Some time ago, I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, “God, help me be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” I laughed to myself and thought, “Good thing I have a cat, because she has low standards.”

As funny as the bumper sticker was, I couldn’t get its meaning out of my head. As I continued on my drive, my thoughts jumped around like a Chihuahua let off its leash at a dog park. I began to wonder, “What is self-esteem, where does it come from, and why do I have so little of it?”

See, I haven’t always been the masterpiece of self-assuredness and mental health. In fact, low self-esteem and self-sabotaging behaviour are two things I’ve struggled with for the majority of my life.

In the past, it seemed logical that the solution was to increase my self-esteem. After all, if I felt better about myself, I would treat myself better. But the more I tried to improve my self-esteem, the lower it became. The result was a vicious cycle of falling short of my high expectations leading into more self-sabotaging behaviour. It was like what Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.”

I realise now that the way I try to build up my self-esteem is flawed:

My self-esteem comes from comparisons

A bad habit I have is using, “What do they have that I don’t” as a measuring stick for my success. This compulsion only serves to create feelings of envy and discouragement within myself. Keeping up with the Joneses is futile because someone will always be more successful, more in shape, better looking, with more money, a nicer house, and a cooler car than me, and I end up with the short end of the stick.

My self-esteem is contingent on my bank account

I’ve noticed a trend that my self-esteem fluctuates based on the number of zeros in my accounts. When the balance is high, I feel excited and happy. Perhaps it has to do with feeling secure, but it’s likely linked to the ability to shop. It’s funny how a little purchase on Amazon can boost my self-esteem in the short term. However, it has also led me down a path of selfish indulgence that morphs into debt, overdraft fees, and poor credit scores. My most self-destructive behaviour tend to follow, saying “Screw it! I deserve this.”

My self-esteem makes me view life as a zero-sum game

I’m either a winner or a loser. When I win, I feel fantastic. I want more of the elation that goes along with winning. Losing sucks. If I feel I’m losing at life, I go dark. These highs and lows place me on a roller coaster ride that climbs and dips based on my internal scorecard of wins versus losses.

My self-esteem is dependent on external validation

It might be easier for me to get a t-shirt that reads, “Am I okay? Please tell me you like me,” but I don’t know what I would do on laundry day. Needing validation from others leaves me feeling good for a moment, but then empty because I feel needy.

The problem is that when I give others the power to validate me, I inadvertently provide them with the power to invalidate me.

That silly bumper sticker helped me shift my perspective though. I thought, “Maybe it’s not that I need to increase my self-esteem. Maybe it’s that I need to improve my self-compassion.”

This lead to a reversal in my thinking.

As I broke it down, I discovered that the focus of building self-esteem seems to say, “How I feel about myself affects how I treat myself,” whereas self-compassion promotes the idea that, “How I treat myself affects how I feel about myself.”

As I changed course toward self-compassion, I could clearly see that I often treat other people better than I treat myself. For example, I quickly offer kindness, respect, encouragement, compassion, and grace to everyone else, but withhold these gifts from myself. Instead, I beat myself up for mistakes, say things to myself that I would never say to another human, disrespect my body by putting junk into it, and discourage myself with negative thinking.

By practising self-compassion, I noticed some significant changes in my thinking that began to affect my behaviour and feelings toward myself:

It’s okay to put my needs first

My fear is that if I put my needs first, I will become a selfish jerk who no one wants to be around. The irony is that the most selfish thing I can do is to put my needs last, because like my friend from Texas used to say, “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” When I put my needs last, I don’t have the resources to be kind, loving, and generous. Ultimately, I cannot extend compassion unless I first have it in abundance for myself.

My focus has changed from ‘what’ to ‘who’

When I focus on ‘what I want to be’” my status is based on external validations that can disappear in an instant. Companies go out of business, people get fired, relationships end, and life happens. However, nothing can ever take away ‘who’ I am—I’m compassionate, loving, generous, kind, courageous, and virtuous. These are internal motivators that endure when the chips are down. As my favourite psychologist, Viktor Frankl, said:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I care less about what people think

I genuinely care for people. However, I’m far less concerned with their opinions of me. For one thing, I discovered that the greatest threat to my destiny is the fear of what others may think. Self-compassion doesn’t fluctuate with opinions because it is a commitment to the action of caring for one’s self regardless of outside judgements.

I’ve noticed I’m taking good care of myself

Being a therapist is an emotionally draining profession. At the same time, like many of us in the helping professions, I tend to be horrible at self-care.

Perhaps this comes from feeling undeserving of good things in my life. I’ve certainly self-sabotaged everything from relationships to my health. But this new perspective has changed the way I eat, the way I sleep, and the way I communicate my needs to others.

These small shifts in thinking have paid off in unexpected ways. I still struggle from time-to-time and fall back into old thinking patterns. But now I have a tool to help me get out of the hole of self-pity.

If I am feeling depressed, I give myself permission to be kind to myself. By giving myself the gift of self-compassion, I spend less time in the dark places that led to self-destructive behaviour.

When I practice loving myself through acts of compassion, something wonderful happens—I end up being the kind of man my dog thinks that I am.

Now, if I only my wife would let me get a dog.