Is the value of self-esteem exaggerated?

We often talk about self-esteem as an essential part of leading a fulfilling life – but what exactly do we mean by self-esteem and is it as important as many of us have been told?

A new book by American author Jesse Singal* describes how a lot of the research findings on self-esteem from the 1990s were exaggerated and he questions the value of promoting self-esteem.

He describes how in the late 1980s and 1990s John Vasconcellos, a California politician, became convinced that poor self-esteem was the reason for all kinds of negative outcomes, ranging from addiction to crime. He claimed that raising self-esteem would improve outcomes across society. 

He set up research studies which apparently confirmed this belief and set in motion a state-wide campaign to raise children’s self-esteem, which then spread to other parts of the USA and globally. One of the advantages of this idea was that it seemed to offer a relatively cheap way to fix major problems in society.

The only problem was that a lot of the research was over sold, it subsequently emerged, and did not prove what Vasconcellos claimed. 

So, does this mean that we should forget the idea of self-esteem?

I don’t think so, but I do think this issue raised the question of what exactly we mean by “self-esteem”. I think the problem is that there is a difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism but sometimes the two can be confused.

Narcissism

When people were talking about self-esteem in the Vasconcellos research they were asking individuals to rate themselves on their abilities and we know that people who rate themselves highly may turn out to be rather narcissistic. 

I’d say that in those cases we’re not talking about genuine self-esteem but rather a defence mechanism against deeper feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes, if someone feels inferior they will put on a show of confidence or arrogance. This can become so automatic that they no longer are pretending but actually believe themselves to be superior.

Psychologist Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion, describes the pressure many of us feel under to be ‘special’ or to over achieve and how this can give rise to a tendency to over value our abilities. 

She argues that self compassion, in which we accept ourselves as flawed but essentially worthwhile individuals, is a better way of relating to ourselves than self-esteem (at least in the sense of telling ourselves we are good at something even if we’re not).

Self-compassion

In self-compassion we try to not judge ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to treat ourselves with kindness, even when we mess up.

Neff says: “Unlike self-esteem the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special or above average.”

I think that what Neff calls self-compassion could also be described as healthy self-esteem. By this I mean someone who accepts themselves on a basic level as being an okay person, not necessarily better than others but also not worse. This would be someone who makes mistakes, who can sometimes be unkind, but who can also forgive themselves and try to do better.

I believe this kind of ‘healthy’ self-esteem is an indicator of ‘success’ in life, whatever we mean by that. It could mean having meaningful relationships, developing resilience when things aren’t going well and being able to appreciate the good things in life.Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

*Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, FSG, New York

** Neff, Kristin (2011), Self Compassion, Hodder & Stoughton, London

Image  creative commons licence by Kiran Foster, https://tinyurl.com/yp9vxdk9

The power of the victim

Have you ever spent time with someone who was so sensitive to feeling hurt that everyone fussed around them to make sure they were feeling okay? 

This person may have expected you to read their mind about what they wanted and then got annoyed when you failed to. They then make it your fault – ‘But you should know that that upsets me!’ Or ‘How could you have done that when you know how it makes me feel?’

You may then feel guilty at how selfish or thoughtless you’ve been and try and make it right.

That’s the power of the victim. 

I’m using the word ‘victim’ here in a particular sense, to describe the way that someone can use that role to gain power in their relationships, often unconsciously. Of course, there are many victims in the world who have experienced abusive or damaging treatment and who have legitimate grievances.

But sometimes a genuine experience of victimhood can develop into a way of getting our power needs met in an indirect and sometimes manipulative way.

This may be particularly true for people who find it hard to be assertive and ask for what they need, but rather communicate their ‘hurt feelings’ and try to get other people to rescue them and take responsibility for their lives.

This can be seen with the Drama Triangle, a psychological model that shows how we can alternate between the roles of persecutor, rescuer and victim in our relationships. We may tend to be drawn to one role but can sometimes occupy a different role in the triangle. 

In many couples there will be someone who tends to be the ‘rescuer’, who takes a lot of responsibility for the other person, and someone who tends to be the ‘victim’, who struggles in their life.

