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Dr. David Burns on treatment for low self esteem, Defense is NOT the best Offense!

Dr. David Burns

*This blog post was written by Dr. David Burns, a world leader in the advancement of effective therapy with minor edits by Dr. Maor Katz.

Tip#1: Defense is not the best offense. Acceptance is, here’s why:

Negative thoughts, such as one is not good enough, are at the core of depression, especially when combined with feelings of hopelessness. The pain can feel so real and be so intense even to drive some people to thoughts of suicide. So we definitely want powerful tools to combat these thoughts.

How do we help people develop greater self-esteem? You can combat most negative thoughts with the Acceptance Paradox or the Self-Defense Paradigm or a combination of the two.

Let’s say that someone is proud of what he or she has achieved and therefore feels worthwhile and also lovable. That’s the essence of the self-defense paradigm. However, there might be a few potential problems with this formulation of self-esteem as something you must earn.

1. Your self-esteem will depend on your achievements, so it is always contingent and going up and down, like a roller coaster ride–because sometimes we tend to fail, and sometimes we are more successful. For example, in my training groups therapists may get anxious, thinking that “they” are “less worthwhile” because you are not particularly skillful in a skill that is being demonstrated. They may also feel less worthy of friendship and fear that others in the group will find them out and judge them, since others will also link self-esteem with skill or success.

2. Is it true that people who achieve more are more worthwhile than people who achieve less? Some highly successful individuals have done lots of horrible things to people.

3. You have to be successful to be lovable. In fact, if someone loves you and is attracted to you because of your success, money, power, or status, you may be in for some trouble!

4. What happens when you fail, or hit a bad patch, and don’t feel particularly successful? Does this mean you are suddenly less worthwhile, and less lovable?

5. And if you achieve a great deal, does it mean you are “more worthwhile” or “more lovable”? More worthwhile and lovable than who?

6. How much “success” does one need, on a scale from 0 to 100, to be “worthwhile” or “lovable”? Is there some magical cut-off point, such as 65, or 85, on the scale? If so, it means that billions of human are “worthless” and “unlovable.”

7. Self-esteem becomes something you have to constantly earn, so you are never truly secure. We can never guarantee endless successes.

8. You buy into the concept that there is such a thing as a “worthwhile human being,” and you also buy into the concept of “worthwhileness” as having meaning. Of course, many people have no motivation at all to let go of these seemingly precious ideas.

9. The system implies that some individuals are more or less worthwhile than others.

10. Specifics can be more or less worthwhile–for example, you could be better at this or that, and not so good at this or that, like dancing, or running, or using the Disarming Technique, or singing, or performing mental calculations. How does this make you more or less worthwhile as a human being?

11. When you fail, which is inevitable, you may have to deal with the actual failure plus on overlay of shame, depression, and anxiety.

12. The concept that we could be more or less worthwhile is the cause of most depression and a great deal of anxiety as well, especially social anxiety.

13. It is not true that people can or do love us for our success. They can admire or appreciate our success, but generally love us because we love them, and because of the warmth and support and commitment they feel in the relationship.

14. Most of our suffering, as the Buddha taught long ago, result from these abstract notions in the clouds, rather than from anything specific or real on the surface of the earth. I’m no good at tennis, but this causes not suffering because I don’t tell myself that I “should” be good at tennis, or that I am “less worthwhile” because I am not very good at tennis. In fact, everything about us could be improved a great deal, and everything is flawed. But those specific defects or deficiencies do not influence how we feel–on the distorted negative thoughts can cause the suffering of depression and anxiety.

There is more, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

So how can we develop greater “self-esteem”? The answer is: The Acceptance Paradox. More about that in my next tip.


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