Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem

By Kristin Neff | May 27, 2011 | 49 comments

Researcher Kristin Neff reveals the benefits of going easy on yourself: less anxiety, less conflict, and more peace of mind.

In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves?

I remember once, as a freshman in college, after spending hours getting ready for a big party, I complained to my boyfriend that my hair, makeup, and outfit were woefully inadequate. He tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, you look fine.”

Juan Estey Juan Estey

Fine? Oh great, I always wanted to look fine . . .”

The desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that by definition it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. Although there are some ways in which we excel, there is always someone smarter, prettier, more successful. How do we cope with this?

Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. But this strategy comes at a price—it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.

How can we grow if we can’t acknowledge our own weaknesses? We might temporarily feel better about ourselves by ignoring our flaws, or by believing our issues and difficulties are somebody else’s fault, but in the long run we only harm ourselves by getting stuck in endless cycles of stagnation and conflict.

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realize that—however much we’d like to—we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average.

The result is often devastating. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves when we finally admit some flaw or shortcoming: “I’m not good enough. I’m worthless.”

And of course, the goalposts for what counts as “good enough” seem always to remain out of reach. No matter how well we do, someone else always seems to be doing it better. The result of this line of thinking is sobering: Millions of people need to take pharmaceuticals every day just to cope with daily life. Insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgment, to beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t winning in the game of life.

Another way

So what’s the answer? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as “good” or “bad” and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.

When I first came across the idea of “self-compassion,” it changed my life almost immediately. It was during my last year in the human development doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, as I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I was going through a really difficult time following the breakup of my first marriage, and I was full of shame and self-loathing. I thought signing up for meditation classes at a local Buddhist center might help. As part of my exploration, I read Sharon Salzberg’s classic book Lovingkindness and was never the same again.

I had known that Buddhists talk a lot about the importance of compassion, but I had never considered that having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others. From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people.

I remember talking to my new fiancé, Rupert, who joined me for the weekly Buddhist group meetings, and shaking my head in amazement. “You mean you’re actually allowed to be nice to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you mess up or are going through a really hard time? I don’t know . . . if I’m too self-compassionate, won’t I just be lazy and selfish?” It took me a while to get my head around it.

But I slowly came to realize that self-criticism—despite being socially sanctioned—was not at all helpful, and in fact only made things worse. I wasn’t making myself a better person by beating myself up all the time. Instead, I was causing myself to feel inadequate and insecure, then taking out my frustration on the people closest to me. More than that, I wasn’t owning up to many things because I was so afraid of the self-hate that would follow if I admitted the truth.

After getting my Ph.D., I did two years of postdoctoral training with a leading self-esteem researcher. I quickly learned that although thousands of articles had been written on the importance of self-esteem, researchers were now starting to point out all the traps that people can fall into when they try to get and keep a sense of high self-esteem: narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, discrimination, and so on.

I realized that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem. Why? Because it offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. In other words, self-compassion provides the same benefits as high self-esteem without its drawbacks.

Although no one had yet defined self-compassion from an academic perspective—let alone done any research on it—I knew that this would be my life’s work.

Over the past decade, research that my colleagues and I have conducted shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. More so than self-esteem, the nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.

The science of self-compassion

So what is self-compassion? What does it mean exactly?

Kristin Neff’s new book, <a href=“http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061733512?ie=UTF8&tag=gregooscicen-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0061733512”><i>Self-Compassion</i> (William Morrow, 2011)</a>. Kristin Neff's new book, Self-Compassion (William Morrow, 2011).

As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.

This means that unlike self-esteem, the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are. Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.

Sure, you skeptics may be saying to yourself, but what does the research show?

The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernable downsides.

The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened.

In one study my colleagues and I conducted, for instance, undergraduate students were asked to fill out measures of self-compassion and self-esteem. Next came the hard part. They were asked to participate in a mock job interview to “test their interviewing skills.”

A lot of undergrads are nervous about the interviewing process, especially given that they will soon be applying for jobs in real life. As part of the experiment, students were asked to write an answer to that dreaded but inevitable interview question, “Please describe your greatest weakness.” Afterward they were asked to report how anxious they were feeling.