When couples become too rigid in these roles then problems develop and each can expeirence the other as the ‘persecutor’. In this case both partners are feeling like the victim and that’s often where, in a sense, we feel most comfortable. It’s much better to regard ourselves as a victim and the other person as the persecutor. 

But it’s important that we recognise our tendency to gravitate towards being the victim. It’s only when we become aware that that’s what we are doing that we have a chance to change things and take appropriate responsibility by asking for what we want rather than using indirect and manipulative methods to get it.

In therapy I see part of my role as helping people see when they have been mistreated or abused, perhaps as children, and how that may have influenced the way they see the world and relate to others.

So, it’s important to validate when people have been victims. There may be legitimate anger towards those who mistreated them, and deep grief surrounding the experience. Giving those feelings a place in the therapy is important.

But sometimes we can become stuck in that victim place and that can keep limit our options as well as negatively affecting our relationships.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/v/victim.html

For more information about my work visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

‘The green-eyed monster’ – dealing with jealousy

Jealousy is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds upon.’

From William Shakespeare’s Othello

While writing this blog on jealousy I looked up ‘jealousy quotes’ on the internet and almost all were negative – the main message is that jealousy is something aweful, something to be judged and condemned, something to feel shame over.

That coincides with my experience with clients, where typically a client will feel some embarrasment at disclosing jealousy about a partner.

I’m using jealousy to descrive the unpleasant feeling that someone, or something, will take away someone we love. So, a child may feel jealous if their sibling is getting more attention from mum. Or you may feel jealous that your partner seems over friendly to their work colleague. 

‘Jealousy’ by Edvard Munch

You may even feel jealous about the attention your partner gives to their social media account or mobile phone.

Of course, jealousy in its extreme form can be an awful experience for both the jealous person and their partner. It can lead to controlling behaviour and destroy relationships. 

Jealousy as a teacher

But rather than always being a negative emotion I think there’s another side to jealousy. From a soul perspective, where everything has a place, jealousy can be there to teach us something about ourselves or our relationship. It can be pointing to something in our lives that needs attention.

First of all, jealousy may be signalling that our relationship needs attention. Perhaps we have been taking our partner for granted and so he or she, unconsciously, begins to show a lot of interest in someone or something else. 

Our jealousy shows that we care. It represents our passion. If we can use the feeling as a starting point for a discussion about the state of the relationship then something good can emerge. 

It can also be asking us to look at whether there are sufficient boundaries in our relationship. By communicating my jealousy I’m also beginning a conversation about  what kind of boundaries I would like. By being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation about jealousy and boundaries I am also communicating that I value the other person and our relationship.

Jealousy can also point to something within ourselves that needs attention. 

For example, it can show us qualities within ourselves that we may have suppressed. If I am afraid my partner is attracted to someone who seems more confident, or more entertaining than me, that can be a sign that I am suppressing the part of myself that is confident or entertaining.

In other words, the jealousy can be an invitation to look at myself and the parts of myself that I may have disowned. Many of us have disowned our passionate or wilder parts, in order to fit in, but that suppression comes at a cost.

Projection

In all kinds of relational issues we can find ourselves projecting things onto the other other person. With jealousy, the obvious possible projection is that it is not our partner who is unhappy with the relationship but us. 

We may be dissatisfied with our partner but reluctant to admit that to ourselves, or not wanting to have an uncomfortable discussion. So what happens is that unacknowledged dissatisfaction is projected onto them, so that suddenly they are the person who we fear will leave us.

The jealousy can actually create huge problems in the relationship, so that they do want to leave us, thus confirming our original fear.

Another form of projection in jealousy is when something from our past is being re-created. This is often a triangle from the past, such as having a sibling who seemed to receive more attention from mum or dad than we did.

Those old feelings can re-emerge in adult relationships so that, what may seem a minor issue, becomes almost unbearable because it ignites the intensely painful feelings from childhood. Unless we are aware of what is going on we can find ourselves dominated by the jealousy without ever realising quite why.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://tinyurl.com/6awu25fw

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Why ‘mistakes’ can actually help the therapy

I thnk some people view therapists as ‘together’ kind of people who always know exactly what they’re doing, both in out of the counsulting room.

