When it comes to wellbeing, which is most valuable, self-esteem or self-compassion? Many of us grew up in a day when the big goal of parenting was to help kids have more self-esteem. Nowadays, psychologists are starting to tell us that self-compassion is actually more important, for mental health and wellbeing, than building self-esteem. Nothing is wrong with feeling good about yourself and enjoy a healthy self-esteem, however it depends on how you arrive at that self-esteem.
Studies indicate that some forms of self-esteem can actually be detrimental. For example, if your self-esteem is based on the need to be above average or to be better, smarter, prettier, stronger, more successful than others, that can lead to narcissistic behavior. Incidentally, thirty years of research shows that narcissism, among college-age students, is higher than it’s ever been.
If everyone’s self-esteem is based on being better than everyone else, all at the same time, that can cause problems. Superiority-based self-esteem leads to inflated egos and a constant need to boost yourself up while putting others down. When you have struggles, you may be tempted to blame others because you can’t see your own faults clearly (besides, it’s too painful to acknowledge your weaknesses). This can also be very hard on relationships (with others as well as self).
Self-esteem is unstable. It goes up with success but when you fail, it plummets. When self-esteem is an evaluation of your self-worth, based on perfect performance, social comparison and feelings of superiority, it brings, at one end of the spectrum, narcissism and pride. At the other end of the spectrum, when we fail or fall short, superiority-based self-esteem can lead to loss of identity, shattered self-confidence and self-loathing. Self-esteem is not a loyal friend (especially when it’s based in the need to be superior). In fact, it usually abandons you at times when you need it most and causes you to be your own worst enemy, whenever your performance is below average.
So what’s the answer? Self-compassion! Self-compassion is like a warm hug from a caring and supportive friend, encouraging you on with love and understanding. Self-compassion is having the same compassion for yourself as you would for someone else.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of, “Self-Compassion,” states, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.” As humans, we make mistakes, fall short of our goals and encounter frustrations and losses. Self-compassion is about accepting this reality. Neff continued, “The more you open your heart to this reality, instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”
Another great thing about self-compassion is that it enables growth through the struggle. It’s okay to admit weaknesses and shortcomings and it’s much easier to do so when you have self-compassion. Some people think they have to beat themselves up in order to move themselves from failure to success. On the contrary, studies show that people actually feel more motivated to try again when they are compassionate with themselves. That’s because self-compassion, empowers you to rise above the fall.
In a nutshell, self-compassion has the same benefits of self-esteem, but without the negative side-effects. With self-compassion, you won’t feel the need to beat yourself up, nor will you have an inflated ego, perform perpetual put-downs, or blame others in order to feel good about yourself. With self-compassion you’ll find more stability, more self-appreciation, more self-love as well as more love and appreciation for others.
Self-compassion takes practice. Here’s a little exercise you can do to build your skills in self-compassion: The next time you find yourself struggling or feeling disappointed in yourself or in your performance, be kind and compassionate to yourself, just as you would be to a good friend. Ask yourself, “How would I respond to a close friend in this situation? What would I say? What tone of voice would I use? How would I comfort him/her?” Then do those things for yourself. When you do, your feelings of self-worth and wellbeing will enjoy a great big boost.
For more information about self-compassion, check out this link to self-compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff’s website as well as her video below: