Remember the self-esteem push of the 1980s? Saturday Night Live’s Al Franken satirized the movement with Stuart Smalley’s self affirmations (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”). Self-talk like Smalley’s was used to raise self-esteem, a measure of how people felt about themselves. High self-esteem was and still is associated with more happiness and optimism, and less depression and anxiety.
However, self-esteem proved over time to be a bit of a fair-weather friend. While high self-esteem keeps us buoyed and optimistic when things are going well, as soon as the chips are down, it goes bottoms up and transforms itself into low self-esteem. Think of the last time your self-talk went from “I am amazing,” to “I suck at life,” and you will recognize the way self-esteem can turn on you in a New York minute.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a healthy way of viewing oneself that does not fluctuate like self-esteem. It is one of the strongest predictors for psychological health. (1)
Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the foremost authorities on self-compassion, identifies three components of self-compassion:
- First, self-compassion is kindness and gentleness with the self.
- Second, it is a recognition that we are connected to a human family that has in common the tendency to make mistakes.
- Third, it is a balanced awareness of one’s own faults and strengths. (2)
Where self-esteem often pits us against others (“I am better than you are”), self-compassion embraces what we share (“we all have strengths and weaknesses”). While self-esteem blinds us to our failings, self-compassion helps us face ourselves as we are, with minimal self-delusion.
To illustrate what self-compassion feels like, herewith a personal story: Some time ago, I allowed my 13-year-old son to drive the car from one place to the other in our yard. I gave him very minimal instructions, and he drove full-speed into the house, opening his lower lip to the tune of a complicated, 13-stitch repair.
This kind of thing would plummet any mother’s self-esteem, with self-talk like “I am so careless. What kind of mother would let her 13-year-old drive the car around? I am a failure as a mother.” Self-compassion moderates the harsh self-criticism and turns it to how to be better. “That was a foolish mistake. My tendency to not thinking things through was the problem here. I will not make that mistake again.”
The most helpful response from the whole miserable experience came from the insurance adjuster. “Oh,” she said kindly. “Do we do these things? Of course we do!” She supplied the self-compassionate line (reflecting that we are all part of a human family that fails on a regular basis), and gave me a way to comfort myself and move past it.
Self-compassion is closely connected to diminished anxiety. One of Neff’s studies involved undergraduates who were interviewing for jobs. Those who ranked high in self-compassion could talk about their own weak points comfortably and reported less anxiety. Those with high-self esteem but lower self-compassion had the same anxiety levels as those with low self-esteem, and were just as likely to report negative self-talk. They found it more difficult to discuss their own weaknesses. (2)
Another longitudinal study evaluated more than 3,000 people on how they felt about themselves a dozen times over eight months. Those with high self-compassion scores had stable feelings of self-worth. Feelings of self-worth varied more with high self-esteem because it was more affected by outside factors. (2)
But, hang on. Won’t all this namby-pamby self-coddling result in laziness and a flabby achievement record? Shouldn’t I be hard on myself so I can be more successful?
If the piles of research on self-compassion could talk, they would respond with a very high-decibel, “No!” Self-compassion has been repeatedly shown to increase achievement and responsibility, rather than give us an excuse to slack off. (3)
In one study, 100 undergraduates were asked to recall a recent moral transgression. One group was instructed to write about it in a “kind and understanding” way, another group was to think about their own positive qualities and the control group wrote about hobbies. Those in the first group, or the self-compassionate group, showed more motivation to right the wrong they committed and learn from their mistake.(4)
Read more on self-compassion and how to obtain it
- Neff KD. The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Hum Dev. 2009;52(4):211-214.
- Neff K. Why self-compassion trumps self-esteem. Greater Good: UC Berkeley. May 27, 2011. Accessed Jan 5, 2017.
- Breines JG, Chen S. Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Published May 29, 2012. Accessed Mar 10, 2017.
- Neff K. Does self-compassion mean letting yourself off the hook? Accessed Mar 9, 2017.