There is an important difference between self-esteem, dignity, and self-compassion. And this difference matters. Before I discuss this, I would like to discuss our current culture.
I am concerned about our culture.
There are many reasons I am concerned about it, but one of the reasons is that it is increasingly clear that many of us have a poor relationship with ourselves, and this causes a lot of personal and interpersonal problems.
These personal and interpersonal problems are confirmed by recent research. For example, the Pew Research Institute has noted increasing rates of depression and anxiety in young adults, a trend that is also reflected in other studies. (You can read more about this here and here.)
But it is not just young adults that are struggling with more anxiety and depression. These problems are increasing in every age group in the United States. (You can read about this here and here.)
What is the Problem?
A common cause of anxiety and depression is feelings of shame and unworthiness. This suggests that when we struggle with these issues, we struggle with how to relate to ourselves in a loving way.
In addition to rising levels of depression and anxiety, researchers also note a rise in narcissism and a significant decline in empathy in college students since 2000. One only needs to spend some time listening to current political discussion to realize that many adults are struggling with narcissism and a lack of empathy as well. The result is that our country is becoming increasingly polarized and unable to see the shared humanity in all of us.
What is the Cause of these Problems?
There are many causes of problems like the ones I have mentioned above, and these causes are both individual and social.
However, as I have suggested at the beginning of this post, I think one cause is that we (people in the U.S. in general) have a poor relationship with ourselves, and we are not sure how to think about ourselves. This also makes it difficult for us to be clear about how we should behave towards others.
So, in the post, I would like to focus on a proper conception of ourselves and how this can make a positive difference in our lives.
As my readers know, I am a philosopher and not a psychologist. So while I will mention the work of some psychologists in this post, my goal here is to explain a view of ourselves that is conceptually, rationally, and philosophically true and wise.
An Initial Concern
In any discussion about self-concept one initial worry is that perhaps we think of ourselves far too much and far too highly already, and that is what has gotten us into this mess.
For instance, some people have suggested that the emphasis on self-esteem in the sixties and seventies is largely responsible for the problems we see today.
Author and psychology professor Martin Seligman suggests as much. In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman notes that in the 60’s self-esteem was promoted as a way to inoculate children “against social ills, such as drug addiction, suicide, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, and depression”.
While this sounds great initially, Seligman argues that the self-esteem emphasis weakened the ability of students to handle criticism. It is also hard for them to view failures and imperfections as a learning experience, to face obstacles with perseverance, and to exhibit determination in the face of hardship.
Many people have blamed this movement for creating emotionally fragile young adults who can’t handle criticism or obstacles. Some people also blame the self-esteem movement for contributing to the problem of narcissism. (You can read more about this here).
Such concerns are not groundless.
Seligman notes that there is no study indicating a correlation between high self-esteem and increased excellent performance in school. There is, however, research “on genocidal killers, on hit men, on gang leaders, on violent criminals”. This research suggests that “these perpetrators have high self-esteem, and that their unwarranted self-esteem causes violence”.
Seligman includes this thought-provoking note: “If you teach unwarrantedly high self-esteem to children, problems will ensue. A sub-group of these children will also have a mean streak in them. When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they are not as great as they have been taught, they will lash out with violence. So it is possible that the twin epidemics among young people in these United States today, depression and violence, both come from this misbegotten concern: valuing how our young people feel about themselves more highly than how we value how well they are doing in the world.”
Seligman’s concern is legitimate, not only from a psychological standpoint but from a philosophical one, too. If we cannot handle failure or obstacles; and if we believe that we must be awesome at everything all the time; and if we believe that we deserve the highest awards for everything we do, we are out of touch with ourselves, people around us, and the world.
This neither healthy nor helpful because we can only act well when we act on correct information. Believing we are the best and deserve to feel successful all the time is not correct information.
A Second Concern
But a second concern is relevant at this point. Many people understand the potential dangers of self-esteem ideology, and so they veer in opposite direction. They believe that the remedy to the pitfalls of self-esteem is to be highly critical of themselves and to push themselves to prove themselves.
People who go this alternate route continually doubt their worth. They continually try to prove it through perfectionism, workaholism, and trying to please everyone around them.
Photo by Zachary Kadolph, courtesy of Unsplash
I am intimately acquainted with this second route.
I was a teenager in the eighties and was very familiar with self-esteem discussions. Once when I was plagued by the melancholies of adolescence, I picked up a book on self-esteem and found it profoundly unhelpful. It seemed to me more or less to suggest that I should feel great about myself right now so that I could feel better about myself. I remember thinking, “Okay, yes, but that’s the problem. I don’t know how to feel great about myself.”
