Self-esteem—we want it. We want our kids to have it. American culture is obsessed with it. But from our first gold star in preschool to our first merit raise in the workforce, most of us link self-esteem with achievements and accolades.
From childhood, many of us are taught that self-esteem is based largely on external validation. Aside from accomplishments, that might come to mean the size of our jeans or the size of our following on Instagram. Over time, the concept of self-esteem gets divorced from intrinsic worth. That’s why high self-esteem, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily indicative of overall wellbeing. In reality, pursuing and preserving high self-esteem (when it’s based on achievements) can harm our psychological and physical health.
A University of Michigan study found that college students actively trying to enhance self-esteem experienced problems in the process, including interpersonal conflict and increased use of drugs and alcohol. The study suggests that, ironically, high self-esteem can put us in a vulnerable position because inevitable failures and shortcomings shake our positive self-image. When our self-esteem dips, we feel we must earn it back by racking up more successes.
Say, for example, that a straight-A student gets her first B or a company’s top salesman is passed up for a promotion. Both then put so much energy into rebuilding self-esteem through relentless perfectionism that it becomes a form of self-punishment as opposed to a healthy pursuit. Their drive to restore their self-image can lead to self-absorption, anxiety, competitiveness, defensiveness, and maladaptive coping behaviors like alcohol abuse.
None of this is to say that self-esteem is bad. However, a healthier, less precarious state to work toward is self-acceptance, or feeling good about yourself despite your flaws and failings. Self-acceptance doesn’t depend on external confirmations of adequacy but relies on the notion of intrinsic worth. Self-acceptance means acting kindly toward ourselves no matter what happens in life. It allows us to feel comfortable in our own skin—even when we’ve outgrown our jeans or flubbed a work presentation.
Self-acceptance allows us to own up to mistakes and grow from them. With self-acceptance, we see ourselves clearly and compassionately. With self-acceptance comes resilience.
One of our favorite books, “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown—sums up the truth of self-acceptance beautifully in just four words: “Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.”