It is difficult to feel good about life if we don’t feel good about ourselves. Is it even possible? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that raising self-esteem is a much sought after goal in therapy as well as among my friends (myself included at times). I previously wrote about 2 exercises that take less than a minute to practice that help boost self-esteem. Those techniques, based off of reasoning and cognitive therapy theory, really make sense for some people. They’ve helped clients, and they’ve helped me when I’ve struggled with being “good enough.” But for others, that just isn’t their cup of tea.
That’s why I love Dr. Neff’s research on self-compassion. Self-compassion is not so much trying to use reason to find positive and good thoughts about yourself. Instead, it is being kind and loving to yourself like you would to your close family and friends. While self-esteem is about having positive judgments about yourself, Dr. Neff says that self-compassion is more about relating to yourself positively.
Self-Compassion Differs from Self-Esteem
In her book, Dr. Kristen Neff tells of a low point in her life (I guess you could say she had low self-esteem). She went to a meditation class, and the teacher spoke about self-compassion. Dr. Neff found it greatly helped with her feelings of low self worth. She has since dedicated her research to self-compassion and found that self-compassion has all the benefits of high self-esteem without the drawbacks.
First, she explains that research shows self-esteem is actually not associated with as many great outcomes as we thought; high self-esteem may be an outcome rather than a cause of healthy and fulfilling behaviors. Thus, it is not necessarily a worthwhile pursuit for people, although, admittedly, she says it is associated with being happy.
There are drawbacks to self-esteem as well. For example, high self-esteem is associated with narcissism. That is definitely not a trait we want in ourselves or our culture. We may look down on others in order to feel better about ourselves. Or, we may ignore other aspects of life we could be developing because it doesn’t inflate our self-image. (See our article on growth versus fixed mindset for more about that topic.) Self-esteem is focused on performance and comparisons, and the need to perform is constant. So, when a perceived failure, hardship, or inadequacy comes along then we might feel depressed, call ourselves names, or not want to keep trying because we just can’t do it. We might think, “What’s the use? I’m a failure.” In short, our sense of self-esteem is not always fixed, but changes.
The Value of Self-Compassion
We stop needing to prove ourselves
Dr. Neff found that the alternative to striving for high self-esteem is instead to have self-compassion. Then, we can more effectively cope with inadequacies and failures because we are working from a kind and loving standpoint instead of constantly needing to prove ourselves. Not only does research support this, but examples in our own lives do as well. I know I work much better when people around me are kind and supportive. We stop playing the self-criticism and comparison game altogether when we focus on compassion instead of trying to prove our self-esteem.
We work harder
When we do this, we can become more intentional in our actions. We actually work harder for our worthwhile goals because we are no longer hiding from low self-judgments and shame. We often beat ourselves up out of fear, but self-criticism doesn’t motivate…at least not for the long haul. But, self-compassion does motivate us in the long run and helps us achieve goals and make changes. This is because we desire to grow out of love and kindness instead of fear of failure. Ultimately, Dr. Neff found that self-compassion has many of the positive benefits of high self-esteem without the drawbacks.
How to Practice Self-Compassion
So how do we apply self-compassion? Dr. Neff says that we already know how to do it. We are kind and nurturing to others – we just have to extend that same kindness to ourselves. Digging deeper, she offers a simple 3 part formula.
First, treat yourself kindly when hard things happen
Trade in self-critical thoughts and talk for remembrances of what your best friend or family would say under such a circumstance. Or, think about what you would say to them if they were in your shoes. We often criticize ourselves when weaknesses or set-backs come. Instead, empathize with yourself. Offer consoling words in your thoughts when something doesn’t go as hoped for. Instead of berating yourself, work on building encouraging and supportive thoughts like loving parents or teachers do.
Secondly, link yourself to common humanity
This sounds pretty abstract but it is actually quite simple. What it means is to notice that you are not alone. You are not the only one who has set-backs and thus it is not shameful to experience them. You are not isolated. Pain is a part of life and we are all in this together. It is so helpful to find support. Talk to people. Open up about your experiences because everyone has them. Get empathy and support from others. Think about and identify how you are the same as other people.
Lastly, practice mindfulness
Basically, mindfulness means that we pay attention to the present moment. It’s about noticing what’s going on. This sounds so obvious, but how often are we carried away by thoughts or feelings without really noticing what is happening around us and inside us? For example, how many of us pull up in the driveway and wonder if we ran a red light because we can’t remember driving? We were on auto-pilot instead of being mindful about driving.
When we are mindful we are neither consumed by our emotions and thoughts (being caught up in the criticisms and negative judgments) or avoiding them. We simply notice our emotions and sensations allow them to come without judging them as horrible or unbearable. We stop saying, “I can’t handle this. I’m a bad person. How could I do that? How dare they do that? I hate my life. I won’t be able to do that.” Instead, we are aware of our feelings and thoughts. We let them come without drowning in them or being tossed on the waters wherever they take us. We let them wash over us like a wave.
When we are mindful, our emotions no longer rule us because we are not fighting them or running away. Instead, feelings are just there, and that’s okay. When we are mindful of our thoughts and sensations we can become more intentional and wise in our actions and responses instead of letting our emotions dictate what we do. We can practice self-compassion to feel more at peace in the moment and to act in a wise way for the future.
*I don’t know if there’s a hotter topic than mindfulness in psychology right now. Just google it and you can find a plethora of both explanations of mindfulness and exercises to help you practice it.
Take a Look at Dr. Neff’s Exercises
There are several exercises Dr. Neff recommends to practice self-compassion and the three various components of it. I will only list one: developing your own self-compassion mantra.
A self-compassion mantra is a few short sentences that encapsulates each of these three parts of self-compassion. Remind yourself of your mantra whenever perceived failures or set-backs or stressors come. You can even write it on a note app in your phone or put it on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to help you remember it. Remember, with practice and repetition it becomes easier to remember and turn to. Then, you are more easily able to cope with difficult situations and act accordingly instead of focusing on whatever your present view of self (self-esteem) is.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to provide therapeutic services. I recognize that for people who are deeply struggling with feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, it can be hard to change. If you are struggling with deef feelings of depression or anxiety it can be helpful to seek a licensed professional’s help.
Neff, K. (2013, Feb. 6). The space between self-esteem and self-compassion; Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4