A simple definition of self-compassion is to extend the compassion given to others’ to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering instead of criticizing one’s self. This is very different from the idea of self-esteem: an individual's sense of his or her value or worth, or the extent to which a person values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself (Adler & Stewart, 2004).
It used to be that parents and schools believed that self-esteem should only stem from actual accomplishments which led to the justification of using authoritarian tactics to pressure kids into achieving so their self-esteem could be increased. We now know this cycle is associated with anxiety and depression later in life because people who grew up with this model harshly criticize themselves unless they achieve. This is harmful, hurtful, and holds us back from achieving our own successes.
Then the tide turned from rewarding only those who achieved to rewarding all those who showed up in an effort to increase everyone’s self-esteem. This change is based on the assumption that self-esteem is THE factor that predicts future achievements which therefore predicts happiness and success. Awarding the achieving and the unachieving does two things: 1. It reduces the intrinsic value of the award since everyone gets one, and 2. It reduces motivation to do your best because since you will get an award whether you do your best or not. In addition to reducing motivation to achieve, recent research has found that rewarding everyone regardless of achievement leads to neuroticism, emotional fragility and narcissism.
So, what now? Previous research has been re-examined and compared to more than a decade of new studies resulting in a new finding. It seems the search for how to increase self-esteem (the extent to which a person values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself) may be distracting us from developing a much more important life skill: self-compassion (to show compassion to one’s self in times of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering). Not only is self-compassion comforting, accepting, and loving, it is also motivating.
As a researcher in the UK says, “Self-compassion is not nimby, bimby stuff. Compassion is sensitivity to the suffering of self and others and a commitment to do something about it." A leading researcher and advocate Kristin Neff identifies self-compassion as having three aspects: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness. Mindfulness being the experience of your feelings in the now instead of trying to avoid or exasperate them. Mindfulness counters the tendency to either avoid painful thoughts and emotions or to ruminate about them; allowing us to hold the truth of our experience even when it’s unpleasant. Common humanity is framing our imperfection in light of the shared human experience so that we’re less likely to feel isolated and disconnected from others when we fail.
“Being self-compassionate means that you are open to your suffering and you offer support and understanding toward yourself,” she says. “It can help people take responsibility for setbacks of failures, acknowledge the setback without judgment, and recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that you can learn from these experiences” (Kristin Neff).
How self-compassionate do you think you are? Find out by taking the quiz. Are you interested in becoming more self-compassionate? Here are seven guided meditations ranging from 5 to 24 minutes and eight exercised to strengthen your self-compassionate muscle!