Screw Self-Esteem. Self-Compassion is Better for Personal Style

A little psychology to go with your shoes

05.12.16
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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.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Elizabeth is wearing a Tory Burch jacket and Katerina Makriyianni earrings.

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  • THIS is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to my sister, everyone I know when they say: why you dress so badly? we’re going out! (a t-shirt and jeans is bad because it’s not flashy or a sexy dress), or you’ve a good long hair, why your hair is up all the time! or the best of all, why you’re so depressed!? (and that is not showing on my face as its very clear by the way I dress). As I am on the anxiety spiral trying to get back to who I really am to myself and seeing myself in reality as how I always see it on my head.

    • Haley Nahman

      Seeing ourselves in reality = SO HARD

  • THANK YOU! I actually just read that article in the Atlantic and I was so glad to see a sentiment I have had for a while expressed there and here. The thing about self-esteem is that it’s exhausting and self compassion as a concept it more like “acknowledge the thing that is bothering you about yourself and move on with either trying to fix it or make peace with it” which is a much more sustainable way to live.

    • Haley Nahman

      Love that

  • Great post!

    I think you’ll love this outfit post with my favorite neutral look for summer: https://alliesfashionalley.com/2016/05/summer-neutrals-with-dansko/

    xo

    Allie

  • Nicely put!

    I am a firm believer in 2 things:

    a) I have the (copy)right to my own life and it has made me who I am.
    Of course other people were involved, but so were circumstances, good luck, bad luck, events, social frames, my own personality, changes to my personality …). It’s my story and I’ll live it as I want to (it goes without saying that this entails taking care about other people’s rights, boundaries and stories).

    b) It can be useful to compare yourself to yourself, but this is the only right you get. Comparing yourself to others is mostly useless, because they have their own stories. It can also be unjust and harmful, to yourself and to others. (I should know. I’ve worked REALLY hard all my life and flinch almost every time someone gets ugly out of envy, because getting here cost me so much and it’s not even where I’d like to be, too many times).

    This is nothing I am hammering into the minds of people I meet or live with, these are just my unspoken(ish) axioms. On the whole, I don’t think one should be acutely aware of just about everything about oneself from a certain age on. I think we should get to know ourselves as much as possible (preferably during our youth) and then just allow ourselves to live, adding a pinch of self irony or self-directed jokes from time to time to show we are comfortable with ourselves. No need for more. Just comfort.

    • Haley Nahman

      On the same page from top2bottom. Your point on copyrighting our own lives reminds me of my favorite line ever of Nora Ephron’s: Everything is copy.

      • 🙂 (I just finished my Dawkins – the Selfish gene – a few weeks ago and can only agree: we are all made of copies and for that reason highly original 🙂 – that’s formula for Me:

        a 3,5% copy of one thing x 4,5 % copy of another, with a glitch x 6,8 % copy with 2 glitches x 3,2 % copy x 7 % copy… (copy of genes, combinations, memes, my own features …)

    • Senka

      Perfectly put. I needed both article and your comment!

  • Elizabeth Tamkin

    The saying “if the tree falls and nobody hears it, does it really happen” comes to mind for me because sometimes I get dressed up in my room just for me. I look at myself and walk around my room in an outfit that nobody is going to see that day, and maybe never will.

    Another note, the statement about bullying being related to one’s quest for higher self-esteem makes so much sense. A lot of people relate self worth up against others, rather than just within themselves. I think that’s what you are saying here and correct me if I am wrong, but what we should focus on is our self within ourself rather than up against others. Rather than a line-up rating humans 1-10, we should try to just be 10’s ourselves.

    • Haley Nahman

      HAHA.

      If no one sees this outfit did I really wear it?

      That is funny and poignant. And your answer would obviously be no because you’re doing it for yourself! Which, you’re right, is exactly what I was getting at.

  • I live for compliments on anything aesthetic related. Yes I feel like I have super powers when I wear something weird that only I understand, but I also create art for other people to enjoy, I don’t enjoy my own art, I enjoy the art that others put out.

  • Amy Mills

    One time on the bus I saw a girl near me scroll thru IG and pass a pic posted by MR. And the coolest thing was that I didn’t think in my head “ugh she is too basic to like MR how can she follow their posts and still be wearing those boots” – which I am ashamed to admit I might think in some other context cause UGH it is hard to not fall down that self esteem competitive rabbit hole – but rather I thought, “cool, she likes MR too.”

    All of that is to say: I do think your site and everything you guys espouse 100% promotes self compassion as opposed to self esteem, which is soooo cool among fashion media sources. Because style and attitude need not be a zero-sum competitive game with our entire gender

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you so much for saying that! You’re already next level if you’re able to be metacognitive with your thoughts like that.

