Most people are familiar with the concept of self-esteem and understand that high self-esteem is associated with success in work and relationships and a lower risk of mental health issues like anxiety and depression while low self-esteem is associated with problematic relationships, lowered success at work and a higher risk of mental health problems. As a result of the research on the impact of self-esteem of happiness and success, much attention has been paid in recent years to how to raise self-esteem in children and adults.
Some researchers (e.g., Neff, K 2011; Hayes, S. 2014), however, have begun to question whether attempts to raise self-esteem may be misdirected and have proposed that self-compassion may play a bigger role than self-esteem in promoting happiness and success and preventing (and ameliorating) mental health problems. Attempts to raise self-esteem artificially, through increased levels of praise and affirmation may result in narcissistic self-absorption and dependence on continuous validations by self and others, as well as a tendency toward negative self-evaluation in the face of failure. It may be that self-esteem and success are associated because success results in improved self esteem rather than the other way around. Self-esteem can be dependent on life conditions, that is, when one is doing well self-esteem remains high but in the face of failure, self-esteem may tumble. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is equally useful in times of success or failure in life.
According to Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, self-compassion consists of three elements:
“First it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.”
Treating ourselves with kindness rather than beating up on ourselves for every failure and flaw helps to alleviate the negative thinking that is especially associated with anxiety and depression. In the same way, seeing ourselves as one with the rest of humanity in our imperfection rather than the lone screw-up who never gets anything right, helps us to bear the inevitable suffering that every human being encounters. Learning to think about ourselves this way leads not only to a lessening of the negative internal dialogue and a brighter, more realistic outlook on ourselves but also opens a path to increased connection with others.
Achieving such a perspective on the self requires that we are able to be mindfully aware of our painful thoughts and feelings, attempting neither to repress our emotions or becoming completely caught up with them. We can acknowledge and accept our negative feelings and our failures without self-criticism and with the belief that our lives and our selves are still valuable and worthwhile. As Stephan Hayes put it, “…we humbly accept our place as one amongst our fellow human beings, mindfully acknowledging that we all have self-doubt, we all suffer, we all fail from time to time, but none of that means we can’t live a life of meaning, purpose, and compassion for ourselves and others.”
Hayes, S., 2014. Is Self-Compassion More Important Than Self-Esteem?
Neff, K., 2011. Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion
Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist