A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion

Fr Kevin Head sm

Fr Kevin Head sm

The July issue of North and South magazine recalls that there is a photo of Tensing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing companion, at the top of Mount Everest, but there is no picture of Hillary himself. It seems that Norgay offered to take a photo of Hillary, who later said that as far as he knew, Norgay had never used a camera, ‘and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how.’

edmund-hillary_mediumIt is hard to imagine that happening today. Hillary belonged to an era when blowing one’s own trumpet was frowned upon, and the order of the day was humble reserve. The contrast between his attitude and the excessive self-congratulation displayed on sports fields nowadays could hardly be more marked!

The cover of North & South has on it: Me! Me! Me! Are we raising a generation of self-obsessed brats? Inside, the feature article is titled The Narcissism Epidemic. Narcissistic individuals place themselves at the centre of the universe. According to a number of writers, narcissism is often a by-product of what is called the self-esteem movement.

Self-esteem is significant in our growth as human beings. In itself, it’s a good thing. Out-of-control self-esteem, though, tainted by original sin, which makes people think they are more important than others, is a recipe for misery.

While there’s nothing wrong with having confidence in oneself, there can be problems with how we try to grow in self-esteem. Often, it’s by subverting others or comparing our successes to those of people around us. Such attitudes can result in narcissism or depression when the going gets tough, or when one fails. As one writer puts it, ‘Having high self-esteem is not the problem, it’s pursuing it, which is usually based on feeling special and above-average or better than others. 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. That’s where the issues really come in’ (Kristin Neff, quoted in The Atlantic, 5 May 2016).

Self-esteem of this kind depends on succeeding. It takes a hit when we fail, as we are bound to do, despite our best efforts. Failing is part of the human condition. Self-esteem leaves us high and dry when we miss the mark and mess up, and that’s the exact time when we need it most.

The basis of true self-esteem is not found in our achievements or accomplishments. Its basis is in the infinite value we have because God loves us. We are accepted by God, who chose and made us, who keeps us in existence, and who loves us with nothing left over.

So, what do we do when we fall over yet again, when we are painfully aware that we have failed in one way or another, and our fragile self-esteem has melted into a puddle of goo? One answer to that question is to develop self-compassion.

Self-compassion means that we are kind to ourselves, and gentle, rather than being mean-minded and critical when we do things wrong or when we notice something about ourselves that we dislike. Probably the best way to learn self-compassion, or to get better at it, is to say, ‘What would I say to a good friend in the situation I am in?’ and take your advice to heart.

Self-compassion recognises that we are imperfect, all of us, that we are all in much the same situation, and that our failures do not isolate us from others.

Whether we are on top of the world or in the depths of despond, self-compassion enables us to accept ourselves kindly.
As God does.

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