I have a question for you.
Do you think it’s better to have high self-esteem or be more self-compassionate?
For years high self-esteem was seen as the ultimate marker of wellbeing, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. However, high self-esteem is an external global evaluation of your self-worth and potential problems with high self-esteem are not if you have it, but how you get it.
Author Kristin Neff PhD of “Self-Compassion, Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” explains the differences, common confusions and benefits between the two concepts beautifully.
In order to have high self-esteem there is a need to feel special and above average. Nobody wants to hear they are average at something they do. I’m sure if somebody told you that you are an average worker, you would be hurt. This is completely normal I would not want to hear that I am an average nurse either. However, if everyone has to feel special and above average at the same time, that doesn’t work because somebody has to fall down so that someone can move up the high self-esteem ladder. It’s the need to feel better than others and people achieve this by social comparison, narcissism, bullying and prejudice. Having a healthy high self-esteem is good but the problem is when it becomes contingent on your own self-worth which can lead to inevitable feelings of inadequacy and depression.
Self-compassion on the other hand, is within you all the time so when self-esteem deserts you, self-compassion is always there to catch you. Compassion is relational therefore self-compassion is how we relate to ourselves and we need to do this in a kinder way.
For example, self-criticism is self-compassion’s arch enemy and here’s how our minds play out when something bad happens; “How could I be so stupid liking him/her, I knew I should not have pursued but I did anyway and failed miserably, way to go. I’m so alone nobody has ever felt like this before, I’m sure I’m the only person on this planet who’s ever made such a big mistake like this. I can’t believe how sad and angry I feel right now with myself. I’m never falling in love ever again.”
Sound familiar? Does this type of talk motivate you? Not really. We would never talk to our friend this way if they were suffering so why do we do it to ourselves? How do we end the madness?
*Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment: talk to yourself with care and understanding like you would treat a good friend rather than with harsh judgment. Change your internal dialogue into something positive.
*Common Humanity vs. Isolation: see your own experience as part of a larger human experience not isolating or abnormal. Recognizing that life is not perfect and neither are we.
*Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification: allows us to be with painful feelings and emotions as they are. Avoid extremes of suppressing or running away from these painful feelings. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own way and let self-compassion take over and heal you from the inside out.
Let’s take the previous example and change the inner dialogue from self-critical to self-compassionate. “It’s okay things didn’t work out for you and him/her. Life is full of uncertainty and you are a kind hearted person who deserves someone better. I know it’s hard right now but this is a good time to take care of you. Everyone goes through something similar when it comes to love and heartbreak, you’re definitely not alone and nobody’s perfect. We all have our own stories to tell. Feeling sad or angry is good because it means you are dealing with the grief and you will recover faster. Let these emotions come and then let them go. They don’t define you you’re bigger than they are. Believe in love again and let things unfold as they should, you’re going to be just fine.”
Doesn’t this sound more comforting and motivating? This is how we would comfort a friend, we deserve the same treatment too.
Common confusions with self-compassion are beliefs that it is weak, complacent and passive when in fact it can be a strong, powerful force for change in an emotionally supportive environment. Other confusions are that self-compassion is self-indulgent but what it really wants is long term health not short term pleasure. There’s the belief that self-compassion will undermine motivation, however most people believe self-criticism is an effective motivator but motivation with self-criticism comes from the fear of being worthless. On the other hand, motivation with self-compassion comes from the desire for health and well-being.
Self-compassion offers the same benefits as self-esteem but without the pitfalls. You will have fewer social comparisons, have more stability in your self-worth and not be associated with narcissism.
Furthermore, self-compassion is linked to motivation in the sense where people have a greater desire to learn and grow, try again when they fail, healthy living behaviors, effective coping and resilience skills, have caring relationships with others, able to forgive and have empathy, take greater responsibility for their mistakes and the ability to apologize.
Self-compassion helps to reduce anxiety, depression, stress, rumination, perfectionism, shame and a negative self-body image. On the other side of the coin, it increases life satisfaction, happiness, connectedness, love, self-confidence, optimism, emotional resilience, curiosity and gratitude.
Therefore, when you make mistakes or fall short of your expectations, you can throw away that rawhide whip and instead throw a cozy blanket of compassion around your shoulders. You will be more motivated to learn, grow and make the much-needed changes in your life, while having more clarity to see where you are now and where you would like to go next. You’ll have the security needed to go after what you really want as well as the support and encouragement necessary to fulfill your dreams.
To answer my own question, I choose self-compassion because it’s available to me 24/7 and can lead to a healthier high self-esteem.
What about you?