By Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT
There is a lot of interesting research that has developed over the past several years about self-compassion and how it stacks up against self-esteem. The self-esteem movement in Western culture in the 70’s and 80’s was based on the idea that the root problem for individuals, the very issue at the core of anxiety, depression, and fractured relationships and other psychological issues, was found in low self-esteem of the individual. At the most basic level, self-esteem is about an evaluation of oneself as a good or bad person in the world.
People struggling with low self-esteem may have high levels of self-criticism, chronic indecision, and struggle with perfectionism, pessimism, hostility, and guilt. Self-criticism found in low self-esteem has been linked to depression and difficulty with seeing oneself as loveable or of value as a human being.
People with high levels of self-esteem are known to fully trust in their capacity to solve problems, succeed in their life endeavors, deem themselves worthy of love, and do not spend precious time worrying excessively about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future.
Having high levels of self-esteem sounds great right?
Well, in our modern world, in order to feel good about ourselves, there seems to be an unfortunate cultural message of competition that has become intertwined with self-esteem. So, it is no longer enough to feel good about oneself solely based on yourself, rather self-esteem is now linked to being better than other people or consistently performing above the perceived average. And of course, no matter how hard you work someone else will always be smarter, richer, or what we perceive as more successful in various areas of life. We can feel fantastic about ourselves one minute and as soon as we see someone who looks like they are doing better than we are, our self-esteem can plummet and negative messages can start swirling around in our minds.
Researcher Kristen Neff suggests that this competitive culture leads to building ourselves up and tearing others down, in an effort to feel good about our own human condition. It is as if we are now on a rollercoaster ride of self-esteem. It goes up and down not only depending on what is happening in our own life, but now also depending on how we measure what is happening in our life against the life of another person or perhaps many different people.
It seems positive affirmations are not quite enough to help us feel good about ourselves in a culture of competition and getting ahead in a sustainable way.
So what is the alternative?
Kristen Neff’s research on self-compassion may be the answer. It certainly seems to be changing the way we think about achieving a state of emotional well-being and the possibilities available to us to live in the world with contentment and acceptance for our own humanity with both its challenges and delights. Self-compassion is linked to less depression, greater happiness, and more life satisfaction.
She suggests that if we stop labeling ourselves as good or bad and accept ourselves with an open heart, kindness, care, and compassion- the kind we would show to a friend- this is a way to help us avoid destructive patterns and increase the joy in our lives.
So what is self-compassion?
It is quite simply defined as a way of relating to oneself that involves treating yourself kindly regardless of what is happening in life. It is showing yourself the same care and concern for suffering that you would for a loved one.
Diving in a little deeper to the definition, Neff has identified three core components of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness: this asks that we offer gentleness in language and understanding toward ourselves instead of harsh judgment and criticism, actively stopping to soothe oneself when we are in pain
- Common humanity: this is recognition of our connection with others in the experience of life, rather than sinking into the isolation that comes from competition and suffering. It is about recognizing that suffering and imperfection is a shared human experience.
- Mindfulness: this is about holding a balanced awareness of our experiences in life- not ignoring pain or amplifying it, but being fully in the present moment.
This can feel quite foreign if you are used to beating yourself up and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride of self-esteem. Self-compassion gives us the opportunity to see ourselves clearly. A stable sense of self-worth developing from this kind of compassion means that when we make a mistake we can give ourselves a sense of care.
What about taking responsibility? How do we react when life is falling apart?
So this idea of self-compassion might sound like a lack of taking ownership when something goes wrong for which we bear responsibility. In reality, when we are in a cycle of up and down with our self-esteem, that is when it is actually easier to blame the other person. Why? Because when we are constantly criticizing ourselves and feeling depressed, taking on ownership for one more thing is simply too painful. We are already down and feeling horrible.
On the contrary, self-compassion gives us emotional courage to take responsibility for our actions because it is in that state that we have the emotional capacity to fully accept who we are as humans with both the pain and the joy of life.
How do we do this?
As with most things, practice is needed to cultivate a new response. Here are a few ideas about the how of self-compassion.
- Ask for Help: One of the most important points is learning that it is safe to be kind to yourself and acknowledge where you might need help. Self-compassion is about acceptance of the shared human experience of imperfection and suffering. There is no expectation that one has it all together or won’t make a mistake. It is a normal human experience to need help in the midst of struggle.
- Ask Questions and Listen for the Answers: Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield poses the following questions as a meditation guide and suggests we listen for deep answers from our body, heart, and spirit:
- How have I treated this difficulty so far?
- How have I suffered by my own response and reaction to it?
- What great lesson might my suffering teach me?
- What does this problem ask me to let go of?
- Try a New Approach: The next time you make a mistake and move toward self-ctriticism, see if you can notice it and try something different. For example, instead of that first thought that might come into your mind of, “I messed up…I am an awful worthless person” we might instead try to say,“I messed up…I am human and made a mistake- how will I use this opportunity to show self-compassion?” In the latter there is no judgment about whether one is fundamentally a good or bad person- just acceptance or responsibility and acknowledgment of our humanity. This has now become a unique opportunity about how to respond to our own suffering by turning toward it and offering it gentleness as you would toward a friend.
Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete”.
If you are interested in knowing more about Self-Compassion, check out these books below:
Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions
Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path with Heart: A Guide Through The Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself