top of page
  • Jiwon You

Feel better with Self-Compassion:

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

HOW SELF-ESTEEM IS NOT THE WHOLE STORY

Self esteem self compassion

The term “self-esteem” seems to show up practically everywhere. There are thousands of self-help books on how to raise self-esteem, celebrities and academics talk about how important it is for well-being, and in my personal experience, it is one of the most talked about topics in therapy. If you feel like you are not good enough or struggling with feelings of blame, shame or guilt, it’s only natural to want to change that - and raising self-esteem seems like the answer everyone’s pushing for. Self-esteem is indeed important, but what if it is not all you need to feel good about yourself? Self-compassion is an important idea that deserves just as much attention. Let's talk about self-esteem first.


What is self-esteem?


Simply put, self-esteem is a sense of your own worth and value. It is how positively you evaluate yourself, sometimes in comparison to other people. Since it is an evaluation, self-esteem naturally fluctuates based on both external and internal factors. Doing well on an exam can raise your self-esteem, and being scolded by someone can lower it. This is normal! Trying to consistently maintain high self-esteem can be difficult, if not impossible. It can sometimes even make you feel hostile to things that feel threatening to your self-esteem, or make you tear yourself down for not feeling good about yourself. Beating yourself up for beating yourself up - perhaps this sounds familiar to you.


What if I have low self-esteem?


Low self-esteem does not always mean a bad thing. If you experience moderate to slightly low self-esteem, chances are you have a lot of humility and are quite realistic about your abilities, helping you be more prepared for everything. You may also be more focused on improving yourself, leading to consistent self-study and development. Consistently very low self-esteem, however, is not ideal. Feeling bad about who you are or that you are never good enough is not easy to live with! So, what can help you keep a more constant sense of self without relying too much on this fluctuating self-judgment? Self-compassion!


What is self-compassion?


Self-compassion is less talked about, but just as important as self-esteem. It is not an evaluation, but a motivation to alleviate your suffering and care for yourself as you would a friend. While high self-esteem may say ‘I love myself because I am good at that’, self-compassion says ‘I care about myself regardless of if I’m good at that or not.’ Since self-esteem fluctuates, we cannot say for certain that self-compassion can permanently raise self-esteem. What it can help you develop, however, is a more permanent sense of self-worth.


What is self-worth?


Self-worth means regardless of how you feel about yourself, you know that you always have worth and value. A concrete sense of self-worth can give you confidence and allow you to feel good without having to constantly accomplish something. Regardless of outside events or your skills and talents, you can be compassionate to yourself simply because you are a human being worthy of care. Self-compassion is more stable than self-esteem; it exists in the face of mistakes or flaws, because it allows you to recognize you may have made a mistake, but you are not a mistake; you deserve love and care regardless of your flaws. So what gets in the way of self-compassion? Self criticism.

What is self-criticism?


Human brains tend to focus on limitations and negativity. If you were criticized, rejected, or restricted by others growing up, you may have internalized this negativity and learned to blame and criticize yourself. Another reason, ironically, is that self-criticism may have developed as a form of self-protection. For many, it is how the brain is trying to protect you from experiencing unpleasant consequences that could come with the feelings of “not being good enough” - fear, guilt, disappointment, judgment, or shame. The phrase “tough love” is exactly what your brain is doing - it wants to protect you so badly from difficult feelings that it starts being mean, hoping that doing so will push you to do better and experience success. This likely helped you get through earlier hardships, but doesn’t serve you as well anymore. Intentionally treating yourself with compassion can help you get out of this pattern of self-criticism.


There are, however, some myths that make people reluctant to practice self-compassion:


Self-Compassion Myth: Being compassionate to myself will make me lazy and weak.

Fact: Think of a time when you received a loving and kind message from someone - could have been about something you did, but maybe something even simpler, such as “I care about you” or “It’s okay if you made a mistake, we all do,” or “I love you no matter what”. You may recall yourself becoming happy, relaxed, and more connected to that person. Just like how care for others, and good connection with others make you feel good, self-compassion activates the system in your body that helps you feel calm, focused, and connected to your surroundings and other people. Thus, when you are kind to yourself, more resources actually become available to you, making you feel more energized and motivated.


Self-Compassion Myth: Being harsh and critical to myself will make me more motivated and will help me excel

Fact: Just as how self-compassion can activate the calming system, self-criticism also activates a system that comes alive when you receive criticism from others or other types of pain. This “threat” system puts you into a state of anxiety, demotivation, and disconnect from yourself and the world. Thus, even when you think being harsh on yourself will make you do better, it actually makes it harder to maintain focus and lowers your ability to engage in various activities. You may temporarily experience an increase in productivity because you are running on nervous energy, but it can often lead to more anxiety and exhaustion in the long run.


Self-Compassion Myth: Being self-compassionate would mean I’m just pitying myself. I don’t want anyone’s pity.

Fact: While the word “pity” simply means feeling sorrow for someone else’s struggle, it often implies people are looking down on someone as if they are helpless, weak, and stuck. Self-compassion is not self-pity. It is the opposite of being stuck and helpless - it is action. Self-compassion helps you to take a universal perspective (i.e. I am not alone in this suffering), allowing you to realistically evaluate and accept the situation and yourself, ruminate less on suffering, and act. Therefore, self-compassion empowers you to focus on moving through difficulties.


