We often hear about the need to develop self-esteem. It has almost become a reality in our culture that we need to have high self-esteem in order to be happy and healthy. But as research actually shows that that’s not quite right. The need to continually evaluate ourselves positively comes at a high price.

I’m a big fan of Kristen Neff. She’s done some excellent TED Talks, is a leader in the field of self-compassion, has done a ton of research and has a Ph.D in the study of self compassion. She suggests that the big problem with trying to develop high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average and working hard to do it. We feel the need to be friendlier, more popular, funnier, kinder, more trustworthy, wiser and more intelligent than others. Interestingly, most people also think they’re above average in the ability to view themselves objectively!

Self-compassion is not self-pity

When people feel self-pity, they become very focused on their own problems and forget that others have similar problems.  They feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize being egocentric. We tend to separate ourselves from others and exaggerate the extent of our own personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to see the related experiences of ourselves and others without these feelings of isolation and disconnection. Also, people who are focused on pitying themselves can often become wrapped up in their own emotional drama. It’s hard for us to step back from our own situation and develop a more objective perspective. Having the ability to step back and put things in the bigger picture allows us to create self-compassion. That could look like, “What I’m going through right now is really hard, but there are many other people who are having a hard time too.  Perhaps this isn’t worth getting quite so upset about…”

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence

Self-compassion is also really different from self-indulgence. Many people say they are hesitant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything.  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch Netflix all day and eat a gallon of ice cream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Being compassionate to yourself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term, not just in the moment. We’re being self-indulgent when we’re doing things like taking drugs, over-eating, or being a couch potato. In reality, giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, losing weight, exercising).  People are often very hard on themselves when they notice something they want to change because they think they can shame themselves into action – a self-deprecating approach.  This approach often backfires if you can’t face difficult truths about yourself because you are so afraid of hating yourself if you do.  We can choose to avoid our weaknesses. Self-compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see ourselves clearly.

Self-compassion is not self-esteem

Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways.  Kristen Neff talks about self-esteem referring to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.  In our modern culture in the US, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out and are special.  Our culture tells us it is not okay to be average; that we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves.  This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves.  You may know people who’ve developed these ugly qualities. We also tend to get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves.  The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Additionally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.

In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.  Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Self-compassion isn’t dependent on outside circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face!  Studies show that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

We don’t go through life without experiencing hard things. Sometimes it feels really hard. Without self compassion we actually hold ourselves back from getting better and working through a rough patch in our life. If you find yourself struggling with giving yourself the needed compassion that all humans deserve, reach out to me and we can work on that together.