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Why High Self-Esteem Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

You might have looked at the title of this article and thought “but wait, isn’t working on achieving high self-esteem an important part of therapy?”


The answer to this query, from an Acceptance and Commitment based therapy perspective, is no. You do not need to achieve high-self esteem to lead a rich, meaningful, and valuable life. Let me tell you why…


The idea that individuals require intrinsically high self-esteem to be able to act, achieve, do, and essentially live is actually quite unhelpful. It sets us up for inevitable failure, as we look toward an intangible and uncontrollable feeling to serve as reason and purpose for our behaviours and endeavors. I hear it all the time – “I could do that… if only I had high self-esteem”. Fact of the matter is – self-esteem is not stable. Realistically, there will never come a day when an individual can state, “I have high self-esteem 100% of the time”. Rather, it is a transient judgment that we make of ourselves that is forever impacted by our own experiences, interactions, and present perceptions. This is okay. It is okay to feel like you possess “high” self-esteem one moment and “low” self-esteem another moment. For example, it is a universally normal experience that our perceived self-esteem takes a hit when we engage in a behaviour or have an interaction that leads to us genuinely feeling embarrassed, rejected, let down, inadequate, or some other “low self-esteem emotion”. Conversely, we may feel really “high” self-esteem when we engage in behaviours or have an experience that leads to us feeling accomplished, confident, purposeful, or some other desirable emotion. In understanding that all of these fluctuating emotions are valid human experiences that are inescapable, we can come to recognize that it is also valid that the judgments of self-esteem they are intrinsically tied to should ebb and flow and never remain constant.


It is accepting the natural instability of our feeling of self that empowers us to be able to still work towards a meaningful existence, despite the fact that we feel unable. To know that my transient feelings do not dictate my ability allows me to engage in activities and behaviours that I find valuable, which in turn serves to foster a greater degree of self-compassion and self-worth, two things that are separate from my constantly fluctuating judgments about self-esteem. Self-worth can be thought of as a more stable trait, one that is independent of shifting feelings about whether or not I feel confident in a moment. It is deep seeded recognition of my worth and value as a human being, something that exists even in moments where I experience the fleeting thoughts and emotions associated with low self-esteem. This is why it is more essential to work towards achieving a high sense of self-worth rather than high self-esteem.


With this type of focus, one is permitted the ability to feel and react authentically, even if this means acknowledging the very real experiences and triggers that create a sense of low self-esteem. In doing so, one is more self-compassionate and resilient to work towards meaning and purpose, despite the inescapable emotional and cognitive lows that are expected during the course of any life.


Kaylee Garside, MA, has extensive experience in the areas of mindfulness and acceptance practices, plus many more. For more information on Kaylee and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.