Some psychologists argue that we should focus on practicing self-compassion because it is superior to building self-esteem. Dr Kristin Neff is a well-known proponent of this view. She believes that trying to raise your self-esteem can lead to major downsides, including narcissism, anger and resentment. But while it may be true that we could all benefit from self-compassion and avoid these drawbacks, this doesn’t mean we should ignore self-esteem. It can still play a vital role in our well-being.
What the Practice of Self-Compassion Involves
Practising self-compassion means being kind to yourself in difficult situations. It involves speaking to yourself from a place of acceptance, understanding and non-judgment, rather than harsh criticism. Neff emphasizes:
It’s important to distinguish self-compassion from self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively. It represents how much we like or value ourselves, and is often based on comparisons with others. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on positive judgments or evaluations, it is a way of relating to ourselves. People feel self-compassion because they are human beings, not because they are special and above average.
However, the fact that self-esteem is based on self-evaluation doesn’t mean it has to entail comparing ourselves to others, as Neff says it often is.
Let’s Change How We Think About Self-Esteem
When our self-esteem is internally based – rather than dependent on circumstances, success, status, money, possessions, and physical appearance – then it can be a more emotionally stable source of well-being.
Realise that your positive and valuable traits come from the inside and don’t have to be evaluated based on what other people are doing. When you see clearly what you are like as a person and value your qualities as they are, then your self-esteem will be less susceptible to change based on the achievements and characteristics of others.
Why You Need Both Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem
We all make mistakes in life and experience times of intense or prolonged suffering. During our lowest points, there is a tendency to be critical of ourselves, to believe that a failed business or relationship, for instance, means that we are failures or inadequate. When we judge ourselves in this way, the optimal response is to practice self-compassion and build self-esteem.
When we are compassionate to ourselves we genuinely wish for our suffering to be relieved. The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes how to practice loving-kindness meditation in order to protect our well-being. It involves repeating phrases intended to direct feelings of good wishes towards ourselves (and others). You can come up with any phrases you want – so long as the intention of friendliness and self-love is there – although Kornfield highlights some traditional phrases used in this ancient meditative practice:
May I be filled with loving kindness
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
May I be well in body and mind
May I be at ease and happy
Many studies show that the practice of self-compassion is linked to:
greater levels of happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, body appreciation, perceived competence, and motivation as well as lower levels of depression, anxiety, stress, rumination, body shame and fear of failure.
However, when we think we’re not good enough in some way, being able to evaluate ourselves rationally and honestly can also increase our well-being. In fact, without healthy self-esteem, we may too regularly find ourselves engaged in self-criticism. Constantly responding to this with self-compassion is wise and helpful, but we can also avoid this cycle of harshness by establishing and maintaining a realistic perspective of ourselves.
- Self-compassion.org, Kirstin Neff, PhD. Why self-compassion is healthier than self-esteem.
- Jackkornfield.com, Jack Kornfield, Meditation on Lovingkindness.
- Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Kristin Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD. Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being.
Source: Self Confidence