If you are a cat, should you train yourself to think you are a lion?
You’ve heard about self-esteem but have you heard of self-compassion? Self esteem is an evaluation of self-worth: Am I a good person or am I a bad person? For a long time, psychologists have used self-esteem as the marker for good mental health. That’s because there’s a lot of research that shows that if you think poorly of yourself, you’re going to experience depression or anxiety or even consider suicide depending on how low your opinion of yourself is. In contrast if you think highly of yourself, you’re going to feel good, you’re going to be confident. More recent research into self-esteem has revealed that it can also be problematic. This boils down to how you get high self-esteem.
To have high self-esteem it means that you regard yourself as “above average”, special and better in some way. So, in order to achieve high self-esteem, we have to find ways to puff ourselves up in relation to other people. Inevitably, it creates a hierarchy. We have to either overtly or covertly put others down in order to feel good about ourselves. These are the roots of narcissism. Scientists are now reporting the highest levels of narcissism ever recorded -and are in fact calling it a “narcissism-epidemic”- and they believe that it is linked to the self-esteem movement in schools.
This unhealthy self-esteem gospel is also thought to be behind other disturbing trends amongst young people such as bullying and school shootings. Bullies are consolidating their position as being more powerful than others and shooters are desperately trying to establish dominance after being made to feel small and powerless for too long. These same patterns are replicated in the larger society with religious, ethnic and political prejudice. It’s all a bustle and struggle for the top position.
And that’s the problem with the concept of self-esteem, is that is dependent on winning. You are good and deserving of self-esteem when you are on top. But what happens when you fail, when you are struggling, when you just do ok? Then by those same standards you are not deserving of self-esteem and you should feel bad. Self-compassion by contrast is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, flaws and all. It takes us off the constant treadmill that is striving for esteem and asks us to stop and consider ourselves as we are: whole, human and innately worthy.
Kristin Neff is a psychologist and researcher who pioneered this great work in self-compassion. She describes self-compassion as comprising of three components. Self-kindness: treating ourselves with empathy and gentleness as we would a good friend. Listen to your inner voice especially on a bad day, are you speaking kindly to yourself? The second component of self-compassion is common humanity: recognizing how similar you are with others and recognizing your imperfection as a human being. Self-esteem may lead you towards comparing your worst day with someone else’s best day. Self-compassion instead points out that we all have good days and bad days. Finally, Mindfulness: mindfulness means being with what is in the present moment. With these three practices: self-kindness, recognizing our common humanity and mindfulness we can revolutionize how we calculate our sense of worth and instead of ranking our self against others begin to embrace our innate and unquestionable value as human beings.
We have been socialized to believe that being harsh with ourselves and “toughing it out” is the way to motivate us to success. But research is now finding that self-criticism is paralyzing not motivational. Ultimately kicking yourself in the butt in an effort to get yourself to move leads to procrastination and imposter syndrome. This Forbes article explores how the link between self-compassion and success has been misunderstood and even mocked for years as being soft and cheesy. Most of us believe that if we are kind to ourselves, we will not be motivated to perform and will therefore slack off at our jobs. In reality, self-criticism leads to self-hatred. If you don’t like yourself you won’t be motivated to accomplish anything and you may even find yourself more inclined towards self-sabotage.
So how can you practice self-compassion? The simplest way is to listen to your inner voice especially while going through a particularly difficult time. Ask yourself; would I speak to my friend this way if they were going through the same thing I am going through? How would I like a friend to support me at this time? What might they say to me now that would uplift my spirit and make me feel validated? Self-compassion is as simple as being your own best friend. You can't afford not to be in your own corner.