If there are therapists lke that out there I’d be very surprised. It certaintly doesn’t apply to me!

Of course, it’s important that therapists are able to bring enough calm to their work in order for the client to feel contained. And I’d hope that after a long training and many years’ expeirence I’ve learned a few things about human behaviour and how to be present with my clients.

But – spoiler alert –  therapists are human with thier own flaws and limitations. Sometimes they even make mistakes.

For those of us working in a relational way the mistakes we make can be about more than simple human fallibility.  They can also be an opportunity to deepen the therapeutic relationship and can be a reflection of something that is relevant to the client’s history.

The kind of mistkes I’m thinking of include forgetting something significant the client has said, expressing myself in an overly challenging way, or forgetting/double booking, a client appointment

When I have made these kind of mistakes I’ve often felt shame initially. But when I give the shame a chance to settle I recognise that the mistake can actually be helpful to explore with the client. For example, how did it feel for them that the therapist made a mistake over their appointment time? 

For some clients when I make a mistake they almost appreciate it, especially if I am uncomfortable, because it shows my vulnerability, It shows that I’m not this perfect expert but a human being with his fallibilities. 

While it can be helpful in the early stage of therapy for some idealisation of the therapist to occur, it’s also important, as therapy progresses, for the client to begin to see the therapist in more realistic terms. Mistakes can help that happen.

But there is also a deeper reason why mistakes are important and that is because they enable the client’s wounding to come to the surface in the therapeutic relationship. 

We have all been wounded, to one degree or another, in our early relationships. It is often relationshp problems that bring people to therapy. When a mistake occurs that  impacts on the therapeutic relationship it gives an opportunity for some of that early wounding to be activated.

A mistake that leaves the client feeling unimportant, forgotten or misunderstood can bring those early feelings into the therapy room in a very real way. If they can be experienced and talked about in the therapy then there is the possibliity for a change in the way the client relates to their own wounding.

If I, as the therapist, can genuinely empathise with their feelings of hurt or anger, that can represent a different response to the one they would have got as a child. Being ‘seen’ and understood in their pain can open the door to greater self-compassion.

Image Creative Commons Licence, courtesy of http://www.snappygoat.com

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Why goal setting is more complicated than you think

I’ve been thinking about goals – how having goals can sometimes make us feel we’re doing something important to ‘improve’ ourselves but actually, sometimes, goal setting can get in the way of change.

At first glance my comment may seem strange. After all, it seems to be a natural part of the personal development process to have goals, as it also often is in our work life or our hobbies.

But while goals can be a helpful way of motivating ourselves, they can also bring their own limitations. 

Think of new year’s resolutions – how often do we start out with great motivation but then gradually let them fade?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that goals have several limitations. These include the fact that they provide a temporary satisfaction, when we meet them, but don’t always change the underlying beliefs and assumptions that underlie the behaviour. 

He adds that goals also create an either/or situation, in which either I meet this goal and am a success or I don’t and I’m a failure.

While Clear argues that it is not goals but systems that are important in achieving improvements, I prefer viewing this subject through the context of values. In a way systems, in the way that Clear uses the term, are similar to values, i.e., the quality of action or behaviour that we are choosing to value.

Therapist Jenna LeJeune talks about this in her book Values in Therapy, noting that it is our values that determine our direction in life and that goals can be the milestones. But without values, goals can become arbitrary and sometimes even damaging, believes Lejeune.

She says: “Behaviour focussed on outcomes (goals) often has a more instrumental quality – it’s more of a means to an end. A glow such as working to obtain money or dressing a certain way to be admired often functions as a means to an end rather than something important in and of itself.”

For example, I have had a goal of getting up early to meditate and reflect before breakfast. It’s a useful goal and it has helped me develop a positive habit that nourishes me. But the goal emerged from work on my values. 