And I was also intimately aware of my flaws and imperfections. My self-esteem book didn’t give me any resources for dealing with these painful areas of my life.
Finding the self-esteem path untenable, I opted for the route of perfectionism, workaholism, and people-pleasing for many years. I can attest that route brings its own share of problems like anxiety, recurring bouts of self-loathing, and shame.
Photo by Kevin Jesus Horatio, courtesy of Unsplash
I’m Not the Only One
It seems a lot of people are currently trying the same route I did for many years. For example, a meta-analysis done on birth cohorts form 1989-2016 show that perfectionism at all time high and that millennals and Gen Z are the most anxious generations. This is not surprising. If you are always hustling to prove your worth, as I did for many years, perfectionism and anxiety become familiar companions.
What is clear is that we need different way to relate to ourselves. To find it, I think it is important to understand the difference between dignity, self-compassion, and self-esteem. It is also important to understand why these differences matter.
What is Dignity?
If we want to establish a healthy self-concept, it is essential that we learn to honor our dignity, which is radically different from trying to have good self-esteem.
Honoring our dignity is not primarily about feeling good about ourselves. When we honor our dignity, we recognize the spark of humanity which is our potential to be loving, wise, creative, and compassionate both to ourselves and to others.
Why is this important? Our spark of humanity represents the greatest wealth in the world. In addition, it points towards our purpose. We literally have one job, and that is to nurture our dignity so that it becomes as powerful as possible.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Imagine if everyone nurtured the loving, wise, creative, and compassionate light in them and in everyone else, and this became our most important goal. Honestly, we could solve almost all the problems in the world.
Human dignity is magic, but human dignity also holds a danger. When we neglect our human dignity, we increasingly plunge ourselves into purposelessness, despair, and chaos. Why? Well, think of what we are neglecting when we neglect our dignity.
We neglect love. In doing so, we embrace apathy, indifference, and hate.
And we neglect wisdom. In doing so, we embrace foolishness, irrationality, and impulsiveness.
We neglect creativity. In doing so, we embrace destruction or deadening cliché or ruts.
And we neglect compassion. In doing so, we embrace indifference, apathy, cruelty, cynicism.
I will collectively call these dignity-neglecting attitudes and behaviors our darkness. Our darkness is what happens when we neglect our purpose, and we end up living in purposelessness. Purposelessness is poison to our spirits.
Now imagine what happens when we ingest all of this poison and then begin acting it out in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and in the world we create together. We create dysfunction, addiction, walls in relationships, critical attitudes towards loved-ones, abuse, war, and other forms of personal and interpersonal violence.
Reclaiming Our Purpose
If we are to reclaim our purpose and begin building a purposeful world personally and collectively, it is essential that we affirm our dignity. But notice that honoring our dignity is quite a bit different than trying to have high self-esteem.
Self-esteem emphasizes feeling great about ourselves or feeling like we are the best, above average, and even better than everyone else. In addition, self-esteem avoids looking at our failures and shortcomings because those things don’t feel good.
On the other hand, honoring our dignity requires a different mindset. When we honor our own dignity, it leads us to honor the dignity of everyone else as well. In addition, when we honor our dignity, we realize that we possess our dignity no matter if we fail or succeed and no matter if we are the best or the worst at something or just average.
It Gets Better
Furthermore, when we honor our dignity, it helps us to be more honest about our failures and shortcomings because we know that our worth as a person can never be lost. So, failures do not represent a negation of our worth. They represent an invitation to nurture our dignity and to become a fuller, more alive version of ourselves.
Honoring our dignity is how we respect ourselves, and honoring our dignity is also a way that we show ourselves self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion, and Why Is It Important?
Self-compassion is the ability to practice tenderness, gentleness, and kindness to ourselves when we are suffering. It is an essential skill to master.
Suffering is an inescapable aspect of human existence. We often think that when we suffer it is because we have done something wrong. Perhaps we think we are not prepared enough, tough enough, or smart enough.
This is not the case.
Compassion researcher Kristen Neff points out that hyper individualistic, competitive cultures like the United States tend to discourage compassion. They communicate that everything in our life—our successes, failures, joys, and sorrows—are a result of our actions solely. So, if we are suffering, it is our fault. If we fail, it is our fault. And if a relationship falters, it is our fault. This type of attitude leaves little room for self-compassion (or compassion for anyone else, for that matter).
Neff points out that this uncompassionate view of ourselves is difficult for two reasons. First, because it is not true. While we can certainly bring suffering on ourselves because of our life choices, much of our suffering comes from forces out of our control. The loss people experience from devastating weather and wars is certainly an example of this.
