Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem

“People who are compassionate toward their failings and imperfections experience greater well-being that those who repeatedly judge themselves. The feelings of security and net worth provided by self-compassion are also highly stable, kicking in precisely when self-esteem falls down.”

This is the intriguing premise – and promise – of Kristin Neff, PhD’s book, Self-Compassion, based on 15 years of research at the University of Texas-Austin, and her own deep practice as the compassionate – and self-compassionate – mother of an autistic child (as seen in the documentary, Horse Boy).

Neff suggest three major practices to counter the relentless self-criticism and accompanying shame-blame of others so endemic in our competitive and comparative culture:

  1. Self-kindness – a gentle understanding of the all too inevitable pain of being human, and then pro-active care and comfort.  She makes the point, both gently and bluntly, that self-criticism, while socially sanctioned and taught early on, is not at all helpful. We are human because of our frailties, not in spite of them, and accepting our frailties is an apprenticeship that yields deep wisdom. With kindness, we not only soften our hearts, connect with others, and deepen our desire to alleviate suffering, we have infinite opportunities to grow, explore, learn and transform our lives and our planet.  Self-compassion helps us move beyond fear and negativity and opens the door to other positive emotions, optimism, resilience, health and well-being.
  2. Recognition of our common humanity – compassion to “feel with” is by definition relational. We feel how our suffering connects us with others rather than alienating or isolating us.  When we are unkind to ourselves, even while kind to others, we draws artificial boundaries and distinctions between ourselves and others that only serve to fuel feelings of separation and isolation. When we stop comparing ourselves to others, either more or less than, and understand the deep truth of “we” rather than “me,” we can take our personal pain less personally and open our hearts to the inherent inter-connectedness that makes all pain and suffering bearable.
  3. Mindfulness – to see clearly what’s happening in the moment and accept it without judgment. Facing up to reality – I hurt and I feel care and concern – so we can respond in compassionate and therefore effective ways.  The whole shebang of self-criticism, self-judgment, self-loathing, keeps us from seeing our situation in the moment clearly. If we’re afraid of the feelings of shame or self-loathing that would follow fessing up to the truth, it’s difficult to take responsibility for our actions and choosing our next responses wisely. Neff says, “We can’t heal what we can’t feel.” Mindfulness and compassion allow us to embrace rather than erase whatever it is we need to bring understanding to. We can focus on the pain, rather than spinning stories of shame-blame about the causes of the pain; compassion “holds” the pain until it can dissolve and/or we see our way through. We can move from judgment to discernment and from blame to responsibility. It also allows us to pierce the illusion of perfectionism. We see that reality never matches the ideal. We can accept what is as what is, the first step in being able to change it or change our relationship to it.

Even though we learn to love ourselves and be kind to ourselves from other people loving us and being kind to us, we do need to be able to resource ourselves with self-acceptance and self-compassion many times a day, all our lives long. When we can trust ourselves that we can face whatever pain or confusion is afflicting us in the moment with our own practice of self-compassion, we have far more courage and resilience to face the inevitable challenges of being human, no matter how difficult.

Neff is deft at describing the differences between self-esteem (based on qualities or performance) and self-compassion (based on intrinsic worth and love), saying that bothSelf-compassion trumps self-esteem self-esteem and self-compassion help people feel happier and thus avoid anxiety and depression, but when the chips are down (and the props of self-esteem fall away) self-compassion is a steadier support in helping us re-right ourselves.

Mindfulness, as meta-awareness – I’m angry; I’m aware that I’m angry; I’m aware that I’m aware – allows us to observe the worries of the past and the fears of the future rather than being hijacked by them, and to know that, in the present moment, we are not those worries or those fears. We can respond with compassion – re-booting the system – rather than remaining caught in reactivity.

Self-compassion leads to emotional resilience.

Because of the brain’s built-in negativity bias, essential for survival, we can ruminate on negative feelings and thoughts which can lead to anxiety and depression. Self compassion brings a “cozy blanket to those negative feelings, rather than a rawhide whip.” When we’re not as frightened by difficult life circumstances, when we have a sense of connection and belonging, negative thoughts arise less frequently and are less enduring. We’re more able to roll with the punches. Part of what contributes to this emotional resilience is that when we practice self-compassion, and remember moments of being loved and loving, we activate the release of the “calm and connect” hormone oxytocin, which down-regulates our stress levels and helps us calm down again.

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.

This mantra or prayer incorporates all three elements of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. With self-compassion, we don’t have to pretend anything is other than it is. The mindfulness and compassion know that the pain is true; the simultaneous care and concern is true, too. When self-compassion skillfully “holds” the negative, it also opens us up to positive possibilities.

Neff also presents research that shows that self-compassion, besides being a great protector against anxiety or depression, is actually a great motivator, far more potent than self-criticism, which is amygdala-fear based and actually undermines our performance. Self-compassion motivates us on the basis of oxytocin, love, connection, and self-efficacy (learning rather than performing). Self-compassion creates a mind state that allows us to discern and care about what will truly make us the most happy. With intrinsic motivation, a self-compassionate person can still have high standards (research shows they do) but not be so hard on one’s self when falling short of those standards.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, than I can change.

            – Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person