In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
Want a meaningful holiday gift you can give to yourself? Try self-compassion.
You may ask yourself: Why do I need to focus on self-compassion? Take this 10 second quiz. How many times in the last few weeks have said to yourself something like: “That was so stupid, why did I do that?” Or: "I wish I hadn't said that silly comment... It sounded dumb.” Or: “Why do I always make these ridiculous mistakes? Can’t I do anything right?”
If you’re like me, you hear that voice in your head far too frequently. And it’s a tough thing.
How did I get so hyper-self-critical? My theory is that I have used these voices to drive myself forward and to cope, however incompetently, with my worries about my performance and my mistakes.
Somehow, in the depths of my consciousness, being my own harshest critic seemed preferable to waiting for other people to notice a mistake and criticize me. And it gave me a dark momentum. The more I berated myself internally, the more I pushed myself to do challenging things. “It’s not good enough” simply meant I had to try harder and be even more critical of myself or my work.
I’ve learned from studying Stoic life philosophy, and from working with ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy, that this is NOT a healthy way to achieve motivation or to “protect” myself from outside criticism. It’s just a bad idea, and it is one that I try to help short-circuit in my daughters' thinking. (I am doing OK in that department: In fact, if my kids hear my self-critical narration out loud, they now tell me: “Mom, that's not true! That wasn't stupid!”)
Fortunately, I’ve found some better approaches: Self-compassion, and a less judgmental perspective on myself and my world based on Stoic ideas. Now, when I hear that harsh voice, I try to remember these words from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:
“I am not justified in causing myself pain, for I have never deliberately caused pain to another.”
This thought shifted my whole perspective on the emotional harm I’m doing to myself when I let my inner critic go wild. Why cause internal pain to myself, when I’d never choose to do that to someone else?
Let’s put Marcus’ quote to work when I think about the inner monologue that started this post. Would I say the same nasty things to a friend, calling her stupid, dumb, essentially worthless? No! Of course not. I love my friends. Plus, we wouldn’t stay friends for long if I were so unkind. Would I say these things to one of my kids? No! It would be considered verbally abusive, and it would cause shame and hurt their morale going forward.
I knew my approach had to change a few years ago when I started reading the work of Kristin Neff, an academic researcher in psychology who has focused on self-compassion who also teaches and writes for the general public. I’ve learned a lot about how to cause less inner pain to myself by following her approaches. I’ll share here a glimpse into Neff’s work, and you’ll see how well it resonates with Stoic ideas.
Neff explains that self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
Self-kindness is the conscious decision to view yourself with kindness and affection, rather than ignoring internal pain or being harshly self-critical. When their expectations are not met (however unrealistic), people tend to feel increased stress and frustration, and may launch into self-criticism. But when we accept the reality of our situation, with less judgment and with more equanimity, level-headedness is possible. (This is a very Stoic concept.) In truth, all people are imperfect, make mistakes, and deal with difficulties in life. It is inevitable. Our choice to be kind to ourselves rather than express negative emotions is a choice we can all make.
Mindfulness focuses on noticing your thoughts, emotional reactions, and sensations in the present moment without judgment. Common humanity means that we understand that all humans share vulnerabilities, deal with frustrations and disappointments, and are less than perfect. It’s a recognition that we are all in the same boat—which helps us gain more compassion towards ourselves and others, as well as a pro-social connection.
Which leads me to an important point: It’s not like my inner monologue is doing any good. Neff cites research about motivation showing that people who are kind to themselves about their mistakes and failures—people who have self-compassion—are more likely to set new goals for themselves rather than ruminating about their disappointments and frustrations. They also have been shown to demonstrate healthier behaviors and stick to their health-related goals, such as quitting smoking, exercising, working towards weight loss. Self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and they harbor a fear of failure because they view mistakes as unacceptable, Neff says.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives kids and adults the “emotional resources” they need to pick themselves up and try again. The self-compassionate people Neff has studied find a way to accept past mistakes and acknowledge them with equanimity, while moving on.
In other words: Motivation doesn't have to rely on stark self-criticism. Instead, it can spring from the recognition that no one is perfect and we’re doing our best, and that we always have the opportunity to improve (even in small ways).
The gift of self-compassion doesn’t end after we make a decision to treat ourselves this more kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Like other life philosophy practices, it may take constant reminders and a long period of time to train ourselves to think differently. But what a gift if we can do so.
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.