Since the publication of Nathaniel Branden’s ‘The Psychology of Self-esteem’ in 1969, the self-esteem idea has dominated as a means of describing the way in which people relate to their own identity and worth. It is not uncommon for therapists to refer to their clients as ‘having’ low self-esteem, and, whilst it is not psychiatric diagnosis, it is an idea that has caught the attention of the public and the helping professions alike.
If the self-esteem idea is broken down into its constituent parts, we might firstly consider the ‘self’. This is a very complex notion, but for simplicity, we might see it as everything about you that can be rated. Secondly, we can consider the concept of ‘esteem’. This derives from the verb ‘estimate’, and is synonymous with ideas such as evaluation, assessment, or rating. To be one who is ‘esteemed’ (e.g. “my esteemed colleague”) involves being well regarded and highly rated along some dimension of worth such as intellect, achievement, or status. Thus, the concept of self-esteem implies a generalised rating of one’s entire self (e.g. “I am amazing!”).
Low self-esteem is generally associated with generalised negative self-talk. Let us consider Dave, a guy who sees himself as a failure. From Dave’s perspective, “I am a failure” is a genuine reflection of the way things are, as if ‘I’ and ‘failure’ are actually equivalent. Believing this thought in this way is likely to narrow Dave’s options, for example, there may well be opportunities that he will avoid due to a lack of self-belief, perhaps leading to further negative self-talk and an even lower mood. There will be things he does not do and risks he will not take, since “I am a failure” is likely to suggest to Dave that he will fail if he does.
Some therapeutic models, notably Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, see the thoughts associated with low self-esteem as ‘symptoms’, or, something that is wrong with the individual and has to change. In this type of therapy, Dave might be asked to challenge his thoughts about being a failure in the service of attempting to ‘raise’ his self-esteem. Aside from research evidence to suggest that high self-esteem can be just as problematic for people as low self-esteem, working to raise self-esteem is problematic from the perspective of newer therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) because it involves swapping believing one story (“I’m a failure”) for believing another (“I’m a great guy”). The problem here is that we are all much more complex than one simple story and believing in any thought that is about evaluating one’s entire self, good or bad, is very unlikely to tell the whole story. Whilst it might be useful to rate aspects of the self (for example, I often ask my students to rate my performance as a lecturer because their feedback helps me to improve), generalised ratings of the entire self are rarely useful.
Because of some of the problems with the rather simplistic notion of trying to raise a person’s self-esteem, therapists using ACT have built on a concept originally introduced to therapy in the 1960s by psychologist, Albert Ellis – self-acceptance. This idea is about learning to notice and accept all aspects of your experience, good, bad, and indifferent, without judgement or condemnation of the whole self. Noticing the disappointment associated with failure might be helpful with regard to improving future performance, whereas globally condemning oneself on the basis of it is likely to be unhelpful. Since we cannot avoid adversity, failure, or simply the experience of unwelcome thoughts and feelings, excessively linking any part of our experience to the whole of our self implies that high self-esteem is necessarily transitory and vulnerable to circumstance.
The ACT take on self-acceptance promotes individuals taking what is often called an observer perspective on their experience. This essentially involves the realisation that you and your experiences are not the same thing. Let us imagine Yasmin, who like Dave, is also beset by thoughts about failure, but unlike Dave, she is able to take an observer perspective on these thoughts. She may notice herself having the thought, “I am a failure”, although she stands in a different way to it, perhaps with an experience that sounds more like, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am a failure”. The observer perspective allows Yasmin to notice the process of self-judgement and choose a response to it. It seems to represent a position in which unpleasant thoughts and feelings, including judgemental and negative self-stories, are less threatening, and perhaps allows Yasmin to respond to her thoughts with a wider range of responses, including compassion and self-acceptance.
Part 2 of this great article will be posted next week!
Dr Richard Bennett works as a clinical psychologist and runs a private practice, Think Psychology, in Birmingham. He also works at the University of Birmingham, where he leads a postgraduate programme training CBT therapists. Through the University, he organises the annual Birmingham ACT Week, training healthcare professionals in ACT theory and practice. Dr Guy Meadows of The Sleep School is a regular contributor to Birmingham ACT Week, where he delivers training on the use of ACT for insomnia.