Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem

What do you do when you make a mistake?  Grit your teeth and try again?  Or are you afraid to try again?  Give yourself a pep talk and reminder to work harder next time?  Or do you give yourself the compassionate response you would give a friend who made a similar mistake?

Self-compassion is a technique that everyone can use in whatever situations they may be.  It’s a way of listening to yourself and giving yourself credit for what you have done, not grief for failures.  Most people would agree that they’re harder on themselves than on anyone else, and really, do we deserve that?  Give yourself a break.

Kristin Neff, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and she researches and teaches about self-compassion because it helps people stop being “incredibly” hard on themselves and carrying heavy burdens of perfectionism and self-righteousness.

Compassion itself, she writes, is generally considered a good thing, when you show it to your kids, spouse, friends, or strangers in trouble.  But bringing it home and being compassionate to yourself just seems too indulgent, too “easy”, a lowering of standards and a loosening of discipline.

She identifies three steps to self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness:  allow yourself to come to the realization that all is not well and you are feeling like you did something wrong.
  2. Kindness: how would you reach out to a friend or a child who was feeling what you are feeling?  Would you tell them to “suck it up” or would you take the time to give some comfort and encouragement?  Be kind to yourself as well.
  3. Common humanity: don’t let your inner voice tell you “I’m the worst human being ever”.  Remember that everybody makes mistakes and finds themselves in difficult circumstances and don’t overdose on the self-blame.  It helps to reframe what’s happening in light of shared human experience.

Neff writes that self-compassion is different from self-esteem, because self-esteem goes up or down depending on circumstances, whereas you can be compassionate with yourself no matter what the circumstances.

On the other hand, the blogger Marcus Neo writes that there is no “high” self-esteem, there’s just self-esteem, which in his formulation is similar to Neff’s idea of self-compassion: not believing that you will never make a mistake, just knowing that you have what it takes to make your own choices and move ahead.  It’s not about semantics, it’s about moving through life without carrying extra burdens.

For an example of self-esteem of this type, we need look no further than a MoodSurfing post on Brent Guy, a college football coach with Bipolar.  He spent 30 years of his college coaching career hiding his diagnosis from everyone except his wife.  Then he decided he’d had enough and quit his job to become a mental health educator and advocate.  No high or low self-esteem, just knowing what you are worth and going for it.