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I’ve struggled for years trying to improve my self-esteem and self-confidence. Well, it now seems I may have been barking up the wrong tree!
According to Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, what makes much more sense is to cultivate self-compassion.
Think about it. No matter how successful we are and how wealthy we become, it never seems to be enough.
We think that others have more than us and we struggle to accept mistakes and failures.
This can lead to us feeling anxious, worried and depressed. We seek the answers at the doctor’s surgery, in pills and in the self-help aisle at the bookshop.
The Problem with Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is the degree to which we evaluate ourselves, whether that be positively or negatively. It is defined as how you feel about yourself and how you think others see you.
Research has shown that high self-esteem can have some serious downsides. One key issue is that once you have high self-esteem, you will have to work hard to keep it. High levels of self-esteem have also been linked to narcissism, aggression, prejudice and anger.
There is also a problem with the ‘how you think others see you’ part of the definition. This can lead to constant comparison with others. My own experience with this is that my day to day happiness can depend very much on what I think others think about me.
Self-Compassion as an Alternative Approach
Self-compassion is being kind to ourselves in the face of failure, or if we notice something we don’t like about ourselves, rather than being self-critical.
It also involves mindfulness, being able to recognise and not judge negative thoughts and emotions as they arise.
Another key point of self-compassion is it is about how we relate to ourselves rather than to others.
With self-compassion, other people are out of the equation. You don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.
Realising this has made me see how futile my battle with self-esteem has become. I know now that what I actually need to do is give myself a break!
Now, you may worry that practising self-compassion is somehow ‘letting yourself off the hook’.
You may worry that you are going to lose your focus or your ‘edge’. Yet research has shown that the opposite is true – focus is actually associated with emotional resilience rather than with high self-esteem.
Benefits of Self-Compassion
When I came across Dr Neff’s research I was intrigued to find out more. The research found that self-compassion:
makes you acknowledge your flaws and limitations
helps you to be more realistic and optimistic
fosters greater emotional resilience
leads to more caring behaviour
reduces levels of stress and frustration
[tweetshare tweet=”You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. — Louise L. Hay” username=”alisonw30″]
The test measures how self-compassionate you are on a scale of 1 to 5.
My score of 2.88 puts me in the ‘moderate’ band.
I was quite pleased with this result as a couple of years ago I would have been firmly in the low part of the scale!
The test breaks self-compassion down further into a number of different dimensions. This gives you a better indication of what you can work on.
In my own case, I could improve my scores on self-judgement and over-identification. This definitely resonated. I know I can be pretty hard on myself at times and can easily get caught up in emotion and rumination!
How to Practice Self-Compassion
Dr Neff gives a range of exercises for practising and improving self-compassion.
My personal favourites are ‘how would you treat a friend’ and ‘exploring self-compassion through writing’.
1. How Would you Treat a Friend?
I recently watched a thought-provoking Ted Talk by psychologist Dr Guy Winch entitled ‘Why we all need to practice emotional first aid’.
In the talk, Dr Winch tells the story of a lady who goes on a blind date to a bar. After 10 minutes, the guy stands up and says ‘sorry, I’m not interested’ and walks out. The lady is understandably upset and phones her friend. Her friend tells her ‘what do you expect, you are fat and boring, why would anyone want to date you?!’
Shocking? Of course, this wasn’t really the lady’s friend telling her this. It was her own self-critic making a point of kicking her whilst she was down!
Step one in Dr Neff’s exercise is to think how you would you respond to a friend who is feeling bad. Write down how you would respond to your friend (particularly if you were feeling on top of your game!) Write down what you would and wouldn’t do, what you would and wouldn’t say and what tone of voice you would use.
The next step is to think about when you’re feeling bad. Maybe something hasn’t gone quite to plan or you’ve made a mistake at work. Again write down what you would and wouldn’t do, what you would and wouldn’t say and what tone of voice you would use.
Then examine if there is a difference between the two approaches. I’m betting that there is?! Ask yourself why this is, what leads you to treat yourself in a different way to how you would treat others?
Then note down what you think might change if you were to respond to yourself in the same way you would respond to a friend.
Take something you are unhappy about and write yourself a compassionate letter. In the letter express acceptance, understanding and encouragement.
Try to write the letter from the perspective of an imaginary friend who loves you unconditionally.
Ask yourself what your friend would wish to convey to you from a position of compassionate understanding. What would they tell you to remind you that you are only human and that you have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else?
Dr Neff says “as you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness”.
Another way to cultivate self-compassion is to practice mindfulness meditation. This can help with possible over-identification and negative rumination. Mindfulness is about being aware of thoughts and emotions without trying to change anything.
Also, try to take notice of the words your ‘inner critic’ uses. How might you address yourself in a more compassionate way?
Finally, if you feel you could do with some help with any of the exercises, it may be a good idea to speak with a therapist or coach.
“Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.” —Pema Chodron
I would love to hear what you think? Do you think we focus too much on self-esteem? Would a shift to self-compassion be helpful? Have you had any success with this approach?