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  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

Trading in Self-Esteem for Self-Compassion

Think for a moment about different times in your life when you’ve been struggling in some way – came up short, made a mistake, said the wrong thing. How do you normally respond to yourself in these instances?


Now take a moment to think about times when your friends have been struggling and how you might typically respond in these instances. What do you notice in comparing these?


For most of us, there is a clear tendency to treat our friends and loved ones with much more kindness and compassion than we would ever allow directed our own way. At its heart, self-compassion is about learning to treat ourselves the way that we would treat a close friend. To treat ourselves as if we matter as much to ourselves as others matter to us.


Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion


The research on self-compassion has really exploded in the field of Psychology in the past 20 years or so. Before this, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Psychological zeitgeist was to focus on self-esteem as the most important indicator of psychological health. This is largely because the studies at the time suggested that people with anxiety and depression tended to have low self-esteem.


Self-Esteem refers to someone’s self-concept – the way that they think about themselves. I am a good swimmer, I am a poor student, I am strong, I am too gullible, I am unattractive. You may notice that self-esteem is heavily steeped in judgments – a language shorthand that saves time by collapsing things into categories.


The main problem with Self-Esteem is how fragile it can be – it can be majorly disrupted by losing a job, being insulted by a stranger on the street, or coming in second in a competition. Self-esteem is a Potemkin village – because even positive self-judgments in self-esteem are propped up by comparisons with others, the self-esteem paradigm says: in order to feel good about yourself, you need to be the best. You need to achieve. Failure is not an option.


The issue is that, if you need to be better than others in order to have worth, that consigns a huge segment of the population to the realm of worthlessness. It also puts us on a never-ending staircase that we will inevitably fall from. Agreeing to this paradigm is like agreeing to huge global game of musical chairs where the prize is the satisfaction or dissatisfaction with your life and there are only a few chairs (plus the music sucks).


If Self-Esteem refers to the way that someone thinks about themselves, Self-Compassion refers to the way that someone relates to themselves – with a quality of kindness or a quality of harshness.


Instead of conditioning our feelings toward ourselves on our achievements, Self-Compassion stems from the idea that we all have worth that comes from the inherent struggles of being a human. If Self-Esteem is fossil fuels, Self-Compassion is a renewable energy source.



Three Components of Self-Compassion


As I mention earlier in this post, the most straightforward definition of self-compassion is treating ourselves the way we would treat a close friend. The more complex definition involves 3 main components, as laid out by Drs. Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer in their Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook:


Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves being aware of your present-moment experiences without judging them, pushing them away, or clinging to them. The truth is that in order to exercise self-compassion we first have to be aware of the ways in which we’re hurting – we have to be with our pain differently than our typical reaction.


In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, there is a concept that within our minds there is both in a sense a “Speaker” (the part of ourselves that experiences word-based thoughts) and a “Listener” (the part of ourselves that reacts to our negative self-statements, feels shame, feels sadness, etc.).


Our general tendency is to strongly associate ourselves with the “Speaker,” the harsh inner critic that chastises ourselves for making a mistake (e.g., “that was so stupid, here you go again screwing it all up”). We tend to be less in tune with the part of ourselves that “hears” that inner voice and reacts to it. In part, applying mindfulness to self-compassion involves becoming more aware of and connected with that part of ourselves that experiences the pain from our harsh inner critic.


Common Humanity

When we are being harsh and critical with ourselves in our minds, we also have the tendency to feel isolated from others. It feels like we are the only ones who could have made that particular blunder, or the only ones who could possibly feel this completely low. We set ourselves apart from others in our minds in these instances.


Common Humanity is about recognizing that when we feel pain, come up short, make mistakes – this actually connects us more with other people. Remembering that you’re not the only one who feels this way is an important part of self-compassion because it helps us feel less alone and makes the natural pain we feel from disappointing events easier to bear.


Self-Kindness

Self-Kindness counters the tendency to be our own harshest critic, and instead focuses on supporting ourselves, encouraging ourselves, and trying to protect ourselves from harm. When we treat ourselves in this way, we are tapping into the mammalian care system. That is, mammals are evolutionarily evolved to respond to care from their parents in order to stay close by as they develop. An example of this is Oxytocin, the bonding hormone that is released when you hug someone close to you or when you cuddle with your dog or cat. In other words, instead of further revving up our Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, the body’s natural threat-defense system, offering ourselves kindness instead taps into the mammalian care system that brings on the opposite, “Rest and Digest” bodily response.

