Letting kindness in: The benefits of self compassion over self esteem

Self compassion

A few weeks ago I was walking my dog on the beach and I caught myself thinking about a previous situation. I started thinking about how poorly I was treated and how angry I still felt. I was also angry at myself for letting it get to the point it did.

Instead of immediately berating myself for thinking about something that was more than a year ago, questioning why I was even thinking about this on such a nice day and telling myself to just stop it and get over it, in fact “Tracy, get over yourself”, I gently noted my thoughts. Rather than asking “​why​”, I asked…… “​how come​ I am thinking about this now?”, “​what​ is going on for me?”, “has something triggered this for me?” I was ​gentle and open with myself. I was ​curious​ about what was going on for me.

Can you guess what happened?

By the time I had walked half a block I had stopped thinking about it and was thinking about something else. Actually what I was thinking about was how I had just practiced what I encourage my clients to do. To be ​self compassionate​……to relate to the self with kindness.

Self Compassion or Self Esteem?

In my sessions with clients I often explore the work of Psychologist ​Kristin Neff​ who was one of the first people to define and measure self compassion. Neff encourages us to be kind, gentle, supportive and understanding with ourselves rather than being harsh and critical.

Clients are sometimes initially confused as to why I use the term self compassion rather than self esteem. I struggle with the concept of self esteem as it is often linked to social comparison. It invites us to think of ourselves as better or worse than others. Who wants to be average right? Self esteem also encourages us to validate our strengths, without necessarily paying any attention to our weaknesses or shortcomings.

With this focus we lose the learning opportunities that self compassion encourages us to embrace. Self esteem also provides us the “out” from painful, yet important feelings. I understand that most, if not all of us want to avoid these uncomfortable feelings and we can do so for quite some time but eventually they come back to bite us.

Self compassion invites us to lean into the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings rather than move straight to problem solving. I like that self compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all but a way of relating to our ever changing selves with kindness and acceptance especially when we feel like failures or inadequate in any way. Isn’t this the very time we need to be kind to ourselves?

Self compassion also encourages us to recognise a common humanity. We often think that we shouldn’t have done this or that, that this shouldn’t be happening to us and that everyone else has perfect, happy lives and we are the only ones who have messed up or are struggling. It is not surprising that we often feel isolated and separate from everyone else with this thinking.

Self compassion also encourages us to be mindful that we all struggle, that we all make mistakes and what we are experiencing is part of being imperfect humans. When we do this we are given the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience rather than blame ourselves.

It also helps us avoid the pitfall of further comparing ourselves to others…..thinking that we don’t have it as bad as someone else and as a result minimising or invalidating how we are feeling.

Myths about Self Compassion

When I introduce the concept of self compassion to clients I sometimes hear that they think being self compassionate is permission to have a pity party and just ​feel sorry for themselves.​ However research supports that self compassionate people are more willing to accept, experience and acknowledge difficult experiences and to process and let go of them more fully. As a result self compassionate people are less likely to have self pitying thoughts about how bad things are. In fact self compassionate people are more self motivated and more likely to display personal accountability and more likely to say sorry and make moves to make amends if needed.

Some people also think self compassion means ​weakness ​however again research is discovering that self compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience and that when things are tough it appears to make a difference in our ability to survive and in fact thrive.

Self compassion can also be confused with ​being selfish. ​The irony is that being kind to yourself actually helps you be kind to others. This is not to be confused with the belief that you must have self compassion to care or support someone else as that is not true. However, it does support being able to sustain that care. I can relate to this first hand as I certainly attribute my practice of self compassion in assisting me in my role as a Psychologist. Practicing self compassion supports me in feeling more satisfied, energised, grateful and privileged in working with clients over a twenty year period. I am not suggesting that being self compassionate is always easy. I can slip into negative thoughts about myself with the best of them however I am much quicker at catching myself when I do.

How Can I Cultivate Self Compassion

  1. Treat yourself as you would a good friend
    Consider what a friend might want or need in a hurtful situation. Many of us are able to recognise that if a friend was in a similar situation we would not speak to them like we speak to ourselves. This begs the question why not and often we cannot justify this critical behaviour towards ourselves. Be your good friend. How many times do we say to ourselves….”you are so stupid”, “nobody likes you”, “you are being pathetic…just get over it”. In working with clients I invite them to firstly practice simple awareness of thoughts and feelings, particularly the “critical inner voice” — without trying to change anything. When we are able to capture these thoughts we can then begin to understand them, respect them, consider if they are serving us well and if so keep them and if not thank them and let them go.
  2. Remember that we are not alone and we are all imperfect.
    In my previous blog I referred to the work of Dr Brene Brown and the ability to recognise our shared humanity and that not one of us is perfect. When we embrace this we can feel more connected to others and feel less inclined to believe we are “broken”, “damaged goods” or “screwing up” and realise we are all struggling at times with the same things. This is one of the most powerful components of self compassion for me……self compassion kicks in precisely when our self esteem flounders……..when we are suffering or feeling like we are failing in some way.
  3. Work with a supportive Psychologist or Counsellor
    Cultivating these new patterns of thought and behaviour initially can be challenged by our beliefs about self compassion as I outlined above and as a result they do need practice and they require some effort. It takes time to notice our thoughts and feelings and internalise and integrate being kind and curious with ourselves.

Attuned Psychology provides a safe environment in which our experienced Psychologists can support you with reducing the need to compare, contrast and make distinctions with others and be kind, open and curious with yourself and others. Contact us here to make an appointment today.

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