One of my values is giving myself space and time to connect with myself and to reflect. This helps me feel more centred and satisfied in my life. The goal of an early morning meditation is an expression of that value.

This means that on those days when I don’t achieve the goal I don’t beat myself up. Instead, I focus on the general direction of travel and may try and find a space later in the day for reflection. 

Despite the limitations of goals, I do find that they can be helpful in focusing attention and as a motivation in creating positive habits. We just need to acknowledge that they must be linked to deeper values or desires.

Image creative common licence, https://utechod.com/beyond-smart-goals/

LeJeune, Jenna, (2020), Values in Therapy, Context Press, Oakland, CA.

Clear, James, (2018), Atomic Habits, Random House

Don’t try so hard to be your ‘best self’

“[Our] refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality.”

Robert A. Johnson

Striving for our ‘best self’ can set up a difficult dynamic

A brief internet search on ‘best self’ throws up articles such as these: ’10 powerful ways to be your best self!’, ‘The complete guide to becoming your best self’, ‘How to be your best self and get what you want in life!’

And there’s a lot more like these. 

But is this focus on trying to be your best self always helpful? I’m not sure.

Instead of trying to be our ‘best self’, why can’t we just allow ourselves to be…well, ourselves?

Of course, most of us want to ‘improve’ in some way, whether that means being kinder, less irritable, harder working or more patient.

But I’m wary that too rigid a focus on being our ‘best self’ can become another stick to beat ourselves with. For those of us with fierce inner critics, which probably means most of us, the ‘best self’ ideal can be another goal to struggle with, another thing to fail at.

There’s more than a hint of perfectionism in the ‘be your best self’ message. The implication is that the parts of ourselves that we don’t like (or that other people feel uncomfortable with) must be denied or suppressed.

But it leaves out our human frailties, the mistakes we make, the times when we are far from our ‘best selves’ – when we’re irritable with our children or partner, flop out on the sofa watching reality TV, or drink one glass of wine too many.

There’s a place for effort and striving in our lives, but if that takes centre stage it can also lead us to shame ourselves when we fail to live up to an ideal. 

For those of us who may have been criticised as children for not achieving, that’s a painful place to find ourselves.

In my view, a more interesting approach is to become curious about ourselves and our behaviour, especially when we find ourselves engaged in behaviour that negatively affects our relationships, work or self esteem. 

Rather than judging ourselves, can we instead reflect on (or get help in therapy) the behaviours that seem unhelpful. Sometimes when we take amore enquiring attitude we can understand why we behaved in that way. We may discover an unmet need that the behaviour was responding to, albeit in an unhealthy way.

With more awareness of ourselves and what underlies our behaviour we can find ways to honour the different parts of ourselves, including the parts that we find difficult. 

That honouring may take the form of expressing those parts in our relationships or it could be finding a way of honouring that is more symbolic and less about literal expression, such as working with our creativity. The important point is that we have an accepting attitude to the different parts our ourselves rather than a judging attitude.

Image Creative Commons, www.snappygoat.com

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Love’s disappointments

“In promoting expectations of unending bliss and security, the dream of love sets us up for shock and disillusionment.”

John Welwood

 This is a blog post about the other side of love. This is not the ‘heart skipping a beat’ of early passion or the merging of lovers in the belief that they are ‘soul mates’.

It is, rather, those feelings we may have after the honeymoon period and in the years following. The times when we feel unappreciated or misunderstood by our partner. The times when we may question if we’re with the right person at all. They seem more interested in their work, the kids, their friends, the TV, than in us!

I think feelings of disappointment in our partner are almost inevitable. This is because it is impossible for them to carry all the expectations, conscious and unconscious, that we bring to intimate relationships.

But it is in dealing with these disappointments that we can, potentially, grow and develop. It gives us the opportunity to create a love that is more realistic and authentic.

As psychologist Thomas Moore says in Care of the Soul*, “Many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock bottom experiences of love.”

When we embark on our intimate relationship we feel passionate and excited. This person seems to love us for who we are and we find them delightful. They make us feel complete.

