Friday, September 21, 2012

Important predictor of life-long success

I usually stay away from the touchy-feely positive psych literature because a lot of it is based on what people want to hear rather than solid research and effective principles.  But this one is really excellent.  

It talks about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion and how they each have different impacts on your behavior.  What makes this particularly relevant to me is that I have always been a proponent (and exemplar) of the high self-esteem population.  There is a good deal of solid research showing the confident people get ahead, in part because you try harder when you expect to succeed and in part because when other people see you as confident they are more likely to help you and have higher perceptions of your performance (even when it is not justified).

But one of the perils of high self-esteem is that you set yourself up to fail.  Esteem is not quite the same as confidence.  Esteem is about what you “are” rather than what you can “do.”   When you are confident you believe you can do.  So if you fail, confidence allows you to get back up and try again.  But with esteem if you fail, you may question whether you are really as good as you think you are.  My favorite quote from the article is

“And of course you must be perfectly awesome in order to keep believing that you are – so you live in quiet terror of making mistakes, and feel devastated when you do.”

 This questioning is not a problem in the short term. But over time it can lead to an insidious buildup of doubt.  And when the doubt is unconscious (which it usually is because of motivated reasoning and loss aversion), you just go about your business as usual. At some point – CRASH.  The crash could manifest as chronic depression, anxiety, paranoia – any number of disordering thinking pathways.  Sometimes it doesn’t reach a level that requires professional help, but it does impact your life negatively.

Contrast this with self-compassion.  Self-compassion is NOT “letting yourself off the hook.”  But it IS cutting yourself some slack when you don’t live up to your own high self expectations.  The key to effective self-compassion is that it is “non-evaluative”.  Realism absolves you from kicking your ego in the gut when you fail.  I will try my damnedest to succeed in everything that matters to me. And if I fail, that’s OK.  I will get up and try again or find another way to reach the same goal.  As long as I am always trying, and have goals I can live with, then it’s all good.

Too touchy-feely, or good advice?  Let me know.