Why self-compassion is more important than self-esteem


We’re all familiar with the gratifying feeling that accompanies a job well done. Even if it simply means that you nailed that pot roast you made for dinner. A healthy amount of pride isn’t just a good thing, it also pairs nicely with dinner.

But what happens when you overcook that pot roast? Or don’t quite make a deadline at work. Or flub a joke at dinner. For a lucky few, minor setbacks roll off like water off a duck’s back. But for many of us, a small misstep can often send us spiraling into a bout of negative thinking.

While this might sound a tad dramatic, these reactions are surprisingly common. And that’s where the pushes and pulls of self-esteem come in.

The self-esteem trap is real

For almost as long as we’ve been told to focus on our self-esteem, there has been a competing point of view, which argues that while seeking ways to feel good about yourself is important, being kind to yourself is better.

One big problem with all of our emphasis on self-esteem is that it can sometimes lead us down dark roads where we aren’t permitted to be imperfect. As Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor and the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, once put it: “When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most.”

The self-esteem trap doesn’t end there. When people feel pressured to boost their egos, instead of say embracing gratitude for what they already have, they tend to adopt some negative behaviors. Here are a few examples:

Sticking to what you know: I am the best at making pot roast, so I am just going to keep making it rather than challenging myself with some new dish.

Overestimating our abilities: I nailed that pot roast and therefore, I should quit my day job and open my own pot roast food truck. 

Judging/Comparing ourselves to others: Can you even make a pot roast? Probably not. (Oh god, what if your pot roast is better than mine?)

Narcissism: Sorry, your charity work sounds super interesting, but have you ever tried my pot roast?

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Why self-compassion is better

Self-compassion isn’t just about comforting yourself when something doesn’t exactly work out the way you’d hoped it would. As Neff notes, self-compassion is also about defining your worth differently by seeing yourself — along with your triumphs, failures, strengths, weaknesses, and emotions — as normal and part of a common humanity. (After all, a lot of people make pot roasts.)

In other words, self-compassion involves removing judgment of yourself and others from the equation. Instead, aim to cultivate a mindfulness to keep your emotions from getting bigger or smaller than they should be. As a result, you’ll be able handle feedback and setbacks with more resilience because there is no pressure on you to be superhuman all the time. Sounds nice, right?

How to practice self-compassion

1. Treat yourself as you would a good friend. We’ve all had the experience of giving friends comfort or a good pep talk, especially when they might be sad or worried about a particular problem. Aspire to be that compassionate friend to yourself by being supportive and honest.

2. Acknowledge and identify feelings as they come. We all have a tendency to get a bit carried away with our feelings, especially the negative ones. It’s just as natural to exaggerate the effect of an emotion as it is to pretend a feeling doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Instead, try observing yourself in these moments and identifying your thoughts for what they are. (I am nervous about my date tonight.)  It’s a great way to keep everything in perspective.

3. Instead of dwelling on mistakes, admit you’re human. As people, we fixate on our mistakes in a very personal way. (If only I’d left the house on time, I wouldn’t have hit this traffic.) But don’t forget: Everyone makes mistakes and everyone hits traffic from time to time.

Remembering that your experiences don’t happen in isolation from the rest of humanity is crucial to the practice of self-compassion. It’s what keeps us honest and what saves us all from eating way too much pot roast.

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