Do you ever feel like your sense of self-worth goes up and down like a ping-pong ball, depending on whether you’re feeling successful or more like a failure?
Do you sometimes tell yourself “nobody’s perfect,” but you don’t really believe it?
You might benefit from developing what is called “self-compassion.” It’s learning to be kind to yourself, letting go of debilitating self-criticism, and healing destructive emotional patterns.
Kristin Neff, PhD, an expert on the topic and author of Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, says the self-esteem movement of the 80’s and 90’s taught us we had to have high self-esteem to be psychologically healthy.
“High self-esteem is portrayed as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a precious commodity that must be acquired and protected,” she says in her book.
But, in fact, psychologists now believe that self-esteem depends on feeling above average: more successful, more intelligent, or more attractive than others. Your feelings about yourself end up being linked to your successes – and failures, says Neff. “The problem is, there’s always somebody better.”
With a self-esteem-based culture, you end up constantly feeding your need for positive self-evaluation, which Neff compares to eating a lot of candy. You get a brief sugar high, and then crash, swinging to despair. “We then tend to be hard on ourselves when we see our shortcomings,” she writes.
The book encourages us to opt out of the self-esteem game, and move toward using self-compassion to motivate ourselves. It’s more effective because its driving force is love, rather than fear, the author explains. “Love makes us feel confident and secure, while fear makes us feel insecure and jittery.”
Developing self-compassion provides the reassurance and support that comes with having high self-esteem, but without its drawbacks. The goal is to learn to accept yourself with an open heart, explains Neff.
What is self-compassion? In her book, Neff says it:
- Requires that we stop to recognize our own areas of suffering, but without an attitude of self-pity.
- Involves wanting health and wellness for ourselves.
- Helps us understand that our problems are important, really as valuable as our victories.
- Fosters happiness and optimism through mindfulness, or being aware of our thoughts, environment and actions.
- Provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless self-judgment.
- Allows us to stop asking “Am I good enough?”
- Helps us acknowledge the shared nature of our imperfect human condition.
Self-compassion provides a way to turn self-critical, judgmental thoughts into something supportive of ourselves. “Most of our self-critical thoughts take the form of inner dialogue, a constant commentary and evaluation of what we are experiencing,” says Neff. “Because there is no social censure when our inner dialogue is harsh, we often talk to ourselves in an especially brutal way.”
For example, have you ever said something like “I’m so fat and disgusting,” or “How stupid of me to say that!” or “I look like a cow in that outfit?” Neff says that sort of self-criticism can be related to a harsh upbringing, our culture, or even our need for control. But no matter where they come from, she believes we can learn to manage those thoughts.
In Self Compassion, Neff suggests three ways to hush self-criticism. First, notice when you’re doing it. If you’re feeling bad about something, think about what you’ve just said to yourself. Get to know your inner critic.
Then, try to soften those thoughts. Talk to your “inner critic” by saying something like, “Stop being so critical; you’re causing me unnecessary pain.”
Then, reframe your thinking in a friendly, positive way. Imagine what a very compassionate friend might say to you. For example, if you’ve just binged on a bag of potato chips, say something to yourself like, “I know you did that because you were feeling really nervous and you thought it would help relax you. But now you feel worse. Maybe taking a walk would help you feel better.”
Learning to develop self-compassion can enrich your life, Neff writes. You’ll develop self-appreciation, and get to know and understand your good side. In addition, you’ll learn sympathetic joy, being delighted by the good qualities and circumstances of others.
And you’ll develop gratitude. “Life circumstances account for only about 10 percent of happiness,” says Neff. “You can boost your happiness by changing your attitude about what happens.”
To learn more ways to develop kindness toward yourself, see: Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff, PhD, William Morrow, 2011.