In our earlier blog post, we explored how to be compassionate towards others and ourselves. In this blog, we will take a closer look at self-compassion, how self-compassion is different to self-esteem, and how we can use self-compassion to move beyond self-criticism. This post is largely informed by the research of psychologist Kristen Neff, who has spent over a decade exploring the nature of self-compassion, and the many benefits associated with this mindset.
What is self-esteem?
To appreciate self-compassion, we must first understand what ‘self-esteem’ is, and how it limits our potential. We can appreciate self-esteem as a global judgment of our self-worth. In other words, are we worthwhile or not worthwhile as a person? Research shows us that having low self-esteem is predictive of negative psychological states such as anxiety and depression, whereas high self-esteem signals positive psychological states such as increased happiness and wellbeing. Kristen Neff argues that high self-esteem is not inherently problematic. However, how we go about achieving high self-esteem can be.
Additionally, the time limited nature of high self-esteem is problematic. No one person can maintain a state of high self-esteem across the entirety of their lives. Collectively, we equate having high self-esteem with being ‘above average’. The issue with this logic, is that if we were all ‘above average’ then nobody would be above average. We would just be average once more. Additionally, the steps we take to be ‘above average’ are often hurtful to others and ourselves. This might involve putting others down (e.g., consider bullying in schools), nurturing narcissist beliefs, and treating others with prejudice and racism. It’s also impossible to be ‘above average’ in certain areas of our lives for which we have no control over. For example, our physical attractiveness and intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. When we wrestle with such factors, we develop negative psychological states such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
Self-compassion offers an alternative to high self-esteem. Self-compassion involves accepting ourselves as we are. That is, moving beyond judgement into a realm of acceptance where we embrace all our qualities, even if those qualities include our flaws. Kristen Neff argues there are several core components of self-compassion. These involve treating ourselves with kindness, accepting our common humanity, and mindfulness.
Treating yourself with kindness involves using the same language or self-talk that you would use to support a dear friend or family member. Also, avoiding the kind of language you would use to describe someone you dislike. You wouldn’t allow your close friend or family member to talk themselves down, so why should you?
Whereas self-esteem asks how we are different from others, self-compassion involves asking how we are the same. This involves recognising that as humans, we are flawed creatures. Just as we accept others for their flaws, we should accept ourselves for our own flaws. We make ourselves feel worse by feeling isolated in our imperfection, when that is what connects us with others. In recognising our common humanity, we recognise the right to ask others for support.
Mindfulness involves a state of hyperawareness in the present moment. It involves being ‘mindful’ of, or paying attention to our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. We accept any thoughts or feeling, no matter how distressing or painful, with an absence of judgment. When people experience negative psychological states such as anxiety or depression, there is an urge to push these feelings and thoughts aside to distract ourselves.
However, since our stream of consciousness is endless, these thoughts come back time and time again. Wrestling with this truth increases both the intensity and frequency of such distress thoughts and feelings. Using mindfulness to relinquish control of these thoughts relinquishes the control they have over us. Of course, you can test this theory right now. Simply close your eyes and not allow yourself to have a single thought or feeling for 1 minute. You will notice it is simply not possible to do this.
Benefits of Practicing Self-compassion
Numerous benefits associated with practicing self-compassion have been identified in psychological research. These include increased wellbeing, greater happiness, improved interpersonal relationships, learning capabilities, and decreases in negative psychological states such as depression, anxiety, and stress. The question is, if self-compassion is so beneficial, why are we so self-critical.
There is a wide belief that in order to be motivated to achieve greatness, we need to be our own harshest critic. However, research shows that self-criticism massively undermines our motivation. When we are self-critical, this triggers activation of our autonomic nervous system and our ‘flight or fight’ response. This is an adaptive response which has been selected for by evolutionary processes over millions of years to prepare us physically and psychologically for threats against our survival. We now know that this system is activated in response to self-criticism, as it constitutes a threat to the survival of our ‘self-image’. The problem here, is that the flight or fight response is supposed to be a temporary solution to a temporary crisis.
The negative consequences of maintained activation of this flight or fight response includes anxiety, low mood, irritability, dysfunctional sleep, burnout and stress, and of course, low motivation. Conversely, when we practice self-compassion, our levels of cortisol and adrenaline which maintain activation of this flight or fight response rapidly decline. Cortisol and adrenaline are replaced with oxytocin and natural opiates. This drives positive psychological states which serve to reinforce and maintain our motivation.
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