Why We Should Aim for High Self-Compassion Over High Self-Esteem
By: Julia D’Addurno
It seems like it is so easy to be extra hard on ourselves when negative events occur or when we make mistakes. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have concluded that humans are actually wired to put more weight and significance on negative experiences rather than successes. We all have a natural “negativity bias,” which means that our brains are more sensitive to negativity and react more strongly to negative stimuli. Our brains contain this apparatus to monitor our mind and our behaviour so that when we make a mistake we recognize it and we can fix it.
But sometimes, we dwell on these mistakes and experiences. Self-criticism and brooding over our shortcomings can have a major impact on our minds and bodies. Ruminative thoughts about negative events can interrupt our productivity and have various negative effects on our perceived or actual health (Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A., 2012). Rumination stimulates inflammatory mechanisms that can eventually result in chronic illness and accelerated aging. When you ruminate, the stress remains in your body long after the reason for stress is over, in the form of high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and high levels of cortisol.
This type of rumination refers to over-thinking repetitive and obsessive thoughts that can lead to self-hatred. This is usually the result of a mistake and repeatedly reliving negative memories. It’s not only unhealthy, it’s also counterproductive. Getting down on ourselves makes us less efficient and more likely to not complete a task. We are evolutionarily predisposed to be critical of our mistakes, yet when we are overly critical it has the opposite of the intended effect. This is the case, yet we still fall into this pattern.
There are ways around our natural negativity bias and ways to avoid self-criticism, but it can be challenging to change our ways and form new habits. The goal is to turn self-criticism into opportunities for learning and personal growth. The one way to achieve this is self-compassion.
“Self compassion involves being open to and aware of one’s own suffering, offering kindness and understanding towards oneself, desiring the self’s well-being, taking a nonjudgmental attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures, and framing one’s own experience in light of the common human experience” (Neff, 2003). Being kind and understanding to ourselves when we make mistakes and are confronted with negative experiences has been proven to lead to success and personal development. Self-compassion is not the same as self-confidence, which might make you feel better about your abilities but can also cause you to overestimate your abilities at times. Self-compassion is acknowledging your flaws and limitations. It keeps us feeling connected to others and helps us avoid over-exaggerating our flaws or strengths. It’s all about self-love and acceptance while acknowledging that we are human and we make mistakes. Developing self-compassion has also been shown to help people better empathize with others.
Research indicates that people are often hesitant to engage in self-compassion for fear of being complacent or self-indulgent. They believe that they have to be tough on themselves in order to achieve their goals, but research indicates that self-compassion leads to greater achievement and motivation than self-criticism does. According to the research, self-compassion results in positive change and personal improvement. For example, a study conducted among college students found that self-compassionate students reported greater intrinsic motivation to learn (Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K., 2005). Research also found that self-compassion was related to positive psychological functioning and emotional health. It was found that self-compassionate people were less likely to engage in self-criticism, and exhibited less symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ruminative thoughts. Similarly, they were more likely to express self-determination, high levels of emotional intelligence, and subjective well-being (Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S., 2016).
It’s not easy to go against the evolutionary grain of our existence, but the core of self-compassion is to avoid getting caught up in our failures and obsessing over things that end up leading us to degrade ourselves, and focus on letting go and continue from a place of self-acceptance. First, it begins with a commitment to treating yourself more kindly. Commit to avoiding self-judgment, criticism, and just generally go easier on yourself. To enforce these actions, it’s suggested to do any type of practice that keeps you aware and in the present moment, so that you are aware of how you feel when you get caught up in those emotions. The most evidence-based practice is mindfulness meditation. “Anchoring your attention on the breath as a tool to stay present without getting lost in judgments, stories and assumptions” (Shahar et al., 2015).
Another technique to build more self-compassion is focusing your energy on an activity that you are passionate about that interrupts your negative self-talk. This could be something like volunteering, doing something nice in your community, or doing something kind for a family member or friend. Doing selfless kind deeds can make us view ourselves more positively and make us feel better about ourselves. Any time you feel your focus going to self-criticism, try to shift to a more kinder perspective. It can help to imagine you are speaking to a loved one about a mistake, which often would be in an empathetic and supportive way.
The most important step in self-compassion is to make a conscious effort to recognize the difference between how you feel when you are caught up in negative self-talk and criticism and how you feel when you let go of it and are kinder to yourself. Recognizing the difference in feelings can help you subconsciously choose what feels better. The part of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex stores the relative reward value of things and is consistently looking for the “bigger better offer” (Brown, J., & Brewer, J). Our brains learn to recognize how unrewarding certain behaviours are and we naturally learn to go with what feels better.
No matter how hard we try, no matter how successful we may be, no matter how good of a worker, student, friend, parent, or partner we are, it can sometimes feel like it’s never enough. There will always be someone better, smarter, funnier, richer, more attractive, etc. who makes us feel inadequate in comparison. We often assume the way to combat these feelings is to build higher self-esteem. However, even when we have high self-esteem, we aren't always able to consistently sustain it. Your self-esteem may take a hit whenever you make a mistake at work or don’t reach one of your goals. Self-compassion is not just based on positive evaluations of ourselves. It involves being non-judgemental and supportive towards ourselves when we fail or when we feel less than perfect. Try to take the time and make a conscious effort in showing more compassion towards yourself.
Brown, J., & Brewer, J. (2019, May 10). Understanding Your Mind to Master Yourself - 1440 Multiversity Blog. Retrieved from https://1440.org/blog/understanding-your-mind-to-master-yourself/
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and identity, 2(3), 223-250.
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and identity, 4(3), 263-287.
Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2012). Rumination: relationships with physical health. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 9(2), 29–34.
Shahar, B., Szepsenwol, O., Zilcha‐Mano, S., Haim, N., Zamir, O., Levi‐Yeshuvi, S., & Levit‐
Binnun, N. (2015). A wait‐list randomized controlled trial of loving‐kindness meditation programme for self‐criticism. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 22(4), 346-356.
Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244-258.