Friday, February 1, 2013

Anthony Carter - Young Boys Need Self-Esteem to Survive

Over at the Good Men Project this morning, Anthony Carter has an article entitled, "Young Boys Need Self-Esteem to Survive," an idea that seems pretty obvious and useful on the surface. However, I have long agreed with Kristin Neff, PhD (University of Texas) and clinical psychologist Christopher Germer, PhD, who both argue that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem. After the article from Carter, I will offer some information on why self-compassion is not only better, but more important than self-esteem.

Young Boys Need Self-Esteem to Survive


Anthony Carter knows how hard it is to survive a childhood that was critical of who he was. He wants that to change for the boys of today.

To all the boys who may or may not be queer. The boys picked last in sports but first for the latest in fashion, entertaining, and tasteful decorating. The boys who couldn’t catch a football but instead could clean a bathroom until it sparkles and offer serious, heartfelt care to a sick sibling.

I salute you.

I salute us. In this culture, our gifts go unrecognized or at worse, get criticized and mocked. I salute all the boys like me who were different. Yes, we are here to stay and more importantly will be leading the revolution when the time comes.

Did I mention the time is now?

We are through waiting patiently for the all powerful “they,” whoever the they happens to be this week, to allow us the privilege to “be.” We have been quietly watching from the sidelines learning to survive a very hostile world that is not ready for us.

However, no one is ever fully ready for change. It pretty much sneaks up on you.


As a young boy and now older adult, I have spent my life seeking kindness. I witness so much cruelty, domination, and coercion in the world.

What are boys and men like me to do if there is no urge to dominate or be dominated? What to do when we would rather a great conversation and a cup of coffee than an opportunity to one up a friend or colleague?

In this world, the thinking man is a problem man. As a person seeking kindness, it becomes difficult to hold out for this seemingly unattainable entity. It seems almost an impossibility trying to survive amidst a world that seems so set on destroying everything that you are.

Almost impossible is not the same as impossible.

Those of us who have survived childhood and didn’t give into the self-hatred that is so seductive when you don’t toe the line, know a thing or two about not only surviving but thriving. Within the harshest of circumstances, human beings hunger for and create beauty.

As a man/boy learns to thrive beyond a prescribed masculinity, we totally thrive by repeatedly creating beauty.

Our refusal to stop being, doing, and developing the things that sustain us is the most important step in revolutionizing our thinking, our relationships and our planet.

Hurray for the assholes that bullied us and bravo to all the young males who survived it, didn’t recreate it, and learned how to not stop simply because a wall of shit fell on their heads.

One key line above is important in my opinion: "Our refusal to stop being, doing, and developing the things that sustain us is the most important step in revolutionizing our thinking, our relationships and our planet." Being who we are and doing the things that sustain us has little to do with self-esteem and everything to do with self-compassion.

Here is a short video from Dr. Neff on the important differences between self-esteem and self-compassion:

And this brief section, from Kristin Neff's article, Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself (Self and Identity, 2: 85–101, 2003), offers an useful working definition of self-esteem:

Self-esteem, which stems from evaluations of self-worth, is constituted by judgments and comparisons (Coopersmith, 1967; Harter, 1999). As William James (1890) proposed over a century ago, self-esteem involves evaluating personal performances (how good am I?) in comparison to set standards (what counts as good enough?) in domains of perceived importance (it’s important to be good at this). Self-esteem also involves looking to others’ evaluations of the self (how much do others like me, approve of me?), in order to determine how much one likes the self (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). Social comparison is an additional determinant of self-esteem (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993; Beach & Tesser, 1995; Buunk, 1998; Deci & Ryan, 1995; Suls & Wills, 1991), so that the self is evaluated in relation to the performances of others.

There are also sub-types of self-esteem, such as domain specific self-esteem, contingent self-esteem, and stable self-esteem, among others.

In opposition to the self-esteem model, which can result in less than desirable behaviors in order to maintain social approval, to measure up to others, or an "over-emphasis on evaluating and liking the self may lead to narcissism, self-absorption, self-centeredness, and a lack of concern for others" (Neff, 2003), Neff (2009) has proposed an alternate model based in self-compassion, one that does not involve evaluations of self-worth:

Drawing upon ideas discussed in the Insight tradition of Buddhism (e.g., Brach, 2003; Kornfield, 1993; Salzberg, 1997), self-compassion is defined in terms of three main components: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness when considering personal weakness or hardships (see Neff, 2003a, 2003b, for a more complete discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of self-compassion). Research on self-compassion is part of a larger movement by Western psychologists to investigate the validity of Buddhist ideas concerning the causes and amelioration of suffering and to examine the usefulness of techniques such as mindfulness for adaptive functioning (see Wallace & Shapiro, 2006, for review).

Although people typically value being kind and compassionate to others, they are often harsh and uncaring toward themselves. The intense self-focus that occurs when people confront their own limitations can sometimes lead to a type of tunnel vision in which people become over-identified with and carried away by negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. Feelings of isolation can also occur when people temporarily forget that failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience, serving to amplify and exacerbate suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, involves being kind toward oneself when considering weaknesses, remembering that being human means being flawed and imperfect, and learning from one’s mistakes. Self-compassion also involves taking a mindful approach to negative thoughts and emotions that acknowledges the reality of personal failings while keeping them in balanced perspective. Mindfulness shifts one’s attention away from elaborative cognitive processing—especially those thoughts creating stories about the self (Martin, 1997)—toward the nonjudgmental acceptance of present-moment experience (Bishop et al., 2004). Thus, self-compassion tends to soften rather than reinforce egoprotective boundaries between self and others. (For an alternative conceptualization of self-compassion, see Gilbert & Irons, 2005 or Gilbert & Procter, 2006.)

In this same article, Neff argues that people who rate higher in self-compassion likely are not as defensive of their egos (compared to people who are working to maintain their self-esteem) because their feelings of inadequacy are experienced with acceptance rather than evaluation and judgment.

One of the huge criticisms of the "self-esteem movement" in this country is the need for everyone to feel special (to the point that score is not kept in games or everyone gets a trophy for showing up). After all, who wants to be average? Few people describe themselves as average and many would consider it an insult.
In contrast, self-compassion is predicated on the acknowledgment of shared and universal aspects of life experience and therefore tends to highlight similarities rather than differences with others. Also, whereas self-esteem is often contingent on the successful attainment of goals, self-compassion is felt precisely when life is not going so well, allowing for greater resilience and stability regardless of particular outcomes. (Neff, 2009)
So, rather than arguing that young boys need self-esteem to survive, I would argue that our boys (and teens and men) need self-compassion to survive . . . or even better, to thrive.

For more information on the psychological benefits of self-compassion, see Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning (Neff, Kirkpatrick, and Rude; Journal of Research in Personality 41: 139–154, 2007).

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