Participants’ self-compassion levels, but not their self-esteem levels, predicted how much anxiety they felt. In other words, self-compassionate students reported feeling less self-conscious and nervous than those who lacked self-compassion, presumably because they felt okay admitting and talking about their weak points.

Students with high self-esteem, by contrast, were no less anxious than those with low self-esteem, having been thrown off balance by the challenge of discussing their failings. And interestingly, self-compassionate people used fewer first-person singular pronouns such as “I” when writing about their weaknesses, instead using more third-person plural pronouns such as “we.” They also made references to friends, family, and other humans more often. This suggests that the sense of interconnectedness inherent to self-compassion plays an important role in its ability to buffer against anxiety.

Another study required people to imagine being in potentially embarrassing situations: being on a sports team and blowing a big game, for instance, or performing in a play and forgetting one’s lines. How would participants feel if something like this happened to them?

Self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally. Instead, they said they would take things in stride, thinking thoughts like “Everybody goofs up now and then” and “In the long run, this doesn’t really matter.” Having high self-esteem, however, made little difference. Those with both high and low self-esteem were equally likely to have thoughts like, “I’m such a loser” or “I wish I could die.” Once again, high self-esteem tends to come up empty-handed when the chips are down.

In a different study, participants were asked to make a videotape that would introduce and describe themselves. They were then told that someone would watch their tape and give them feedback in terms of how warm, friendly, intelligent, likable, and mature they appeared (the feedback was bogus, of course).

Half the participants received positive feedback, the other half neutral feedback. Self-compassionate people were relatively unflustered regardless of whether the feedback was positive or neutral, and they were willing to say the feedback was based on their own personality either way. People with high levels of self-esteem, however, tended to get upset when they received neutral feedback (what, I’m just average?). They were also more likely to deny that the neutral feedback was due to their own personality (surely it’s because the person who watched the tape was an idiot!).

This suggests that self-compassionate people are better able to accept who they are regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others. Self-esteem, on the other hand, only thrives when the reviews are good and may lead to evasive and counterproductive tactics when there’s a possibility of facing unpleasant truths about oneself.

Recently, my colleague Roos Vonk and I investigated the benefits of self-compassion versus self-esteem with more than three thousand people from various walks of life, the largest study to examine this issue so far.

First, we examined the stability of positive feelings these people experienced toward themselves self over time. Did these feelings tend to go up and down like a yo-yo or were they relatively constant? We hypothesized that self-esteem would be associated with relatively unstable feelings of self-worth, since self-esteem tends to be diminished whenever things don’t turn out as well as desired. On the other hand, because compassion can be extended to oneself in both good times and bad, we expected the feelings of self-worth to remain steadier over time among self-compassionate people.

To test this idea, we had participants report on how they were feeling toward themselves at the time—for instance, “I feel inferior to others at this moment” or “I feel good about myself”—doing so 12 different times over a period of eight months.

Next, we calculated the degree to which overall levels of self-compassion or self-esteem predicted stability in self-worth over this period. As expected, self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on outside factors like social approval, success in competitions, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on reaching certain goals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.

We also found that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion was associated with less social comparison and less need to retaliate for perceived personal slights. It was also linked to less “need for cognitive closure,” which is psych-speak for the need to be right without question. People who invest their self-worth in feeling superior and infallible tend to get angry and defensive when their status is threatened. People who compassionately accept their imperfection, however, no longer need to engage in such unhealthy behaviors to protect their egos.

In fact, a striking finding of the study was that people with high self-esteem were much more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem. In contrast, self-compassion was completely unassociated with narcissism, meaning that people who are high in self-compassion are no more likely to be narcissistic than people low in self-compassion.

An island of calm

Taken together, this research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.

It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.

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About The Author

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., is an associate professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of the new book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (William Morrow), from which this essay is adapted.

Learn how self-compassionate you are, as well as exercises for boosting self-compassion, on her website, www.self-compassion.org.

  

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Your article, Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem
is very powerful! It is so important to have both
compassion and self esteem in order to live content in
life.

