At a young age, most of us were indoctrinated with the idea that the most effective tool to navigate the murky waters of identity is a high self-esteem. We’re told to look in the mirror and say: “You’re kind and beautiful and talented and doing the right stuff.”
While it doesn’t take a psychology professor to see the consequences of boosting yourself up too much, feeling positively toward ourselves as a general concept is generally accepted as good. But recent thinking is showing that investing in our self-esteem might have the opposite intended effect, and last Friday The Atlantic took a crack at unpacking it.
Writer Olga Khazan sat down with Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, who has been studying the negative effects of society’s seemingly relentless quest for self-esteem. Her research shows we’d be better off seeking out love for ourselves rather than love of ourselves.
“[We] have to stop the costly pursuit of high self-esteem,” Neff told Khazan.”It’s not [that] having high self-esteem is the problem, it’s pursuing it, which is usually based on feeling special and above-average or better than others.”
Neff explains the problem with self-esteem is that it relies on what we know of others to help inform our opinions of ourselves. It leans on comparison culture. The explicit pursuit of self-esteem asks us to feel superior to others, even falsely, even temporarily. That’s unhealthy, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that feeling awesome about ourselves is a good thing that we scarcely think about who or what that sentiment is preying on.
“We have what’s called self-enhancement bias, where we see ourselves as better in almost any culturally valued trait,” explains Neff. For example: “There’s a large body of research showing that bullying is largely caused by the quest for high self-esteem—the process of feeling special and better-than.”
The preferable path, according to Neff, is to build up our self-compassion. Instead of boosting ourselves up so that we feel high on our Kool-Aid when things go well (and the complimentary partner of that, which is to feel hateful toward ourselves when things don’t), we should love ourselves as a parent would: honestly, tenderly and unconditionally.
Self-esteem is an animal we have to feed with constant if unpredictable feedback loops; self-compassion is something else entirely. An internal acceptance of ourselves as whole individuals who are both flawed and worthy of love at once.
As I was reading I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the point Neff was making and one we’re frequently exploring at Man Repeller, particularly as it relates to personal style and our relationship with our clothes. It’s just another flavor of the same topic, right? It’s not hard to map Neff’s favoring of self-compassion to our favoring of personal style.
For us, it’s always been a feeling. As in: when I leave my home dressed according to a standard I had no hand in creating, I might feel off or unsure of myself. Maybe a little dirty. And I’d need feedback to inform whether I’d done it right or not because who am I to judge a set of rules I didn’t make? This sort of uncertainty may lend itself well to the exhilarating relief of external validation, but what about when that isn’t there? Relying on comparison culture to feed my self-worth — what Neff would call the pursuit of high self-esteem — is risky.
But what about when I leave my house dressed in a way that reflects my own set of rules? One where — as Leandra has described it — I feel immune to the opinions of others, no pull to go home and change because I feel like a walking farce. This type of relationship with my clothes is a deeply personal one that requires no fuel but my own strong sense of self.
Some might argue that fashion and styling are too aesthetically-driven to represent honest reflections of our deepest selves but maybe that’s the point. Maybe clothing isn’t really about aesthetics. After all, it never was about what anyone else saw when we left our front doors, it was the swirly feeling in our guts that said, “Yes, this is me,” or, “No. It’s not.”
At Man Repeller, we talk a lot about clothing as a means of communicating who we are to the world, but through the lens of Neff’s proposal, it’s clear that clothing is a means of communicating who we are to ourselves.
The argument for self-compassion over self-esteem is man-repelling at its core. It’s dressing with ourselves in mind instead of others.
It’s the murky space between our ears that’s most moved by what we choose to put on our bodies, so why get dressed for anyone else? The world, after all, is an unreliable judge of character, and that just won’t do.