You may think that having high self-esteem is always a good thing. It's the fuel that makes you get out of bed and ready to kick some ass. In the 80's, America was swept by the self-esteem movement - the idea that, if kids had high self-esteem, they could face life's challenges and rise to any occasion. You might have heard of stories where teachers were forbidden from marking papers with crosses, to avoid the risk of damaging a child's self-esteem. What actually happened, some argue, was the production of a generation of self-entitled brats with massive, unfounded egos - who couldn't handle the merest hint of criticism. There's a great article about it (and Jersey Shore) here.
In the world of Psychology, some researchers are arguing that the downsides of having high self-esteem is a great deal of narcissism and lack of empathy for others. Our generation get accused of thinking we're special and wonderful all the time, but it's clearer to see in others. We probably all know someone who poses for countless selfies, who obsesses over their clothes and make-up, and who seem to only talk about themselves. Despite having high "self-esteem", those people are often the most sensitive when it comes to criticism, too - their ego may be big, but it's fragile.
In a world where the economy is tanking, benefits to those who need them are being cut, and the environment is in massive danger - surely the last thing we need is a world full of self-fanciers who don't care about what's happening outside their smartphones. In the book Positive Psychology as Social Change, Kasser (chapter 6) argues that there is evidence to show that selfish behaviour is linked with poor environmental behaviour. It makes sense; more make-up, better cars, more materialistic goods to make us feel better about ourselves - all of these things lead to environmental consequences. We're too busy trying to look good to think about recycling or green energy!
So, if having high self-esteem isn't so great, what's the answer? Dr Kristin Neff has introduced the idea of self-compassion. Although not a revolutionary idea (it's similar to earlier idea from Maslow and Rogers, or arguably from Buddha!), it's still a controversial one. Self-compassion means looking at yourself with kindness and empathy, without judgement. It's giving yourself a hug and reminding yourself that you're human when you mess up, rather than beating yourself up or trying to avoid thinking about it.
Neff points out that we're usually far more harsh with ourselves than we are to others. Think about some of the things you've told yourself over the years - "You look really fat in that" or "nobody will ever love you" (to pick some possibilities) - would you say that to a friend, or even to a stranger? Hopefully, probably, not. Yet we don't think about beating ourselves up when things go wrong.
When you live with compassion, you recognise the interconnectedness of all people; and the more compassion you show to yourself, the more compassionate you'll naturally become towards others. The difference is that, with self-esteem, we're always trying to compete with others - to show that we're better, richer, hotter, more popular than them, and any sign that we're wrong makes us feel defensive and hurt. Self-esteem makes us isolated; lone warriors, fighting our fellow humans in order to get to the top. Self-compassion reminds us of our similarities, and that we're all in this together (although that phrase has been abused by politicians, who clearly rate self-esteem over compassion).
Self-compassion, says Neff, is about mindfulness - observing a situation, and not jumping to instant thoughts over whether it's good or bad. This removes a lot of the anger and hurt that comes along when things don't quite go to plan. But, don't think that it means passively accepting your lot in life; she urges us to see clearly "without fear of self-condemnation" and to work our way towards problem solving.
So, there are two ways to love yourself; the self-esteem route is to love your possessions and your looks, to value yourself only in how you compare to others, and to be ready to do anything it takes to boost your place in the world. The self-compassion route means loving yourself as one soul that's no better or worse than anybody else, forgiving yourself with kindness for any mistakes, and accepting those things you can't change and moving to change those you can. Which sounds best?
If you're interested in finding out how self-compassionate you are, you can take the test on Dr Neff's website: http://www.self-compassion.org/test-your-self-compassion-level.html