Loving yourself might seem narcissistic and conceited. It’s certainly easy to poke fun at it. But its opposite, self-abasement, is even less in keeping with humanistic values. The doctrine of original sin, for instance, holds that human beings are wicked by nature and can be redeemed only by believing in supernatural redemption. Humanism arose during the Renaissance with figures such as the Italian poet Petrarch, who asserted that human beings were not completely worthless and could produce valuable secular knowledge. So it’s not self-regard, but excessive self-regard that’s narcissistic. When a person is successful, we appreciate it if they engage in a little self-deprecating humor. It shows they are keeping things in perspective. So self-love, within reasonable limits, is humanistic. But what’s reasonable? In the workshop I took on self-compassion taught by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, the first thing that Neff did in her presentation was to distinguish self-compassion from self-esteem. As she defines the terms, self-compassion is a feeling, whereas self-esteem combines positive feelings with an often inflated self-evaluation. Self-esteem became very trendy a few decades ago, but according to Neff, the results of boosting self-esteem are in, and they’re not favorable. The reason it seemed like a good idea was that high self-esteem tended to correlate with success. This connection led people to think that if you could get children to have high self-esteem, they would grow up to be successful. This view confused cause and effect. Being successful makes you think of yourself highly, with some justification. but thinking of yourself highly, without any regard to your skills and abilities, does not lead to achievement: it may even inhibit it by interfering with the ability to accept constructive criticism that is valuable in learning. Data indicate a rise in narcissism in American society that tracks with rising self-esteem, though the causal relationship is unclear. Contrary to assertions that low self-esteem causes violence, research finds that violence is more common when egotistical people find their inflated sense of self threatened. In contrast, self-compassion is simply being warm toward yourself. There is no implied comparison with others. As long as you haven’t committed a horrible crime, there’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself.
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