Of course, both partners are probably showing their best side, or what they think is their best side, in the early stages of love. Sooner or later, usually within a couple of years, things begin to change – perhaps accelerated by moving in together or having children.

No longer charming

Those qualities that we first found so charming may begin to irritate us. They leave their socks on the bedroom floor, they love that awful TV show that we disdain, they’re more interested in football/shopping than in us. 

When kids arrive these tendencies may continue, especially if the couple have different parenting styles and new frictions emerge.

But I think it is important that our early expectations of being uniquely understood and accepted by our partner are punctured. This puncturing may lead to feelings of disappointment, anger or depression. We can become critical of our partner or withdraw.

As Moore says: “Our love of love and our high expectations  that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience.”

Without meaning to sound glib, however, through pain can come learning. 

There is the chance for us to come to terms with these disappointments and see them not as an indictment of our partner but rather as a natural process in relationships. It is the recognition that our partner is an individual with their own qualities and flaws, like the rest of us.

The question is can we learn to let go of the expectation that our partner is going to look after us and heal those wounds we suffered as children? Can we let go of the idea – often unconsciously held – that they are the perfect parent we never had?

* Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, 1992, Piatkus, London.

Image Creative Commons from pixels.com, https://tinyurl.com/46yrphh7

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

The myth of the idyllic childhood

Very often when I ask a new client about their childhood they reply that it was happy or even ‘idyllic’.

When I hear this I’m sometimes tempted to say, ‘People with happy childhoods don’t usually end up in therapy’, as  an old supervisor of mine used to say.

Usually though, I prefer to allow their story to unfold over the coming sessions.

Typically, those people responding that they had a happy childhood will refer to material things, such as ‘we always had nice holidays’. But they far less frequently talk about the emotional aspects of their families and whether their own emotional needs were met.

Sometimes, I pick up a rather defensive message from these clients, that everything was fine in their family growing up and they don’t really want to take about it further, These are often the clients who want a quick fix solution or a ‘strategy’ to deal with whatever painful experience it is that has brought them to therapy.

Emotional challenges

But if they stay long enough, as I get to know the client better, it often emerges that they struggled with some quite deep emotional challenges when they were children.

Perhaps they had parents who were unhappy with each other, an emotionally distant father or a mother who was critical. Or perhaps a sibling who outshone them or who bullied them. They may have been the family ‘star’, who was pressured to succeed, or the ‘responsible’ child who was not allowed to have their own needs.

So, why the desire to present an image of happy families?

I think in most cases it’s not an intentional misrepresentation but a story we tell ourselves. We love our parents and don’t like to feel disloyal, so it’s understandable we would try to preserve their images, in our own minds and also with others.

It is also often the case that we forget, or play down, the bad times when we look back. It’s not uncommon for people who have had very difficult childhoods to have memory blocks for much of that time.

Cultural messages

There is also a cultural message many of us receive that it is wrong, unfair or childish to blame our parents and so we can take on a persona of the ‘well adjusted’ adult who takes responsibility for their life. 

While I agree that personal responsibility is important, it is also important to be able to acknowledge what happened in our childhood that may have affected us and how we relate to the world.

My belief is that none of us had a ‘happy’ childhood. By that I don’t mean that we necessarily had an unhappy upbringing or that our parents were cruel to us, just that, as well as providing lots of good things, it was impossible for our parents not to let us down in certain ways. 

Our parents were flawed human beings, as we all are, and how they responded to our emotional needs as children will have been influenced by their own childhoods.

When we can acknowledge what emotional wounds we may have received growing up and find a new way of relating to those wounds, something inside us can begin to shift. It may involve feeling grief and/or anger. It is a process that takes time.

Ultimately, it is embarking on this process that allows us to give a place to those early wounds and to come into a different relationship with ourselves and, over time, our family of origin.

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Image from Pixabay, Creative Commons licence, https://tinyurl.com/1q6kvlbl

How strong emotions bring meaning to our life

I’m a big fan of meditation and mindfulness. Being able to introduce a feeling of calm, when we feel buffeted by our emotions, can be really valuable. 

