Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion

Based on a series of books by Dr. Nathanial Brandon, Americans became enamored of self-esteem in the 1970s and 1980s. We believed that self-esteem was the lynchpin for success in future generations. Children with high self-esteem would be more cheerful, optimistic, motivated, successful, and happy. They’d value themselves and cultivate the positive regard of others. To achieve these ends, parents and educators showered children with unconditional praise and sheltered them from criticism or adverse consequences. They told kids that they could be anybody they wanted to be and do anything they wanted to do. The sky’s the limit!

Unfortunately, this movement did not produce the desired results. Many of the children raised in this environment found adjusting to the “real world” difficult. They felt slighted when failing to get praise for simply showing up at work and wilted in response to constructive criticism. Instead of becoming fruitful beacons of healthy self-esteem, they became self-absorbed, self-righteous, and angry.

So, what went wrong? It turns out that healthy self-esteem is more a consequence of healthy behaviors rather than a cause of them. It’s not something than can be instilled with flattery or a life devoid of obstacles. Inflated self-regard unmoored from virtue can give birth to narcissists, bullies, cheaters, and bigots. And when self-esteem is tied to success, winning, fame, peer approval, and the like, it can engender an addictive obsession with achievement and image management.

Of course, the impulse to cultivate positive self-regard has merit. We’ll put forth our best efforts and do our best work when fueled by confidence in our skills, knowledge, and experience, and unencumbered by mistakes, lapses in judgement, and setbacks. And we bolster our progress when we refrain from harshly judging ourselves and others.

Dr. Kristin Neff serves up a recipe for positive self-regard and antidote to the inner critic with Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Self-compassion recognizes our inherent worth, desires our health and well-being, and promotes proactive behavior to better our circumstances. It doesn’t get lost in our transitory successes/failures, good/bad thoughts or feelings, or third party reviews. It isn’t intent upon being special or ideal. It doesn’t engage in comparisons that pit ourselves against others. Rather, it places value in being a conscious human who perceives, feels, and endeavors to act wisely. Per Neff, it realizes the dream of the self-esteem movement without the unintended consequences.

The core components of self-compassion include:

  • Self-Kindness: Break the cycle of self-criticism by being accepting and gentle toward faults and failings when they arise. Learn from mistakes, and make reparations for any harm done. Be moved by our own experience of pain, and take action to provide comfort. The body responds by releasing oxytocin which increases feelings of safety, trust, generosity, and connection.
  • Recognition of Common Humanity: Lay aside self-doubt and comparisons with others. Acknowledge the shared experience of joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, greatness and fallibility. Neff says: “When our sense of self-worth and belonging is grounded in simply being human, we can’t be rejected or cast out by others.”
  • Mindfulness: Be present right here, right now, and accept whatever occurs without judgment. See with clear eyes. Acknowledge difficult situations and/or painful feelings, but don’t get lost in the stories being told about them. Ask: Is what I’m experiencing true? Do I need to act? Will it pass?

Self-compassion confers many benefits:

  • We become more resilient emotionally; we aren’t snared by a destructive cycle of negativity.
  • We’re more likely to confront our unpleasant thoughts and feelings rather than deny their existence. We feel the pain in conscious awareness, work through it, and let it pass.
  • We are less likely to get hijacked by emotions when things go wrong or our egos are threatened. We can pause, gain perspective, and make wise choices.
  • We’re better able to accept ourselves regardless of others’ opinions.
  • We put greater weight on learning versus performance goals and work toward them without undue drag from self-criticism and self-doubt. We relax into the process and treat missteps as opportunities for growth.
  • We’re more likely to jettison the fear of failure and take on healthy challenges.
  • We find the path to emotional equanimity.

In short, self-compassion recognizes the imperfection of humanity, appraises circumstances with clarity, softens the blow of self-judgment, and provides attentive care. It also provides the means to develop healthy self-esteem, acknowledging our strengths without arrogance, superiority, or overconfidence.