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The Fascinating Buddhist Approach to Low Self-Esteem

One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is cultivating compassion and love, and several techniques focus on developing these qualities toward oneself.

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While many therapists have begun to incorporate mindfulness into their work, additional Buddhist practices hold potential for helping clients, particularly those suffering from low self-esteem. One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is cultivating compassion and love, and several techniques focus on developing these qualities toward oneself.

For example, Joseph, a young software engineer, came to see me to work on disarming his fierce inner critic. As he and I entered the resource-building phase of therapy, I taught him a form of  metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This practice dates back more than 2,500 years, and, next to mindfulness, it’s one of the most commonly taught forms of Buddhist meditation.

When I use  metta practice with clients, I generally begin by asking them to identify an image that easily inspires feelings of love, compassion, and warmth in them. Traditionally, this practice begins with using oneself as the first object of compassion, but for clients with low self-esteem, that can sometimes be too difficult. Many clients have an easier time picturing a baby, an animal, a religious figure, or a benefactor for this first step. The important thing is finding someone or something that naturally inspires uncomplicated and unambivalent feelings of compassion and love. With help, most clients can find an image that works, and can engage with the process.

Joseph chose his 1-year-old niece, and I asked him to picture her and allow feelings of love and compassion to arise naturally. I had him remain focused on this step for about three minutes, encouraging him to deepen into the experience by repeating the phrases “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe.” The purpose of these phrases, which are integral to the way metta practice is traditionally taught, is to help the client connect with an experience of a specific form of unselfish love. Love and compassion can mean many different things in our culture, but the type of love this exercise aims at is a deep feeling of acceptance and support.

After some practice, Joseph was able to get in touch with strong feelings of warmth and care toward his niece. Once we’d accomplished this, the next step was to help him direct some of those positive feelings inward. I sometimes think of this practice in terms of fighting a fire: at this point, the client knows how to open the faucet; now it’s time to learn how to aim the hose.

Helping clients with low self-esteem direct warmth and compassion inward is often a tricky process. I’ve found that different interventions work for different clients. For Joseph, we began by having him get in touch with strong feelings of love toward his niece and then turn that love toward himself while saying the phrases, “May I be happy,” and so forth. As soon as we started this, however, he was immediately overwhelmed by his inner critic. This is a common occurrence with clients who suffer from low self-esteem.

I asked him to tell me what his critic was saying. He said it was saying things like, “How could you ever deserve love? You’re despicable.” Rather than trying to argue with this voice or ignore it, we did exactly what this type of meditation traditionally recommends in cases like this: we made the inner critic the object of Joseph’s love and compassion. This tactic is a departure from how many therapists have been trained to deal with self-criticism, but I believe that it can be an incredibly useful tool.

In Buddhism, it’s said that true compassion and true love are impossible without understanding, so when I help a client shift the focus of compassion to an inner critic, I always start by asking the critic a few questions to create a foundation for the compassion. With Joseph, I said, “I want to understand that self-critical part of you more deeply, so I’ll be asking it some questions. I’d like for you to just listen to how it responds and tell me.”

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