Give up the self-esteem game

Last week I had a tough day at work. Meetings didn’t flow. I wasn’t sharp with that coaching client and a submitted proposal wasn’t accepted by a company. On my way back home, my mind started its occasional game of providing arguments why I am maybe not that good of a coach, leader or even person.

Then I will catch myself and provide some arguments back why I am a good coach, leader or person. Some are really clever and I try to outsmart my mind with some great arguments. Look at what I achieved here or look at what I contributed there etc. It goes back and forth like a chess game. When I took a step back and observed this process, I realized it’s such a ridiculous and energy-consuming mind game! So I decided to unpack that pattern with some mindful investigation.

I realized that my internal dialogue (i.e. self-talk) changes in the evening depending on whether I had some great coaching calls that day (i.e. ‘good news day’) or some less great coaching calls (i.e. ‘bad news day’). My mind then goes into providing opinions about myself and my qualities not just as a coach, but even as a human being. I often feel like a monkey being pulled in one direction or the other.

After a good day, the self-talk is positive, I feel good about myself and actually have to watch out for strengthening my ego too much. If the self-talk was negative, I was trying to challenge my thoughts and give all kinds of arguments why I was not as bad as proposed by my mind.

Also, I noticed that this whole process of self-talk and challenging my thoughts takes an incredible amount of effort that I could direct in much more useful directions.

Inspired by Russ Harris’s book “The Happiness Trap”, I found a practice that works for me: Give up the whole game of self-esteem! Why?

First of all, self-esteem is basically just an opinion. It has very little to do with truth and it’s just a string of words.

Secondly, thoughts around self-esteem are automatically judgmental in its nature, which doesn’t really help in our development process.

Thirdly, if self-esteem is high, we want to do everything to keep it high and sometimes even get anxious about this. If self-esteem is low, we’re determined to get ‘fixes’ from the outside to bump it up again. We seek continuous confirmation and recognition to give our self-esteem a boost again. Both use large amounts of energy and it gets in the way of truly connecting to other people as we constantly have this hidden (subconscious) agenda.

For example, if my desire is to boost my self-esteem and be perceived as a great coach, this will be the biggest obstacle to me being a great coach with my clients. Great coaching is not about me, it’s about the other person and the self-esteem game gets in the way of that magic.

So, I decided to just forget about that whole chess game for a while. My intention became to just practice “self-acceptance”. Just being okay with who I am. I just acknowledge that I have some great qualities and some areas for improvement. And that’s fine.

It sounds boring, but self-acceptance is remarkably effective and it frees up lots of energy for the stuff that really matters.

So no affirmations all over the place on how great I am and looking for validations by others. And not be overly negative about all the stuff I am still learning and making mistakes in. I just practice self-acceptance, take out some of the heaviness and focus on doing the best I can.

I realize that acknowledging my strengths doesn’t mean I boost my ego. Most of my qualities I have received from my parents, teachers and people I met in my life, so they are not really mine anyway. And my mistakes and areas for improvement keep me humble, empathetic to others and in a growth mindset. Both are useful. I wouldn’t want to give up either of them.

And the paradoxal thing is that when I started doing a candid and accurate self-assessment without any shame, pretense or illusion, this actually gives me a lot of confidence! It feels authentic and not judgmental. I feel OK about my complete self. When I have a ‘good news’ day, I don’t blow it up to strengthen my sense of self. I just feel grateful and bow to all my teachers. When I have a ‘bad news’ day, I accept, learn and don’t let my mind play the self-esteem chess game.

As usual the proof is in the pudding. Give it a try! Practice self-acceptance with a sense of ease for a week and tell me how it goes.

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute