In our culture there is a lot of concern for self-esteem. As parents and teachers we are always trying to foster children’s self-esteem, and many of my clients come to me asking for help to improve their self-esteem. But is self-esteem really all it is cracked up to be? Psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin coined the term self-compassion. Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as kindness and acceptance towards yourself, especially when you experience hard times or failure. Self compassion is based on a sense of shared humanity. Because you are a human being, you deserve kindness and compassion, like anyone else. Dr. Neff has done a lot of research on self-esteem and self-compassion and has found that self-compassion may actually be a healthier way of relating to yourself than self-esteem. Here are some of the things she found.
The problem with self-esteem
Self esteem is “feeling good about yourself” and believing that you are competent in areas that are considered important by your society. Low self esteem is often associated with feeling bad about yourself, and mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Although high self esteem can lead to a person being optimistic and having positive feelings about him or herself, having high self esteem is not always a positive thing. Dr. Neff identified several problems with self-esteem. First, self esteem is almost always based on comparing yourself to others in the way you are measuring up. Therefore, self esteem has a competitive element to it and is dependent on you believing that you are “better than” others or “above average.” Because self esteem is dependent on comparison, it is also unstable. Not everybody can be above average in all areas, and because we are all human we all make mistakes and experience failure at times. When we have these experiences this can hurt our self esteem. Sometimes, in order to preserve our self esteem, we may distort or filter information or feedback that is negative, and place too much emphasis on information that supports our self esteem, leading to an unrealistic view of ourselves. Too much self esteem can also lead to narcissism and a sense of entitlement and even a lack of regard for others.
In her years of research on self esteem and self compassion, Dr. Neff found that self compassion is a healthier way of relating to oneself, and actually leads to greater wellbeing and better mental health than self esteem does. Unlike self-esteem, self compassion is not based on comparing yourself to others. Instead, self compassion is partly based on recognizing what we all have in common as human beings. Therefore, if you experience failure or a setback, you can recognize that all people make mistakes and go through experiences like this at times. This feeling of shared humanity can help you cope with the painful experience without feeling bad about yourself as a person. Self-compassion is also kindness and concern for yourself. Often people are much harder on themselves than they are on other people – we are often our own harshest critics. When you cultivate self-compassion you can learn to extend to yourself the same kindness and concern that you would extend to others as well. Finally, having self-compassion helps you to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in an honest, and non-judgmental way, much like mindfulness. Mindfulness is a topic that we at the ApaCenter have written about extensively, and research suggests that mindfulness has many benefits for people’s health and wellbeing.
Dr. Neff discovered with her research that people who have more self-compassion are also more resilient, experience less stress, and experience greater wellbeing than people with less self-compassion. She also learned that self-compassion can increase with training and practice, and that when people’s self-compassion increases their resilience and wellbeing increases as well. For more information please check Dr. Neff’s website. It is a great resource with articles, videos, and exercises that can help you increase your self-compassion. The counselors at the ApaCenter can also work with you to help you increase your self-compassion.