There is Much We Can’t Control
But as Neff points out, even things we think are in our control are not totally within our control. For instance, when people have addictions or anger problems or repeatedly involve themselves in toxic relationships, this occurs partially because of their choices. But it is also partially because of forces outside of their control.
Neff writes, “If you had control over your maladaptive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, you wouldn’t still have them. . . Clearly you don’t have complete control over your actions, or else you’d only act in ways that you approved of.”
The point in all of this is that being a human entails inevitable suffering. We fail. and we make mistakes. Furthermore, we suffer pain because of forces that are out of our control. IT HURTS.
Suffering Calls for Compassion
It is essential that we learn to show self-compassion because it is the way that we apply salve and bandages to our emotional wounds so they can heal. When we do this, we strengthen our spirits and help ourselves to continue more peacefully and lovingly with our lives.
If we ignore our emotional wounds by telling ourselves to just “deal with it” or through repressing our pain, our pain will resurface in all sorts of more painful emotional, physical, and social problems.
Neff notes that “People who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and depressed.” In addition, being compassionate with ourselves helps us to connect with other people because one of the core elements of self-compassion is recognizing the shared humanity of all people.
Photo by Jessica Delp, courtesy of Unsplash
The Compassion Difference
Self-compassion is radically different from self-esteem. This is because self-esteem focuses on feeling good about one’s self, while self-compassion focuses on being present and tender to ourselves when we feel horrible about life and our own worth.
Self-esteem tends to avoid looking at our failures and shortcomings. On the other hand, self-compassion allows us to show gentleness to ourselves when we recognize our own shortcomings and failures, which are a part of being human.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion
Notice that self-esteem pushes us to compare ourselves to others in unhealthy ways. Either we compare ourselves to others and are jealous because we think other people are better than us. Or, we compare ourselves to others and feel superior because we think we are better than them. Self-compassion helps us to see the shared humanity in everyone which entails moments of joy and sorrow and success and failure. This draws us closer to one another.
Neff writes, “Rather than managing our self-image so that it is always palatable, self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings have both strengths and weaknesses . . . They are merely a part of the process of being alive. Our minds may try to convince us otherwise, but our hearts know that our true value lies in the core experiences of being a conscious being who feels and perceives.”
Photo by Tulga Ulkan, courtesy of Unsplash
Is Self-Esteem Ever Good?
I have been critical of self-esteem in this post, but self-esteem can play a positive role in our self-concept. Namely, it is right to feel good about good things we have done. In fact, acknowledging the good things we have done and enjoying that feeling can strengthen our spirits to do more good things. It is an act of kindness.
Self-esteem is not a problem per se, but it becomes a problem when we think these things:
One: We should feel good about ourselves all the time.
Two: And we deserve to feel successful all the time.
Three: People should never point out our faults.
Four: We are above average or the best in everything.
Five: And we shouldn’t try the things we are bad at because it will make us feel bad about ourselves.
Six: We should avoid failure or mistakes at all costs.
Seven: And we can only feel good about ourselves if we are better than other people.
None of these things are true. When self-esteem ideology promotes these ideas, it cuts us off from ourselves and the full spectrum of our existence, as well as cutting us off from other people.
Why Does All This Matter?
Our relationship with our self matters. We are the closest person to our us. Therefore, what we think about and how we act towards our self (which is influenced by our thoughts) affects us powerfully. It can make the difference between us losing our purpose and becoming increasingly chaotic or finding our purpose and become more integrated and powerful.
The more integrated and powerful we are, the more humane, ethical, and just world we can create. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to honor our dignity and practice self-compassion.
When we do these things well, we will also have the right kind of self-esteem.
I would like to thank my husband, John, who talked through a lot of these ideas with me while we were eating pancakes at brunch today.
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If you would like to read more about dignity, you might like this post:
And if you would like to read more about compassion, you might like this post:
 I am specially speaking about U.S. culture in this post, but these problems may also be present in other cultures around the world.
 Martin Seligman. Learned Optimism. Random House: 2006, Pg. vi
 Ibid, pg. vi-vii
 Many people have referred to young adults today as snowflake generation, criticizing their tendency to believe they are special and deserving of rewards without work. (I have written here about why these discussions about “Precious Snowflakes” are missing the point.)
A Few More Points
 It is easy for older generations to blame younger generations as being the “very worst” and ruining everything. This is certainly not my goal in discussing these issues. I believe that young adults today have many strengths and are going to solve a lot of the social problems that older generations (including my generation—Gen X) seem incapable of doing.
 Martin Seligman. Learned Optimism, pg. vii
 Ibid, pg. vii
 And Ibid, vii
 Kristin Neff. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Harper Collins Publishers: 2011, pg. 11
 Ibid, pg. 72
 And Ibid, pg. 110
 Ibid, pg. 153