    • Lindsay

      I’m definitely one of those more basic girls who loves MR for the very reason it is so different from the way my “love-of-JCrew” brain works. I’d love to dress in a more man repelling way, and I read MR because 1. they can show me how and 2. they reassure that I can do whatever the hell I want and if that means skinny jeans and a v-neck, then wear on sister.

  • CaturM

    This is an excellent piece.. Thank you so much. It solidifies something that I’ve been having trouble with for the longest time. Compassion is king!!

  • Aggie

    This is exactly what I needed to hear, I constantly pass judgement on myself on ‘why did I just say that’ or ‘someone else is just wearing this better than I ever could’ and it makes me sad. At the end of the day, I can only pull myself up positively when I receive a compliment and it needs to change. I wish I could be proud of myself and my accomplishments but every time I look around, my self-esteem goes down. Thank you for this article,it helps put things into perspective.

    • Haley Nahman

      The information age doubles down on comparison and validation culture. You’re totally sane to feel that way and I feel it too!

      • Aggie

        <3

  • Robin

    This a great post, but I find it quite difficult to see the borders. When I feel like I’ve dressed great because I’m following an aesthetic, which might no be MY aesthetic, is it self-esteem or self-compassion? I very often feel like I don’t have an own style because I like all these different kinds of styles that are everywhere around us, movies, blogs, instagram. How can I be less ‘yes you succeeded in achieving this aesthetic today!’ and more ‘this is good this is me and tomorrow will be me too’?

    • Haley Nahman

      Such great questions and the right ones! It *is* totally blurry. Since we don’t live in a vacuum or on our own little planets, it’s natural that our tastes will be informed by the world around us. All of us are just a some of our parts and experiences and influences and stories. But different ones! I think it takes time and awareness to learn who we are (on a gut level rather than just an outward-facing one) within that context and that means a lot of false starts (“oh my god i convinced myself i liked that for this dumb reason but in hindsight that so wasn’t me”) and side-steps (“that felt like me for a while and now I like this even more”).

      I think as people get older and wiser and better at knowing themselves they tend to figure out how to more easily transition from the self-esteem mindset to the self-compassion mindset. I really think when people berate their younger years for being messy it’s this exact process they are referencing. The process of learning who we are.

      I don’t think that’s necessarily a process any of us can force but it’s something I think we can move along quicker if we think critically enough. Does that make sense? My point is that you probably do have your own style, it’s just still developing. Most people don’t step out of high school or whatever with a distinct point of view.

      If I were you I’d accept where you are now and just stay open and curious.

      • Another thing I found out: it is quite possible one will find one’s style only after 40. Till then, why not fool around? 🙂

  • fashiongermane

    This article is beautifully written about something that NEEDS to be talked about! I love how you explain that self-esteem is great, however, there are times it becomes negative. People need to focus on feeling good about themselves through their own compassion. What a beautiful idea and what a wonderful world it would be if everyone thought this way. I wonder how we can find a happy medium between the two ideas.

  • Sanna Wege

    EXACTLY! There were at least two fifferent occasions that instantly come to my mind where I tried to be something I’m not, trying to fullfill a certain fashion standart, and consequently feeling miserable about myself. One was last thursday: I was trying to impress a man that I like and wore a miniskirt and a tight top and heels, aiming at a sexy look. I ended up feeling the complete opposite of sexy: feet hurt, top needed to be pulled straight every few seconds and let’s not even talk about the mini-miniskirt. I didn’t feel like myself at all. Today I wore a loose tee instead, knee-long jeans and a pair of flats, plus unkempt hair and messy make-up – and voilá: I was comfortable and definetly felt more beautiful than I did two das ago. I felt like myself.

  • We mustn’t confuse self-esteem with ego or arrogance. Self-esteem, self-respect, self-compassion and self-love are all important aspects of one’s mental health and feeling good about who we are (without relying on anyone else’s opinion). There are a myriad of psychological (conscious and unconscious) reasons that impact the clothes we buy and choose to wear, and yes we should dress for ourselves, but people also dress to fit into a certain a social status, sub-culture, community and the like. Of which sometimes self-esteem (or lack there of) plays a key role. I think women need confidence and a strong sense of self-identity before they can truly dress for themselves.

  • Katherine H

    I agree with the whole concept written here. Love is strong. And if you truly have that feeling for yourself, then it does not matter what people say or think about what you do or wear. Even if they insult you directly to your face. If you have that feeling for yourself, then you have an impenetrable shield and nothing negative gets through. The world’s abundance of cruel opinions no longer matter whatsoever.