Have you ever wondered who the person is that invented or discovered words? How cool would that job be! Except of course for the fact that millions of people would probably like to smack you upside your head for coming up with some seriously bizarre stuff. Like for instance: Billingsgate, Codswallop, Crapulence, Gongoozle, Pandiculation and Vomitory. I mean, who says things like:

  • He looked all around the room until he found the vomitory, and then ran right through it.
  • Every morning in bed I do a complete pandiculation.
  • She was getting irritated that he kept gongoozling her friend at the dinner table.
  • It must have been one hell of a party, what with the amount of crapulence they were experiencing.
  • Some people are just full of codswallop.
  • The more she drank, the more billingsgate she became.

Strangeness aside, we use words to assign meaning, to express our thoughts, our attitudes, our feelings, and our emotions. We use words to communicate, to build up (or tear down) ourselves and each other, and to simply contemplate. It’s interesting that our brain use images much more than words, but we communicate much more in words than images. Funny how things work sometimes.

It makes little sense that I love words as much as I do. I’m really more of a hands-on kind of guy than an “artsy-poofy” kind of guy. My daughter Leah is definitely the “artsy-poofy” one in the family. I’ve spent my entire life building things, fixing things, and getting my hands dirty. I’ve lost more tools over the years than I’ve owned pairs of shoes. I’ve always loved goofing around with electronics, cars, radios, computers, geek stuff, nerd things, etc. I made a living teaching technology. Then I retired and wrote two books, “12 Principles of Success and Fulfillment,” and “The Power of Gratefulness.” You can check then out on Amazon if you like. Not sure what my next book will be about, but after learning that 85% of the population has low self-esteem, maybe I’ll write something about that.

Eighty five percent is a lot. Our current population is around 320 million and 85% of that is like, almost everybody, and probably every adult. I’m thinking most babies and toddlers think they’re awesome right up until they are influenced otherwise. So what’s up with that?

According to our friend and colleague Daniel Webster, self-esteem is defined as: confidence is one’s own worth or abilities, a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities. While that’s a good start, we can certainly include other areas of our lives such as how we feel about ourselves, our adequacy (or inadequacy), how we look, how we get along with others, how we fare in the employment sector, and so on. The good news is if you happen to be in the 85% group with self-esteem issues, don’t worry; pretty much everybody you know is right there with you!

So what’s the logic or rationale behind low self-esteem? Most of us can likely point to some time or events in our lives, usually our youth, when a school mate or someone in authority said or did demeaning things to us. Perhaps you were on the receiving end of phrases such as: “You’ll never amount to anything,” “Why are you so stupid?” “You’re ugly,” “Nobody wants to be your friend,” and so on. Why are humans so mean sometimes? It turns out that people who feel badly about themselves tend to project their feelings and self-evaluation onto others. In other words, when someone is put down, criticized or mocked in some way, there’s a very good chance they’ll be critical towards others. Human nature is a quirky thing, and even after granting thousands of doctorate degrees to psychiatrists and psychologists, good explanations are tough to come by.

How does self-esteem (or lack thereof) affect us? Well the experts tell us that our self-esteem impacts all kinds of things: from our happiness, to our success, to our accomplishments, to our relationships, to our contentment. But the data isn’t always too clear about whether the self-esteem is the cause or the effect. And although people with high self-esteem tend to think they’re more successful and happier, objective measurements show that they’re not. High self-esteem has been linked to narcissism, which encourages people to rate themselves subjectively higher. High self-esteem has been linked to good job performance, but it’s yet to be proven that it’s actually caused by high self-esteem. It could, in fact, be that good job performance causes high self-esteem. And of course there’s some debate over whether self-esteem levels can be linked to other tendencies like violence or depression, though one research paper found no proof that either high or low self-esteem directly cause violence.

If you think about self-esteem as how we see ourselves and what we think about ourselves, self-compassion is more about how we treat ourselves. Self-compassion includes kindness and forgiveness of ourselves. It also incorporates acceptance that we’re all human, and as part of that, self-compassion leads to a more inclusive, accepting point of view.

It seems that self-esteem relies more on external validation, as in comparing ourselves with others. For some strange reason though, we tend to compare up rather than compare down, which of course results in lower self-esteem. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to gently examine our weaknesses or mistakes, forgive ourselves, and work towards improving in those areas. Self-compassion puts mistakes into perspective, but also makes us more likely to see our weaknesses as being changeable.

If I had to choose whether to work or focus on self-compassion or self-esteem, I’d go with self-compassion. Besides the fact that self-compassion has been found to correlate with lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher levels of happiness, optimism and agreeableness, it can be challenging to be compassionate toward others when we aren’t compassionate towards ourselves. People with lots of self-compassion still get things done, they’re just nicer to themselves along the way. Plus, people with high levels of self-compassion tend to have high self-esteem as well, so you get the best of both worlds. Might be something worth pursuing.

Here are a few thoughts on how to boost your self-compassion:

  1. Remember that we’re all human. When you make a mistake, your project fails or you regret something you said, remind yourself that to err is human. Reminding yourself that everyone else makes mistakes as well is a good way to put your own missteps into perspective.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. When you do make a mistake or go through a tough time, don’t be so hard on yourself. A good way to do this is to focus on what you can learn from the situation, rather than what went wrong. If you’re always learning and improving, it’s much easier to find something positive in a bad situation. One exercise that can help with this way of thinking is to imagine a good friend is having a tough time and practice responding to them. When you put someone else in that situation, it’s often much easier to respond compassionately than it is to yourself. Or even better, imagine a future version of yourself sitting down with you and explaining why being hard on yourself is of little value, and that self-compassion solves many issues.
  3. Evaluate yourself honestly. One of the problems with self-esteem is that it tends to rely on external influences like getting a promotion, winning a competition or receiving compliments. To increase your self-compassion, try to honestly evaluate yourself, focusing on your actions and motivations rather than looking for external validation. This can help you to be more gentle with yourself, since you’ll be taking your good intentions into account every time you evaluate something that went wrong, rather than focusing on the results.

A couple of years ago, I adopted this phrase that I quickly added to my daily calendar: “What is the KINDEST thing I can say to myself today?” So every day, usually in the morning when I look at my calendar, I say things to myself like: “You’ve helped a lot of people over the years,” or “You worked hard and raised a great family,” or “You have a lot of terrific friends,” and so on. It always makes me smile and have a better perspective towards myself.

The subject of self-esteem isn’t an easy one. Almost everything we do in life is based on a pattern of some kind – habits if you will. It’s soooo easy to be critical of ourselves. It’s soooo easy to compare ourselves with others who we think have arrived, or have more money, or have a better personality, or whatever. But the truth about self-esteem? If 85% of us have low self-esteem, it means the scale is out of wack. Just like when 85% of the class fails a test; it’s a poor test! Self-esteem is just highly over rated. Does it really matter what someone else has achieved, compared to what you have achieved? Or that someone may have been mean or critical to you? Not really. What really matters in life is that we learn how to love, how to forgive, how to be grateful, how to be compassionate, how to build friendships and relationships, and how to help others. The rest pretty much takes care of itself. If we work on ourselves first, we’ll be able to share goodness and kindness and compassion with others. It may not be easy, but easy is likely over rated too.

To your and my health, success, and self-compassion,

Dr. Hank

PS: If you don’t know where to start, grab a copy of my book “The Power of Gratefulness, a 30 Day Personal Renaissance,” and take the next month to become more grateful. There are tons of benefits to becoming more grateful, including greater satisfaction with life, more contentment, and less stress or anxiety.