GainEnergy | 8:31 pm, November 30, 2011 | Link

 

I felt better just by reading this! But I suppose it’s because I have actually been slowly coming to this conclusion.

I just read an article about a girl who accepted the fact that she was fat after spending most of her life punishing herself and feeling guilty and ashamed about it. She even tried losing weight only to get more depressed when she didn’t. Basically, she finally started to ignore how society felt about being overweight and accepted it. She now loves her curves and has a more positive outlook on life… and she started losing weight!

We can be so critical of ourselves and I know I am a prime culprit of that. I tried boosting my self esteem and got the same results as mentioned above. I just ended up frustrated for now live living up to my own expectations.

I see a few naysayers in the comments doubting the effectiveness of self compassion, but it makes plenty of sense to me. Accepting the fact that you’re not perfect makes you more comfortable about facing new challenges, which life is filled with, and not worrying too much about the outcome. In my experience, I do much better when I’m relaxed. I can definitely subscribe to self compassion over self esteem.

Twin Tiger | 9:00 pm, December 9, 2011 | Link

 

Awesome article, Kristin! This is vital soul truth for inner health that leads to maturity and healthy relationships and boundaries, to increased joy and contentment.

Bryan Thomas | 11:35 am, December 12, 2011 | Link

 

I am so grateful that I stumbled across this article!

I’m a freshman in college and, having faced rejection in the past, have spent years trying to cultivate my self-esteem. Unfortunately, though I am confident enough to progress through the day and attain specific goals, I still harbor strong feelings of inadequecy and resentment when faced with hurtful criticism or perceived mistreatment.

I have tried to bolster my self-image to ensure life success, yet have become increasingly dismayed to find that I am becoming less compassionate and more competitive. This article explained matters in such a way that cleared up my problem: I can aim high AND accept myself simultaneously, and I’m connected to, not competing with, others.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful research you took to compile all of the facts!

:) | 10:49 pm, December 30, 2011 | Link

 

I’m glad I read this article. Very helpful post.

Life Quotes | 1:16 pm, January 5, 2012 | Link

 

definitely not very self compassionate. It feels like
I’m
making excuses if I say “you are x, but it’s just
because you
are human

tarjetas de visita | 7:24 am, January 22, 2012 | Link

 

Love post like these. It’s so true that our world is so competitive. From age 1 we are already putting people against each other to be better than someone else. Be YOUR best self not what everyone else best self is.


Ben Winters CEO
TeachMeAwesome.com
Teaching you awesome ... 1 day at a time

Ben Winters | 10:44 pm, January 25, 2012 | Link

 

Well, the author is right, self love is much more better and “healthier”, than self criticism

But there is something I don’t agree with - “it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time”  -  I think it IS possible! For that to be possible everyone just has to feel like you do - good about themselves. Well they choose not to, but that’s a different story

All in all a good article about a very important topic in the field of personal development

Thx

Denny | 12:45 pm, February 28, 2012 | Link

 

I think that the two kind of work hand in hand. If you
have self compassion you will build enough strength
to have better self-esteem, in the long run. We all
need to take it easier on ourselves sometimes. I find
that I am just so self-critical, and it only makes
things worse.

Work Accident Attorneys | 9:58 am, March 1, 2012 | Link

 

All healthy people are self confident, which is based upon just being mentally and physically healthy.  The MAJOR enemy of all is aging, which destroys both the mind and body, often without warning. 

What I’m saying is that with the onset of the disease of aging, awareness diminishes, BUT the ego remains constant.  Thus, I notice aging and sick perceiving themselves as compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent and creative, while the
opposite is true.

Not about self esteem;  not about self compassion, but all about actualization of mental and physical health.

And it gets complicated.  Most are pre-ordained to live a life of illness, never understanding or experiencing health.  Yet, not only think they have whatever, but try to teach their nonsense to others.

Just terrible.

scout | 10:01 am, March 28, 2012 | Link

 

I like the article but I’d like to know what her idea of self-esteem is. As as I’m concerned, this “self-compassion” IS what self-esteem is….loving yourself and not measuring yourself or your accomplishments against anyone else’s.

