Have you ever noticed how much we talk about self-esteem? From the time that we’re very young, we learn that it’s important to feel good about ourselves. It’s not a bad thing, really. After all, confidence is the key to success and long-term contentment. But self-esteem has its limits. It is usually dependent on our performance, and therefore can waver, which means it isn’t a reliable source of comfort when we may need it the most.
For example, if I bomb a work presentation or ruin my New Year’s resolution of taking it easy on the sugar by bingeing on peanut M&Ms, I can’t reach for self-esteem to make me feel better. A few years ago, Dr. Kristin Neff introduced a new idea to help us reframe this discussion. Whereas self-esteem is how we evaluate ourselves, the concept of self-compassion refers to how we treat ourselves. Let’s explore this a bit further.
Self-esteem is related to how unique we are, how successful how we are, and how well we can hide our shortcomings. By contrast, self-compassion is something that everyone deserves, doesn’t require success, and is always available, even in the face of mistakes.
As a therapist who has worked with many individuals who berate and judge themselves harshly, I can tell you that self-compassion is much more important than self-esteem. Though some may initially think that being compassionate toward ourselves is self-indulgent, in reality self-compassion allows us to look outward to others once we’ve made peace with ourselves. The more patient you are with yourself, the more you have to give to others. And when it comes to compassion, it’s safe to say that women are usually pretty compassionate in nature, but sadly are often not very kind to themselves. Here are some strategies to help you increase the amount of compassion you show toward yourself.
The first thing you can do is to tune in to your own suffering. Often when we’re in pain we want to avoid our feelings, but I challenge you instead to be brave enough to acknowledge them.
If you feel guilty for yelling at your kids, for example, don’t shy away from your shame. Look at the situation without making less or more of it. This is not self-pity, it’s simply an evaluation of your own emotions in the present moment. You’ll be more compassionate if you can be honest with yourself about what’s going on. Then practice self-kindness. This goes beyond simply saying nice things to yourself. It’s an opportunity for real self-soothing. Imagine if a friend came to you when she was experiencing something really tough. You’d likely say reassuring things to her, but you’d also just sit with her and let her know that you cared about her.
Let’s try that same technique on ourselves. Be as kind to yourself as you’d be to someone else. Even on your worst days, you deserve it. The truth is that there are times when no one else is available (physically or emotionally) to help you feel better, so be there for yourself; that’s essentially what self-compassion is.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that self-compassion works. It feels really good. I’ve practiced it on myself several times in this past year when I was experiencing overwhelming pressure from some of the professional projects I’ve been involved in. I allowed myself to be aware of my own pain, then found ways to soothe it, whether through self-talk or giving myself a hug (sometimes literally!)
Although culturally we’re not trained to give ourselves the gift of kindness that we offer so freely to others, we can develop self-compassion as a way to help ourselves cope and find peace during our struggles.