HJ: In the article below, Kristin Neff takes a very thoughtful and non-dualistic approach to a concept that we have always been taught is essential for a happy and successful life — self-esteem. She asks the question, ‘has the process and ideal of cultivating self-esteem simply become another way for us to continue judging ourselves (and ultimately everyone and everything around us) as ‘better than’ or ‘less than’?’ It is an interesting and valid thought that has profound implications for how we view and perceive ourselves — either as whole, in the case of self-compassion, or incomplete or special in the case of self-esteem, which implies a sort of separateness from the world around us and even ourselves. As there truly is no separation that exists outside of the framework of our own distorted perception, then which of the two approaches is more in alignment with the flow and our ultimate happiness? Kristin argues that it is indeed self-compassion — a concept which is revolutionizing how we approach and understand what it means to have self-esteem.
Why Self-Compassion Is Healthier Than Self-Esteem
By Kristin Neff, PhD | Self Compassion
It has become a truism in our culture that we need to have high self-esteem in order to be happy and healthy. Psychologists have conducted thousands of studies touting the benefits of self-esteem. Teachers are encouraged to give all their students gold stars so that each one can feel proud and special. We are told to think positively of ourselves at all costs, like in Stuart Smalley’s book of positive affirmations: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” But as research is now starting to demonstrate, the need to continually evaluate ourselves positively comes at a high price.
The main problem is that having high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average. To be called average is considered an insult in our culture. (“How did you like my performance last night?” “It was average.” Ouch!) Of course, it’s logically impossible for every human being on the planet to be above average at the same time. So we develop what’s known as a “self-enhancement bias,” which refers to the tendency to think of ourselves as superior to others on a variety of dimensions. Studies have shown that most people feel they’re friendlier, more popular, funnier, nicer, more trustworthy, wiser and more intelligent than others. Ironically, most people also think they’re above average in the ability to view themselves objectively! The result of wearing these rose-colored glasses isn’t so pretty.
This need to feel superior results in a process of social comparison in which we constantly try to puff ourselves up and put others down (just think of the film Mean Girls and you’ll understand what I’m talking about). Bullies generally have high self-esteem, for instance, since picking on people weaker than themselves is an easy way to boost self-image. And as a result of the self-esteem movement in the schools, narcissism scores have gone through the roof over that last 20 years, with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations.
At the same time that we continually try to see ourselves as better than others, however, we also tend to eviscerate ourselves with self-criticism when we don’t meet our high standards. As soon as our feelings of superiority slip — as they inevitably will — our sense of worthiness takes a nose dive. We swing wildly between overly inflated and overly deflated self-esteem, an emotional roller coaster ride whose end result is often insecurity, anxiety and depression.
So what’s the alternative? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as “good" or “bad" and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.
When I first came across the idea of “self-compassion," it changed my life almost immediately. It was during my last year in the human development doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, as I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I was going through a really difficult time following the breakup of my first marriage, and I thought signing up for meditation classes at a local Buddhist center might help. I had known that Buddhists talk a lot about the importance of compassion, but I had never considered that having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others. From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people.
I remember shaking my head in amazement. “You mean you’re actually allowed to be nice to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you mess up or are going through a really hard time? I don’t know . . . if I’m too self-compassionate, won’t I just be lazy and selfish?" It took me a while to get my head around it.
But I slowly came to realize that self-criticism—despite being socially sanctioned—was not at all helpful, and in fact only made things worse. I wasn’t making myself a better person by beating myself up all the time. Instead, I was causing myself to feel inadequate and insecure, then taking out my frustration on the people closest to me. More than that, I wasn’t owning up to many things because I was so afraid of the self-hate that would follow if I admitted the truth.
After getting my Ph.D., I did two years of postdoctoral training with a leading self-esteem researcher, and became familiar with the growing body of research identifying all the problems with self-esteem pursuit. I realized that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem. Why? Because it offers the same protection against self-hate as high self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. In other words, self-compassion provides the same benefits as high self-esteem without its drawbacks. Although no one had yet operationalized self-compassion from an academic perspective—let alone done any research on it—I knew that this would be my life’s work.
So what is self-compassion exactly? As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. 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. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.
Over the past decade, research that my colleagues and I have conducted shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. Self-compassion doesn’t demand that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as better than others. Rather, the positive emotions of self-compassion kick in exactly when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations or fail in some way. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. It is constantly available to provide us with care and support in times of need. A large body of research indicates that self-compassion offers the same benefits as high self-esteem, such as less anxiety and depression and greater happiness. However, it is not associated with the downsides of self-esteem such as narcissism, social comparison or ego-defensiveness.
Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?" By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.
It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.
Kristin Neff, PhD, received her doctorate in Human Development from the University of California at Berkeley in 1997. She is currently an Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion over a decade ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book “Self-Compassion,” released by William Morrow in 2011. Kristin’s work has received extensive media coverage, including the New York Times, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Reader’s Digest, and Psychology Today. In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an eight-week training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, and offers workshops on self-compassion worldwide. Information on self-compassion – including videos, guided meditations, exercises, research articles, and a way to test your own self-compassion level – is available at www.self-compassion.org. Kristin is also featured in the bestselling book and award-winning documentary The Horse Boy, which chronicles her family’s journey to Mongolia where they trekked on horseback to find healing for her autistic son.