High Self-Esteem is OUT; Humility and Self-Compassion are IN

Little girl cartwheeling in meadow

When my daughter was 6 years old, she really wanted to master a cartwheel.

One particular morning, I watched from our living room window as she struggled to land on her feet, while her best friend cartwheeled with perfectly straight legs all over our front lawn. I could see the disappointment and embarrassment on my daughter’s face at her relatively poor performance. I noticed the water welling up in her eyes and then the cursory goodbye wave she gave to her friend before running into the house in tears.

AccidentThese moments feel so loaded sometimes. It seems that how we react to these minor events as parents will have major impact on our children down the road and either set them on a path to success or weaken them somehow. Strung together this might be the case. But the guiding principle to avoid screwing up is pretty simple: teach and model humility and self-compassion.

Armed with this wisdom, I went over to her and said, “To be honest, honey, your cartwheel isn’t great right now. I can understand that that is disappointing, especially since it seems to come so easily to your friend. Other things come easily to you. But most of us have to work really hard at the things we really want to do. Do you want your cartwheel get better? If so, let’s figure out how to make that happen. Because I know you can do hard things. Remember when you couldn’t do the monkey bars?  Now you can do them two at a time!”

Just kidding. That’s not at all what I said.

What I really said was, “Your cartwheel looks great! And anyway, to heck with the cartwheel, you’re devouring chapter books while half of your friends still can’t read!”

Not my finest parenting moment, but I knew she was feeling terrible, so then I was feeling terrible! I just wanted her to feel better, to feel special in her own way, and to not lose confidence.

I’ve since learned that playing to a kid’s ego and self-esteem is not a long-term strategy for their wellbeing or motivation. To really get them to bounce back and work hard, you have to help them learn not to think about themselves so much at all and to learn that when they do think of themselves, they should do so with acceptance but accuracy. On the surface these don’t seem like radical concepts, but in our culture, they really are.

Having an accurate sense or our own strengths and weaknesses and not thinking about ourselves much at all runs very contrary to the focus on boosting self-esteem that was just starting to become popular when I was an elementary school kid in the early 1980s.

The problem with high self-esteem
Over the last few decades, Western psychology has promoted self-esteem—a self-evaluation of self-worth—as the marker of psychological health. The main reason being that evidence has shown that low self-esteem leads to depression, anxiety, and depleted functioning. Thus, the reverse was assumed to be true—that high self-esteem would lead to high functioning. The problem according to psychologist Kristin Neff  is that to have high self-esteem, particularly in U.S. culture, we have to feel “special” and “above average” in comparison to others, and that doing so is logically impossible to do all the time unless we constantly puff ourselves up and/or put others down.

It’s a struggle to maintain “high” self-esteem, which inevitably leads to pendulum swings.

Moreover, this requirement to feel that we are better than others in order to feel good about ourselves–to constantly puff up our egos–is what leads to ego defensiveness, cognitive biases, and closed-mindedness towards different perspectives or even facts that contradict what we already believe. All of that undermines continual learning, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and collaboration—the most important jobs skills for the 21st century— as my co-author and I explain in Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.

Constantly evaluating and managing how you measure up to other people is exhausting and distracting. It’s a roadblock to collaboration and to listening well to others—which forms the foundation of open-mindedness at the heart of critical thinking. Psychologists have shown that to think at a higher-level we need to listen to others, because we’re bad at seeing our biases and faulty thinking on our own. We need the perspectives and viewpoints of other people to expose these faults, but because of our biases, self-absorption, and ego defensiveness, we often tune other people out, form our answers before another person is finished talking, and filter them and their ideas through our own self-enhancing biases. All of this stems from focusing too much on puffing ourselves up.

The power of humility and self-compassion
By contrast to high self-esteem, humility and self-compassion (which can be viewed as complementary concepts) are reflected in stable self-esteem, self-acceptance, and relatively less concern with self-evaluation or comparison with others.

Humility is a psychological concept that includes:

  1. An accurate (not under- or over-estimated), stable sense of one’s abilities and achievements
  1. The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
  1. Openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice
  1. Relatively low focus on the self or a tendency to “forget the self”
  1. Appreciation of the value of other people

Neff describes self-compassion as having three elements: (1) self-kindness, (2) mindfulness, and (3) a sense of shared humanity—an understanding that suffering and feeling personally inadequate are part of the shared human experience and not something that just happens to “me.” Researchers have found that those with more self-compassion have more emotional intelligence and resilience and higher well-being. Self-compassion is also positively associated with intrinsic motivation and failure tolerance, both of which are keys to persevering when we hit a snag or fail, which is inevitable in the process of learning, creating, or innovating. High self-compassion is associated with more reflective wisdom, curiosity, initiative, and exploration. Conversely, unstable self-esteem (fluctuating between high and low) in children is associated with less curiosity and interest in school activities and less interest in challenging activities.

Self-Esteem, “smarts,” and gender
It seems particularly key to understand the difference between high self-esteem and humility and self-compassion when raising girls these days. Research shows, and all those Dove commercials tell us, that girls’ self-esteem starts to plummet as they reach puberty and middle school. That’s when they start to compare themselves, particularly in looks and popularity, to other girls. There are lots of reasons for this, and of course all those airbrushed magazine covers are at least partly to blame.  Now a recent study published in the journal Science, suggests that girls start comparing themselves unfavorably to boys in terms of intelligence even earlier in childhood.

According to the research, both 5-year-old girls and 5-year-old boys tend to believe their own gender smarter than the other. By the age of 6, however, girls are already succumbing to gender stereotypes and self-selecting out of activities designed for “really, really smart” people. By contrast, 6-year-old boys still think they are smarter than girls—a belief they tend to continue to hold as adults, according to many other surveys. The study suggests that it’s this insidious implicit bias that leads girls to opt out of so-called “smart” careers in math and science and to other pernicious gender gaps. The argument then becomes that we all need to be better about telling girls how smart they are.  We need to prop up their confidence and self-esteem.

But what if what we really need to do is help the boys not think of themselves as smarter than girls?  What if the problem is focusing on who is smarter or better in the first place? What if instead of advocating for everyone to feel that they are special or better than others, we focus our girls and boys instead on developing self-compassion, embracing their strengths, improving their weaknesses, and then not thinking about themselves and comparing themselves to others so much at all?

What if we said that the key to a good career was a willingness to try, fail, and challenge ourselves past our limitations and definitely does not rest on some notion of innate “smarts.” Thanks to the research of Carol Dweck, we now know that this is actually the case—that those who have a “growth mindset”—who believe that intelligence is not fixed but something that can be improved with effort—do actually learn and achieve more.

Moreover, in the very near future, no human stands a chance in terms of “smarts” against artificial intelligence and smart machines. As we discuss in Humility is the New Smart, to stay relevant in the Smart Machine Age, humans must instead accept their weaknesses in amassing, retrieving, and analyzing knowledge in comparison to technology and instead play to their strengths: critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and collaboration with other human beings.

Humility and self-compassion are key underlying mindsets for all of those skills. High self-esteem may actually be a detriment.