Why we should stop focusing on self-esteem and start focusing on self-compassion

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What is self esteem?

Self-esteem is the subjective evaluation of one’s worth or value as a person. It is often based on our own beliefs and perceptions about ourselves, which are shaped by various factors such as personal experiences, upbringing, and social comparisons. Self-esteem is often based on comparing ourselves to others and judging our value relative to theirs. For instance, we may evaluate ourselves based on our physical appearance, intelligence, skills, accomplishments, social status, and other factors.

Self-esteem is generally seen as a positive attribute that people strive for, as it can lead to greater confidence, motivation, and resilience in the face of challenges. However, having low self-esteem can lead to negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and a lack of self-worth. Conversely, having high self-esteem can lead to overconfidence, narcissism, and a lack of empathy for others.

The downsides of self-esteem

Because when we put too much emphasis on building up our self-esteem, more often than not, we set ourselves up to feel inadequate and insecure when we fail to measure up.

In an effort to reduce this discomfort we either put others down by judging them and focusing on their flaws and mistakes or we over inflate ourselves.

As we turn inwards in an attempt to keep our self-esteem high, we can easily fall into traps like:

  • Self-absorption
  • Narcissism
  • Prejudice towards others
  • Self-righteous anger
  • Discrimination
  • and more

Increased narcissism: an unfortunate consequence of self-esteem

You might have noticed that more people are talking about narcissism lately. That’s no coincidence.

One study conducted by Jean Twenge looked at more than 15,000 college students over 20 years. Research shows the level of narcissism went up by more than 65% over those two decades. Unsurprisingly, self-esteem levels increased by an even greater margin during that time. Unchecked and unhealthy self-esteem seems to correlate with an increase in narcissism.

Another study conducted by Kristin Neff found that those with lower self-esteem are much less narcissistic. She also found that those with high levels of self-compassion were completely unassociated with narcissism.

While self-esteem can be an important aspect of our psychological well-being, it is important to recognize that it is not the only factor that contributes to our sense of self-worth. It is important to cultivate a greater sense of of self-compassion and acceptance, and to focus on intrinsic qualities and personal values rather than external validation and comparisons to others.

What is self compassion?

Self-compassion is the practice of treating oneself with kindness, care, and understanding in the face of difficulties, failures, and shortcomings. It involves acknowledging and accepting one’s own suffering without judgment or criticism, and responding to past experiences with warmth and empathy towards oneself. Self-compassion is based on the recognition that we all experience pain and struggle as part of the human experience, and that treating ourselves with kindness and compassion can help us to cope with these challenges more effectively.

Research has shown that practicing self-compassion can have numerous benefits for our psychological well -being, emotional well-being, and relationships. These benefits include:

  • Reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Increased resilience in the face of challenges and setbacks
  • Improved self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Greater feelings of intimacy, connection and social support
  • Enhanced emotional regulation and self-control
  • Increased motivation to pursue personal growth and positive change

Putting self-compassion into practice involves cultivating a mindset of kindness and understanding towards oneself, one partner, and learning to respond to difficult life situations with self-compassion

Self-compassion is an important practice that can help us to cope with difficult emotions, relationships, life transitions, and trauma and to cultivate greater psychological well-being. By practicing self-compassion on a regular basis, we can learn to treat ourselves with greater kindness and understanding, and to respond to the challenges of life with greater resilience and self-acceptance.

Self-esteem without self-compassion can lead to us feeling very down when we don’t measure up. Self-esteem without compassion for others and with too much focus on the self can lead to self-absorption and even narcissism.

How to start developing more self-compassion

Unfortunately, society is only just beginning to discuss the importance of practicing self-compassion over self-esteem. While you can walk into any bookstore and find shelves of books on self-esteem, there are much fewer resources available focusing on self-compassion.

And where some people seem to experience self-compassion naturally, that’s not the default state for most of us. Societal expectations, our personal sense of self, and how we’ve been raised all seem to tell us that we shouldn’t be compassionate toward ourselves. Unlearning a lifetime of destructive patterns can make a significant difference.

Thankfully, self-compassion is a learnable skill. A skilled individual counsellor and professional therapists can help you develop self-compassion. Like any muscle, you can also practice and build up your communication skills with regular exercises. How to put self compassion into practice:

Identify and replace negative self talk

One of the main components of self-compassion is the practice of showing ourselves empathy and forgiveness rather than judging ourselves harshly for our mistakes. When we make a mistake or experience a setback, our natural tendency may be to criticize ourselves harshly and dwell on our harmful patterns. However, this can lead to a number of personal issues: feelings of shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem, which can make it harder for us to cope with challenges and move forward in a positive direction. In contrast, practicing self-compassion is solution focused – it involves responding to our mistakes and setbacks with kindness and understanding. This may involve acknowledging our feelings of pain or disappointment, and reminding ourselves we are human, that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are a learning experience; they do not define us as a person.

Express gratitude throughout the day

Often, we spend too much of our day preoccupied with what we don’t have. But there is immense power in taking time to appreciate what we do have . You could simply spend some time talking to yourself or write down what you’re thankful for in a journal. However you choose to express your gratitude, the main point is turning away from judgments and worries over our shortcomings. Focus your inner voice instead on the positives in the greater world and all you do have.

Practice mindfulness

Being mindful is the first step along the road to self-compassion, it has also been shown to reduce stress. Mindful meditation requires you to be in the moment, free from judgment or labels. It can empower us to face and accept the discomfort we feel about ourselves. To get started, sit somewhere and allow your thoughts and feelings to come up without pushing them away or giving them too much significance. Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings, let them go.

Check-in on your physical needs during the day. 

Are there any concerns that are easily addressed? We can fall into autopilot if we’re not careful, rushing from one emergency to the next. Schedule time throughout the day to pause and ask yourself, “what does my body need right now?” Maybe you need a favorite snack or a quick rest. Don’t neglect your physical body as you put out fires. Improving how you feel and avoiding physical illness will help boost your self-compassion.

Try talking to yourself like you would a friend.

We’re often much harsher on ourselves than we’d ever be with our friends. Suppose a friend comes to us immediately after experiencing a failure or rough situation. In that case, we drop everything to help build them back up. So, why don’t we do the same for ourselves? Try talking to yourself like a friend who’s in a stressful situation. Use encouragement to build yourself up as you would do for a friend.

Don’t give up hope

Most of us have been focused on building up our self-esteem for most of our lives. For many, self-compassion is a new concept with some subtle differences that can be tricky to master.

So, don’t lose hope if you find yourself defaulting back to self-criticism or judging yourself. You probably won’t be able to snap your fingers and change overnight.

If you find it difficult to silence the voice in your head that’s constantly encouraging you to critique yourself, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. A registered clinical counsellor can assist with coping strategies and communication skills. It’s normal to slip up and say mean things to yourself, especially when beginning to practice self compassion. Talk honestly about what you’re working on with trusted friends or a licensed therapist. Life’s too short to spend it beating yourself up over every little mistake.

Believe me when I say you will experience an even fuller life when you learn to treat yourself in a kind and non-judgmental way.

Maha Elias is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC), Comprehensive Family Mediator (FMC), and sexual health and trauma-informed couples therapist with a private practice in Victoria, British Columbia.

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