Gerry Timm | 8:11 am, April 7, 2012 | Link

 

I like to say, “You are SO unique!”
Then add, “Just like everyone else.”

Cheap | 5:12 am, April 28, 2012 | Link

 

This concept of “self-compassion” might just save my life.
I am 47 and all my life (even as a little child) I battled with low self-esteem, insecurity, eating disorder, anxiety, anger, inferiority complex, guilt, self criticism, depressions, you name it.

From the age of 20 I was working very hard to change in order to feel better. I’ve tried nearly everything I came across - therapies, antidepressants, homeopathy, herbs, relaxation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy etc.etc.
I’ve learned loads of useful and positive stuff but nothing made much difference to the way I felt and treated myself. Every time I got my hopes up that this will be the “cure” it came crushing down and I was where I’ve started. It become increasingly more and more difficult to believe it will ever change and I will be free from the pain I feel most of the time.

You might think from the list of problems I have that I must have some reason for them but I really don’t. Which makes things only worse. I am attractive, intelligent, strong will power, excellent common sense, quite funny, achieved few things and the list go on but it never protected me from the misery I so often feel and the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority to other people.
I live in a constant fear of people and also of myself - when I am going to fail again, when I will not be able to cope with everyday life again, when I get hurt again ....

I am not living I am surviving from one day to another.
In last 2 years I was seriously thinking about ending my life because I don’t have the energy to keep going like this and nobody seems to be able to help me in any way. I really don’t want die but I don’t want to live like this either.

But if I manage to learn how to be self-compassionate and so more compassionate and less afraid of people and life in general it could dramatically change my life and literally save it.
It is not going to be easy after 47 years being hard and cruel to myself but I am going to do my best. I want to live and be finally at peace with myself. I am at the point I have nothing to loose, which is advantage.

I think to learn to be self-compassionate should be somehow compulsory. It would make the world a much better place. 

Vladka | 7:54 am, June 5, 2012 | Link

 

How we view ourselves in the context of what goes
right and what goes wrong is critical.  It amazes me
how I am far more forgiving and compassionate with
others regarding their mistakes than I am for myself.

Robert Rogers | 9:59 am, June 5, 2012 | Link

 

I like Neff’s work. I’ve shown all or parts of “The Horse
Boy” to human service undergrads to broaden their
world view and expose them to alternate forms of
treatment.

What i’ve wondered about—and, yes, this gets into
western psychology’s why and how—is the
directionality with respect to dispositional (or trait
type) mindfulness. Does self-compassion predict or
explain mindfulness, is it the other way round, or just
how do they work together?

John Burik | 8:08 am, November 18, 2012 | Link

 

Wonderful article.  It resonates. The aspect of our culture that says we should continuously strive to be better really bothers me. We will invariably fail eventually.  It takes away from our personal achievements when we succeed and makes our failures all the more painful.  Self-compassion is key to coping with it all.

Thanks for sharing your extensive research on the subject.

Maggie Amada | 1:00 pm, December 15, 2012 | Link

 

Excellent read!  I wish I had come across this sooner. 
I’m glad that research like this is being done.  Self-
compassion is not valued that much in our society, at
least here in the west.  I agree that we often treat
ourselves badly.  In fact, I recently saw a quote with
an interesting twist on this: treat yourself like you’d
like others to treat you.

Jack Grabon | 6:41 pm, February 8, 2013 | Link

 

Self-compassion is necessary for one to walk on the path of self-development.

Like to share a nice read here:

http://asknrj.com/a-herb-called-self-compassion/

Nikhil | 6:41 am, February 15, 2013 | Link

 

I’m a believer in Jesus Christ and I found this to be a
confirmation to me. I had never heard of self compassion
but until carpal   of weeks back I felt God place on my heart
that I would never treat someone as harsh as I was treating
myself in side. I felt that God wanted me to begin saying
and thinking kind words and thought about myself I begin to
do practical things like getting my bed ready before I’d
sleep I love to sing so I would be gentle when I would
practice I would accept that I was made an original and no
one had all would ever have the voices I have .thanks so
much for placing your message of compassion I think it’s
much needed in this day and age .

Mary | 2:06 pm, February 19, 2013 | Link

 

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