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Shifting from Self-Esteem to Self-Compassion

Hannah Hopper 

Over the past several decades, psychological research has focused on the benefits of having high self-esteem. There are countless books, podcasts, and articles that promise to give tips for increasing your self-esteem, so much so that high self-esteem seems like the most important thing when it comes to good mental health. But psychology professor and researcher Kristen Neff says that boosting your ego won’t necessarily make you feel better in the long run. The problem with self-esteem is that it emphasizes comparing yourself to others around you, and having an inflated ego that comes with feeling like you’re doing better than others. There’s nothing wrong with being confident, but the problem with self-esteem is that it’s unsustainable and can lead to periods of depression during difficult times. In more extreme cases, an overemphasis on self-esteem can also lead to narcissism. Neff proposes shifting away from self-esteem and turning our attention to self-compassion. 

What is self-compassion? 

Neff says that self-compassion is treating yourself with the kindness, care, and compassion you would show to a close friend. It’s treating ourselves the way we treat those we love the most. Another distinguishing component of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity; the realization that we all will fail at some point and that’s part of what it means to be a human. When something goes wrong in our lives we often act surprised and this leads to further frustration. We believe that this shouldn’t be happening and we tell ourselves “I shouldn’t have failed, I shouldn’t be having this issue,” and that it’s more normal to live happy and perfect lives. This thinking then causes us to feel isolated from the rest of humanity because we assume we’re the only one who isn’t perfect. 

But to have feelings and to struggle with them is part of the experience of being human, and millions of other people in the world are working with the same issues. When we start to realize and accept our common humanity and the fact that none of us are perfect, we can begin to feel more connected. We’re not alone in the world, and all of us are doing our best but still making many mistakes along the journey. That’s part of life.

Another key piece of self-compassion is incorporating mindfulness. When a real mistake has been made, it’s about acknowledging and fully allowing the pain that comes along with the mistake. Self-compassion doesn’t mean disregarding what’s taken place and skipping over the pain in a superficial way. When you acknowledge that there’s a problem and some damage has been done, then you can frame this up in a larger context of our common humanity where we will all experience real pain. From this place you can acknowledge what’s happened, heal from it, and then grow from it.   

What are the benefits of self-compassion? 

Self-compassion creates resilience, better coping skills, and increased motivation. When someone fails and then responds to themselves in a compassionate way, they’re less afraid to try again because they didn’t beat themselves up. Self-compassion creates an environment where it’s safe to fail and it isn’t as damaging if failure happens. People who practice self-compassion also have an increased ability to make relationship repairs. They’re more likely to recognize what they’ve done wrong, accept responsibility for hurting someone, and then apologize for what they’ve done. Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge the mistake and apologize instead of spiraling with thoughts like “I’m such a bad person for saying something so terrible.” 

If you’d like to learn more about being kinder to yourself and practicing self-compassion, you may find it helpful to talk with one of our licensed therapists at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact Symmetry today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our Chicago therapists

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