My parents always said coming to Lehigh “made me blossom.” High school was fine for me academically, but it wasn’t until Lehigh that I truly became confident.
It’s easy to see self-confidence as a make-or-break trait. How can you succeed without believing in yourself?
According to data from a survey I recently conducted for a psychology assignment, Lehigh students would rather their children be self-confident than obedient, respectful or academically successful.
It makes sense. Low self-confidence during our formative years is associated with a number of negative outcomes later in life, including poor health, criminal behavior and limited economic opportunities. Confidence, on the other hand, has been said to be “the most attractive quality a person can posses,” enabling us to be better athletes, workers and leaders.
It is a helpful trait to have, because it improves your chances of success. However, self-confidence does not necessarily correspond to self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a more global term for how much we value ourselves as people, which is usually based on comparisons to others or to our own internal standards. Like self-confidence, self-esteem is another important predictor of future success.
In so heavily emphasizing self-confidence and self-esteem, we have created a culture of exceptionally competent individuals with ever-refining resumes that could blow you out of the water.
But I think the fact that Lehigh’s “Pursuit of Happiness” class fills up to the brim every time it is offered shows we are lacking something in our emphasis on self-confidence and self-esteem. Why aren’t we happy?
Believing in our abilities, and even believing they make us valuable people, does not necessarily help us like ourselves. When was the last time you met someone who was perfectly aware of their status as a top-tier student or athlete or intern, yet beat themselves up over every minor flaw? When was the last time you were that person?
Recent research has suggested self-compassion may be a more adaptive construct to focus on. Unlike self-confidence and self-esteem, self-compassion is not dependent on external success or comparisons to others. Rather, self-compassion means becoming friends with ourselves.
If a good friend just got dumped or failed a test, would you accuse them of messing up or not trying hard enough? Hopefully not! When we just get dumped or fail a test, however, it’s hard not to blame and doubt ourselves. Consider this the next time you have a self-critical thought: What if you had to say your thought aloud, directed toward your best friend?
If you would feel terrible directing your self-criticism at others, think about how frequently we criticize ourselves. Developing a habit of self-compassion means being warm and understanding to ourselves during times of pain and failure.
Oftentimes when we experience a negative feeling, we take individual responsibility for causing that feeling, which makes us feel even worse. To counter this, I find it helpful to apply the concept of the “sociological imagination.”
Using our sociological imagination means connecting personal experiences with the larger societal and historical context in which we live. The next time you find yourself lacking self-compassion, consider all the ways being a part of this culture has contributed to your current situation. Remember your unpleasant feelings are really just a natural part of the collective human experience.
For instance, if you start thinking, “I am sad after realizing how cruel I’ve been to myself,” instead try, “I am feeling sadness, the same sadness thousands of others also feel when they realize how cruel they’ve been to themselves.” When you consider all the societal and historical factors that contribute to your current state of mind, it becomes easier to relinquish blame.
That’s not to say self-compassion should be indulgent or we should redirect negativity to blame society. As a book I recently read put it, “Self-compassion is thinking that what happened to you is unfortunate, whereas self-pity is feeling that what happened to you is unfair.” Research suggests the higher a person’s self-compassion, the lower their self-pity.
Thus, instead of assigning blame or trying to talk yourself out of unpleasant feelings, imagine holding them with utter acceptance, as you would a newborn baby. Although you want the baby to be soothed as soon as possible, you understand the discomfort is normal and no one is to blame.
We must never forget to be our own friend and hold ourselves with kindness.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]