But perhaps we have not sufficiently valued the intense emotions we sometimes experience – both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ – in shaping our life.

Intense emotions sometimes get a bad press. They are somehow seen as extreme or dangerous and a threat to our ‘rational’ selves. Many of us may feel uncomfortable being around someone who seems very sad or angry. For some of us even intense feelings of joy can feel uncomfortable. 

Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology finds that people reported intense emotional experiences as being extremely important in giving their life meaning.

Previously, some people had argued that it was positive experiences, such as a wedding day, that were most important. While others believed that negative experiences, such as battling against a personal challenge, were most influential. The study on intense emotional states showed that it was not whether an experience was good or bad that was important, but rather the intensity of the experience.

I think this shows the importance of our emotions in shaping who we are and how we see ourselves. While it’s important to be able to question what we are feeling and not allow our feelings to be our only source of information, at the same time it is our emotions that shape who we are.

It is these intense emotional experiences that can lead us to reflect on our life and how we are leading it. In some cases these experiences can enable us to drop our defences and become more open to relationship with others.

In my own case I can think of experiences where I’ve allowed my vulnerability to be seen by others and, while this has often felt scary it’s also enabled a feeling of connection and being ‘seen’ . 

It also suggests to be the importance of being willing to step outside our usual environment. Many of us create an environment where we can feel in control. While that keeps us feeling ‘safe’ it may also smother excitement and unexpected experiences. While we may need routines and the familiar, we also need the challenge of the unexpected or of a different environment where we feel less sure of ourself.

I need to stay aware of this because I have a tendency to stick to the known and predictable. If I’m feeling in my familiar environment I feel safe, but after a while it can feel a bit too safe and even verging on the dull.

I don’t think we need to start doing extreme sports in order to achieve these intense emotions, but we could begin to allow ourselves a deeper emotional range. Noticing our judgment of our emotions is one place to start. 

As psychologist Robin Skynner says of sadness, though it could apply to other strong emotions also: “When we’re sad it’s a rich deep emotion and it makes us feel very alive, even though it hurts.”

That quote sheds some light on the value of deep emotions. They may sometimes feel scary or uncomfortable  – even, for some of us, the ‘positive’ ones – but they play an essential role in our development as human beings and our sense of  meaning.

Image, Creative Commons, https://tinyurl.com/1uq0u8zk

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

The power in therapy of ‘talking to yourself’

One of the revelations that many who enter therapy experience is that the process becomes not just talking to the therapist but also, in a deeper, way talking to themself.

This was highlighted recently by artist and cultural commentator Grayson Perry, in the BBC Radio Four programme Start the Week. (see link at bottom of this post).                                                                                                                                  

Grayson Perry

Perry, who went into therapy in his late thirties because of anger issues that were threatening his close relationships, says that up until then he was suspicious of therapy: “I used to take the mickey out of it and I found it a little bit irritating but then gradually I met a lot of my wife’s therapist friends and thought ‘these people are really nice to talk to’.”

Once he began the process, he says, he found the sessions cathartic: In a way you’re doing therapy on yourself. I used to say I’m going to therapy now to talk to myself.”

This made me think about how part of the power of therapy is not getting the observations or thoughts of the therapist, but actually hearing yourself speak out loud the thoughts that have been rattling around your head in an often unformed way.

Clients often say to me: “Having this space once a week, where I can speak all this out loud, makes things seem clearer in my mind and I get to see more of what’s really going on.”

But while therapy may be, in some ways, a conversation the client is having with themselves, I strongly believe that this also depends on the presence of the therapist. It is the fact that there is another human being, who is interested in your experience and who is listening, that helps create the conditions for the client to really open up.

And when we have the space to open up we are often able to see patterns of behaviour in our lives and may ask ourselves, ‘Why did I make that choice?’

Through the relationship with the therapist the client is able to gradually deepen his relationship with himself. He learns that his feelings are important, that there are often deeper emotions he may not be in touch with and that much of his behaviour is underpinned by unconscious patterns.

Start the Week, BBC Radio 4