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Forget about striving for high self-esteem and try self-compassion instead

Updated: Sep 24, 2020


What is self-compassion?


Let us first take a look at the word “compassion.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as; both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.


Imagine meeting a friend for coffee and you can tell she is really upset. She tells you that she just bombed an interview for a job she really wanted. She was so nervous that she kept going blank when asked questions and feels like an idiot.


How would you respond? Are you going to affirm her feelings by telling her that she is hopeless, an idiot, and not good enough for the job she is applying for? No, of course not. Yet, that is often how we talk to ourselves after such an experience, totally lacking in compassion for our-self and our situation.


Self-compassion is giving yourself the same understanding and kind loving words you would give to your friend; “I am sorry you had a bad experience, we all get nervous at times and it just takes some practice.”


Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher describes self-compassion as having three core components.(1)


Self-kindness ~ being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than critical and judgmental.


Common humanity ~ recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience.


Mindfulness ~ maintaining a balanced awareness of our experiences, recognizing pain and suffering, but being careful not to exaggerate it.


Self-compassion versus Self-esteem


Both self-esteem and self-compassion are associated with happiness, optimism, and positivity; however, self-compassion has some additional benefits, which we will get into later.


As Dr. Neff points out, self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. Of course too little self-esteem can lead to depression and lack of motivation, but trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.


Often times in Western culture, self-esteem is based on how much we differ from our peers, how we are special, and the need to be above average. Self-esteem is also based on judging ourselves and comparing ourselves to others. It is no wonder that resent research suggests that higher self-esteem is associated with depression, anxiety, and narcissism. (2)


When we focus on developing self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, our self-worth tends to increase and we loose the need to constantly compare and judge ourselves with, and or others.


“In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.”

~ Kirsten Neff


As for the additional benefits mentioned earlier, research shows that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger (3)


How to practice Self-Compassion


Now that we know practicing self-compassion will increase our over all well-being, how do we go about cultivating it?


The starting point for me was becoming aware of my inner-critic. I noticed I was much harsher and less forgiving of my mistakes and weaknesses than I was of family and friends. Even while writing this blog, my little inner critic says “You are not a writer, it takes you so long to write anything, if you were good at writing it wouldn’t take you so long –will anybody even want to read it?” I don’t let this nagger have the last word anymore. I have learned to take Neff’s advice to reframe this negative talk into a more loving and supportive voice such as, “I know you are scared of failure, but you will get better at writing; with time you will get faster and it will get easier.” By acknowledging my fear and giving myself the same support I would to a good friend gives me the space to at least try and actually put words on paper.


Greater self-compassion may be developed through several simple exercises:


· Give yourself a hug when you are feeling down, this can have an immediate effect by activating the soothing parasympathetic system.


· Commit a set of compassionate phrases to memory. Dr. Neff uses the following:


“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment? May I give myself the compassion I need?”(4)


· Schedule Me Time! Pampering oneself is not a luxury but a necessity. When we feel run down and tired we don’t have the energy to take care of others or perform at our best.


I hope I have given you enough information to peak your interest into learning more about self-compassion and how this practice can lead to greater self awareness and happiness. I really recommend you check out Dr. Kristen Neff at Self-compassion.org for a more in depth discussion, along with studies and exercises to help cultivate more compassion for yourself.





Definition of COMPASSION. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion

1. Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem. Greater Good. 2018. Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion. Accessed May 14, 2018.

2. Self-compassionorg. 2018. Available at: http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/NeffVonk.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2018.

3. Neff K, Self-Compassion? W, Self-Compassion? W et al. What Self-Compassion is Not: self-esteem, self-pity, indulgence. Self-Compassion. 2018. Available at: http://self-compassion.org/what-self-compassion-is-not-2/. Accessed May 15, 2018.

4. Margarita Tartakovsky M. 5 Strategies for Self-Compassion. World of Psychology. 2018. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-strategies-for-self-compassion/. Accessed May 16, 2018.

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