The research is in! Those who score higher in self-compassion have less anxiety and depression and bounce back easier from setbacks. The self-esteem movement of the 90’s has shown some cracks. Namely, we have taught people that in order to feel good about themselves, they need to be better than someone else. This has resulted in a culture of narcissism and fragile egos.
Self-compassion isn’t just for the faint of heart, it requires courage and strength to turn toward your suffering and yet remain committed to doing what’s best for you. Practicing self-compassion has three critical components identified by Dr. Kristin Neff. The first is mindfulness to your suffering, the second is kindness around the suffering versus judging yourself harshly, and the third element involves remembering that imperfection, failure, and suffering are part of the human experience, you are not alone.
All the elements are critical, but a final thought on the importance of the last piece. When we misstep or fail, there is a tendency to feel alone, different, or less than in some way. Remembering the ubiquity of the human experience of suffering is a lovely antidote to feeling alone.
This notable article on self-compassion and self-esteem is a must read, as it highlights the importance of self-compassion as a protective factor against experiencing impaired mental health. The article cites literature which has found that low self-esteem in adolescence is linked to poorer mental health outcomes, future suicide attempts, and a failure to establish a positive social support network. The findings of the study illustrate that low self-esteem predicts poorer mental health outcomes, but only in those who were also low in self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion involves accepting self-doubt, adversity, and negative self-evaluations as a normal part of the human condition. Participants with low self-esteem, but who were high in self-compassion, appeared to be protected from experiencing impairments in their mental health. For more details, click on the link below for the full article.
Individuals commonly present in therapy for issues directly related to self-esteem or for symptoms that eventually are tied to and lead back to the exploration of one’s self-esteem. There is a wealth of information and research devoted to this topic and self-help books abound with ways to improve one’s self-esteem.
The shortcoming of the books available is that they speak to the left brain, which is the seat of language, logic, problem solving, motivation, willpower, etc. In essence, we can tell ourselves that we are a good person, a worthy person, etc., but that does not necessarily make us feel any of those things. It is like trying to tell ourselves that we are happy when we are really feeling depressed. Hence our left brains provide the intellectual experience, but we also need the felt experience, processed in the right brain, largely via interactions with others whom we share an attachment and connection. This makes a trusted therapeutic experience a vital avenue to repairing and enhancing self esteem.
In therapy, self-esteem is improved not by the therapist’s attempts at over inflating one’s ego through flattery and praise of accomplishments. This would, in fact, likely have the opposite result and may lead the individual to feel that he/she is being pitied. Rather, self esteem begins to improve as the individual reveals shameful and loathed aspects of the self to a trusted other (therapist), who has not shrunk back or rejected the individual for these parts of the self. As the therapist accepts the client for all of his/her good and bad parts, so too, can the client begin to accept them as well.
The collaboration of an honest and connected relationship, where one can reveal their true self helps the client to reframe weaknesses as ordinary, which, in turn enhances acceptance and positive feelings about the self. As the client learns to function more authentically through the therapeutic relationship, he/she can begin to function this way in the world. The shedding of the “false self’ allows individuals to confidently engage in and walk away from interactions without fear that if their real self were revealed, then they would surely be rejected.