had a child you loved,  love wouldn’t mean letting them eat candy for every meal, would it? Second, I will let you in on another secret about “tough love” —

It doesn’t work.

Well . . . maybe being extra tough on ourselves can shock us into better behavior . . . for a little while. But eventually, after a few weeks, days, or even hours (or minutes!) of zapping ourselves with shame, we get irritated and exhausted by the critical voice that tells us we are not smart enough, hard-working enough, strong enough, attractive enough, self-disciplined enough. We either flat-out choose to rebel (“screw it!”) or eventually get so exhausted that all our efforts at “self-discipline” collapse periodically.

The tricky thing is, beating yourself up for having the critical voice only throws more fuel on the fire.

So now what?

Part of my job as a therapist is to teach people how to use pleasure,  joy and the drive for new experiences as motivation, instead of shame and self-criticism. When things don’t go the way they should, you can learn how to sooth yourself so that you can get back up and keep going. When you have better access to positive feelings, you can persist for longer — whether it’s changing work habits, changing eating habits, connecting better in relationships, reducing reliance on substances to cope, or any other positive change you are trying to make. Self-esteem, self-respect, self-compassion mean you’re in it (it being YOU) for the long haul, and knowing that developing as a person isn’t some kind of short sprint you can “win” with one big push, but rather a long-distance hike with lots of varied terrain and ups and downs. You better pack snacks and water, wear the right clothes, and pace yourself if you want to keep going.

And how.

There are a lot of things you can learn in psychotherapy that help you figure out how to get to a better place with yourself.

For many the first step is developing insight into how you got to be the person you are — which helps you see yourself in context and begin to let go of taking it all so personally.

Mindfulness skills teach you to notice the still places inside of you when things are feeling crazy and stressful. You can practice at returning to that part of yourself again and again.

Self-compassion practice teaches you to access and hold on to positive and self-calming feelings so that you can get through the tough stuff.

Most importantly, therapy should help you use these tools when you’re not in your therapists office but out there in the world, trying to behave differently. In the end, self-esteem really comes down to how you treat yourself. When you consistently treat yourself better, over time, your sense of self-worth becomes more stable, more consistent, and more resilient to ups and downs.