Now that you understand more about self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-compassion, you can begin cultivating it.


Here are 6 tips to help you develop self-compassion:


1. Practice mindfulness and becoming more self-aware

One of the first steps in practicing self-compassion is becoming more aware of your relationship to yourself and when you are being self-critical. This helps you to recognize when and what situations trigger self-criticism, making it easier to change the direction of your responses to more self-compassionate ones. Mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness of your mind and body, is important for developing such awareness. You can start practicing mindfulness in many ways, such as by checking in with how your body is feeling at various times throughout the day, noticing your 5 senses (what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste) when engaging in a day-to-day activity (e.g. brushing teeth), or setting aside 10 minutes to review what happened and what emotions you felt throughout the day.


2. Express gratitude

Expressing gratitude is another way to practice self-compassion. You can be grateful towards yourself for taking care of yourself, even for just getting out of bed. You can be grateful simply for nice weather, a good meal, or for people you have around. It may feel weird at first, but research shows gratitude familiarizes you with not only identifying, but also seeking the good in your life and yourself, and it can help you build a positive relationship with yourself (Homan & Hosack, 2019). One way to start expressing gratitude can be writing a gratitude journal at the end of the day or week recounting things you were thankful for. If writing is not your style, you could simply take some time before bed by focusing your attention on and thanking the good things that happened that day. You can also express gratitude directly to others if you want!

3. Treat yourself like you’d treat a friend (perspective taking)

Often, people are much kinder and compassionate to others. If your friend or a loved one makes a mistake, you likely don’t call them stupid or a failure. Instead, you may give them words of encouragement and understanding such as ‘it’s okay’, ‘you tried your best’, or ‘I still love you regardless.’ So why not try that towards yourself? Practicing perspective taking so you talk to yourself as if you are talking to someone you care about can be a great way to practice self-compassion.

4. Engage in compassionate self-talk

Talking to yourself compassionately can feel very difficult and awkward when first starting, especially if self-criticism has been your default. The next time your brain automatically goes to criticize you for something, try to notice the critical voice and catch it. Then, try to think over what caused the reaction - perhaps it reminded you of something in the past, or perhaps you want to punish yourself before someone else does. Whatever it is, remember your brain is trying to help, but it is simply not serving you anymore. Telling yourself simple statements such as “I know you are trying to protect me, but I am okay” or “I can handle this without beating myself up.” Interrupting your negative thoughts and practicing reassuring statements can help you increase compassionate self-talk.

Self compassion

5. Recount your strengths

As mentioned, your brain likes to focus more on unpleasant events than positive ones, and this is natural! In doing so, however, the positive events can be overlooked. Looking back at your past and intentionally identifying strengths and triumphs can help you see your life in a different light and practice self-compassion. Try remembering something you were grateful to yourself for, or looking at your old struggles and reminding yourself how you got through them. Even if you didn’t like your behaviors, you can feel grateful that your past actions helped you survive. For instance, you may have had tough teenage years you feel lots of shame about. Focusing on moments of resiliency, however big or small, such as “I kept myself alive through a really tough time and didn’t give up” can help you build trust in yourself and your ability to overcome difficulties. This allows you to develop self-compassion and be kinder to yourself during new hardships.


6. Try therapy for self-esteem

Of course, even with all these strategies, self-compassion can still be difficult and uncomfortable. It may especially be difficult if you feel that you haven’t had much experience receiving compassion in your life. That is okay and normal. Therapy can be another great way to explore yourself and develop self-compassion. You can learn to like yourself and finally feel good enough! Any form of therapy can be effective in cultivating it, but Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) specifically targets improving self-compassion.


What is Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT)?


CFT explains that to decrease self-criticism and calm the “threat” system mentioned earlier, you need to engage your “soothe” system through compassionate thoughts, feelings, and actions. CFT offers gentle guidance and ways for you to practice and experience kindness and acceptance toward yourself, such as through perspective taking, visualizations, and other activities. CFT therapists will demonstrate compassion and help you familiarize yourself with it, helping you to care for yourself genuinely and gain confidence.


If self-esteem and self-compassion are topics you would like to explore more, do not hesitate to seek out a therapist who can walk your healing journey together.


Jiwon You is a psychologist specializing in working with adults struggling with self-esteem. She is passionate about helping people be less self-critical and begin treating themselves with self-compassion and kindness so they can feel better and live more fulfilling lives. Jiwon provides affirming online therapy in Calgary and across Alberta for all folks 18+ and can provide services in Korean and English.



References:


Homan, K., & Hosack, L. (2019). Gratitude and the self: Amplifying the good within. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 29(7), 874-886. doi:10.1080/10911359.2019.1630345


Neff, K. (2015, February 22). Compassion is healthier than self-esteem. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://self-compassion.org/why-self-compassion-is-healthier-than-self-esteem/#:~:text=Self%2Desteem%20refers%20to%20the,way%20of%20relating%20to%20ourselves


Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

57 views

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page