Is Self-Compassion More Important than Self-Esteem?

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Remember the “Golden Rule” in elementary school? Treat others the way you want to be treated. Research suggests that you might also need to consider the reverse: Treat yourself the way you want others to treat you (Science Watch).

You may have friends or family who tell you to “Be good to yourself” all the time, but are you really listening? While “self-esteem” is defined as “a confidence and satisfaction in one’s self (Merriam-Webster),” “self-compassion” is the act of being compassionate with yourself in times of struggle or failure (Self and Identity). Studies have found this trait to be more important than self-esteem because having overly high self-esteem can result in inflated expectations and, ultimately, end in disappointment (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Conversely, self-compassion enables people to better handle disappointment and failure and view it as a consequence of the human experience rather than personal inadequacy.

The Back Story on Self-Compassion and What it is

Self-compassion has been a practice of Buddhism for 2,500 years, but it's just recently started to be explored in Western culture.
Self-compassion has been a practice of Buddhism for 2,500 years, but it’s just recently started to be explored in Western culture.

The idea of self-compassion has a long history. It’s a key point of Buddhism, which has also contributed the idea of mindfulness to psychology in recent years (Self-Compassion). Kristin D. Neff, Ph.D., became particularly interested in Buddhism and the teaching of self-compassion in her senior year of graduate school and has since pioneered research on the subject. She created the Self-Compassion Scale, which has participants self-report to measure.

Today, there have been quite a few studies on the topic, and the research is overwhelmingly positive, demonstrating time and time again how beneficial self-compassion can be. In fact, virtually no studies have found the sort of negatives to self-compassion that come with self-esteem.

Neff outlines three main components to self-compassion, they include (Psychology Press):

1)   Self-Kindness: This essentially means that instead of being self-critical, you go easy on yourself in the face of difficulties or screw-ups.

2)   Common Humanity: This means that instead of isolating with a “Why me?” mentality, you look at your problems as a part of the larger human experience and feel connected to other people.

3)   Mindfulness: This means being aware and accepting of your negative feelings and neither avoiding them nor over-identifying with them.

Self-compassion is, essentially, learning to reframe those negative thoughts where we equate our self-worth with the number of failures or successes we have, and instead accept that bad things are part of the human experience and, as humans, we are bound to experience them (Human Development). They’re also more likely to have a more stable sense of self-worth over time.

Why This Isn’t the Same as Being “Too Easy” on Yourself

People who practice self-compassion have actually been shown to take more responsibility and be more equipped to make positive life changes.
People who practice self-compassion have actually been shown to take more responsibility and be more equipped to make positive life changes.

It’s easy to assume that if you tell yourself that mistakes are a part of life instead of beating yourself up for failure that you’re being too easy on yourself, but researchers have found that, that’s not the case at all.

Studies have found that people with high levels of self-compassion are, in fact, more likely to take responsibility for the negative things that happen to them, and researchers think this is because guilt makes us want to avoid responsibility, while self-compassion helps us accept negative experiences (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). In one study, researchers found that self-compassion helped take the pressure off of admitting guilt and made it easier for participants to take responsibility.

Self-compassionate people are more likely to make positive changes in their lives and also to learn and grow for intrinsic, not social, reasons. Because they aren’t so hard on themselves, self-compassionate people are often able to change behavior after mistakes and take on new challenges

Why Self-Compassion Can Be Productive in Making Health Decisions

Not feeling guilty for eating "forbidden" foods may actually help you make better eating choices.
Not feeling guilty for eating “forbidden” foods may actually help you make better eating choices.

Many, many of my friends have made the decision to go on diets at one point or another. Some of them make lists of forbidden foods and beat themselves up when they eat something on the list. Others make a conscious choice to eat healthier but enjoy the occasional French fry. Usually, the latter does better, and self-compassion might be the reason why.

One study looked at the eating habits of restrained (dieting) and unrestrained eaters. Participants were told to drink a certain number of milkshakes — zero, one, or two — and then were told to eat as much ice cream as they wanted in a taste test. Unrestrained eaters amount of ice cream consumption was related fullness; those who drank more milkshakes, ate less ice cream. But restrained eaters who drank milkshakes tended to eat more ice cream than those who didn’t drink milkshakes (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology).

This led to another experiment where college women were asked to eat donuts in a taste test. Some were given the message that “Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel really bad about it.” Next, the women were told to eat as much candy as they wanted in a taste test. Those who’d received a self-compassionate message ate less candy.

Other studies have shown that frequent dieters tend to overeat unhealthy foods and the reason might be guilt. Those who practice self-compassion feel less distress and are less likely to emotional eat.

Bottom Line

High self-compassion seems to be a more important quality than high self-esteem. While high self-esteem can have negative consequences, such as narcissism, high self-compassion can help individuals accept their mistakes and flaws and move past them. So, instead of having a reel of negative dialogue, self-compassionate people tend to acknowledge that it’s OK to fail or have bad things happen. This allows them to accept responsibility, take on new challenges, and learn and grow without social comparisons and pressure.

It’s definitely worthwhile to consider how all of us could become more accepting of our mistakes and take a self-compassionate approach. Consider changing your internal reel of dialogue so that next time, instead of thinking, “I screwed up, and so I’m not worthwhile, etc.” you think, “I made a mistake, which is something that happens to everyone, and it’s OK.” This might actually give you a better perspective and allow you to persevere through problems.

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  • Lily

    Deep down I know this at heart. But have never express it or heard the concept expressed. You have put this together in words so wonderfully!

  • Natalie Bell

    @Takekawa — Thank you! I agree wholeheartedly. We should accept our negative feelings and learn from them.

  • Natalie Bell

    @Rozy — Thank you! I think self-compassion is a very important skill to be self-compassionate (as well as compassionate to others). I wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a mental health professional — it’s a very admirable pursuit in my opinion.

  • I like the concept about “Mindfulness” you explain so well accepting our negative feeling is the one way to make a change. You can’t avoiding them, every time you deny it you will find another negative feeling that you must control about.

  • Rozy

    Love this article being self compassionate is an acquired skill I learned from therapy, now I know that even though there is still stigma attached to mental illness I can don’t have to project that onto myself, instead I am compassionate and I want to be a mental health professional when I grow up.

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