Deconstructing Myths About Self-Compassion


I actually think of self-compassion as being a 100% practical skill, in the sense that it can make most people’s lives better rather than worse. Let’s look at and deconstruct a few common myths about self-compassion:


Myth #1: Self-Compassion is Just Self-Pity


This is the idea that having compassion for oneself is that same as throwing oneself a “pity party” or going, “Oh! Poor me!” This is a distorted view of self-compassion because it actually involves becoming aware of how our suffering connects us to other people rather than sets us apart (Common Humanity).


Additionally, the Mindfulness aspect of self-compassion can help us acknowledge our difficulties with clear eyes and without going beyond the facts of the situation, making it easier to act effectively in response to events. Overall, the practice of self-compassion makes us less likely to ruminate unhelpfully about ourselves and our situation.


Myth #2: Self-Compassion is Being Selfish


This is a very common myth because we tend to believe that our harsh inner critic is necessary to be responsible to other people. After all, if we didn’t think it served any purpose we probably wouldn’t do it.


However, because constant self-criticism tends to make us more perfectionistic and fearful of failure, it is self-criticism, rather than self-compassion that causes us to focus more on ourselves. Instead, compassion toward ourselves can increase our capacity to consider and be compassionate toward other people. For example, being harshly critical with oneself for perceived failures can make it more difficult for one’s partner to feel heard because this self-criticism dominates the focus.


Myth #3: Self-Compassion Will Make Me Lazy and Unmotivated


This is by far the most pervasive belief that keeps people from fully allowing themselves to experience the benefits of self-compassion. That is, we engage and listen to our harsh inner critic because we believe that this is necessary to our success. In a sense, it is based on an idea from the behaviorism branch of psychology that says: to get the outcome you want, you should reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.


However, when we put this into practice in our minds, punishing ourselves for our mistakes, this can lead us to avoid our responsibilities and this is actually why we’re often unmotivated.


An example of this would be someone who has so many chores to do that they just know that when they start working on it, the first thing that’s going to happen is their mind is going to chastise them for letting it get this messy. Because of how aversive this seems, the person ends up watching Netflix for hours instead, postponing this criticism until later – only then it will have another behavior to deem lazy.


If instead the person offers themselves self-compassion for to stress and strain that they feel, acknowledging and being clear-eyed about the task ahead without judgment, and asking themselves in earnest, “What do I need right now?” this is likely to free them up from this cycle, making it easier to build a system of motivation that works for them.


Self-Compassion Practice


There’s not a single correct way to practice self-compassion, but the following as a self-compassion exercise you can try out to get started with the concept:


Try practicing these instructions first while reading through them, and then if you’d like, again afterwards while closing your eyes for an enhanced effect.


I want you to call to your mind a version of yourself at a difficult moment in time that you have the tendency to judge negatively – it could be last week when you made a joke that didn’t land in the work meeting, or twenty years ago when you failed your driver’s license exam, or it could be you from 10 minutes ago that was being harsh with yourself for a simple mistake that you made.


Bring this image of yourself to your mind, and the first thing I want you to do is to notice that this past version of yourself is in pain or suffering in some way – suffering we may have closed ourselves off from in the moment itself. You could say a version of the following to acknowledge it (Mindfulness):

I’m hurting

This is stress


Next I want you to notice that this pain that you feel in that moment is shared with other people, that it connects you with others and makes it easier to relate to others when they struggle. You could say a version of the following to acknowledge it (Common Humanity):

I’m not alone

Other people feel this way


Lastly, I want you to, holding that picture of your past self in your mind, start to talk to them the way that you would a close friend. Try speaking to them in an encouraging, supportive manner rather than attacking or criticizing (Self-Kindness)…


Once you do this, I want you to notice what shows up for you. How does it feel to speak to yourself this way? To notice your pain without judging it? To feel a sense of protectiveness about yourself? To feel connected to others in your pain?


Starting Out with Self-Compassion


It’s perfectly normal for the practice of self-compassion to feel strange or foreign at first. It tends to run antithetical to our intuition about what we need to build motivation to lead healthy fulfilling lives. In one sense, self-compassion is about making the choice not to engage in problem-solving in the form of harsh self-criticism, and instead to engage in observation mode, mindfully being aware of your own pain and offering yourself the support and encouragement that we all need sometimes.


In order to more successfully practice self-compassion, it can be helpful to examine our own beliefs about it and understand how these beliefs impact our willingness to practice it.


For example, if you have the belief that “Self-compassion is great for other people, but if I do it I will end up lazy and complacent,” then this is likely going to make it hard to truly leave problem-solving mode when trying to engage in self-compassion, limiting the effectiveness. And then this result can seem to confirm for us that self-compassion was never the answer in the first place!


In the process of changing our habits of self-criticism in favor of greater self-compassion, it can of course be helpful to have the assistance of an experienced therapist as a guide. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


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