Many of us have heard about the importance of helping youth and adults develop self-esteem. While there is general consensus that self-esteem is positive, research shows that the focus on helping people “feel good about themselves” sometimes comes at a high cost. For example, the emphasis on developing self-esteem is linked to self-criticism, self-judging, self-evaluating, perfectionism and comparing oneself to others. For some, having high self-esteem means feeling superior, above average and better than others, and is linked to bullying behaviors such as putting others down as a way of trying to feel better about oneself.
Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas and pioneering researcher in the area of self-compassion, suggests we move away from self-esteem and focus on fostering self-compassion. Self-compassion is about extending to ourselves the same kind of care, kindness, empathy and acceptance that we might extend to a good friend or beloved family member. Instead of feeling better than or superior to others, practicing self-compassion helps us accept our own humanness and imperfections with kindness.
Interestingly, self-compassion has been shown to increase people’s motivation to learn, to change for the better and to avoid repeating past mistakes. Practicing self-compassion helps people feel less isolated and helps them keep their problems in perspective. It also has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and lead to greater emotional balance and resilience in the face of struggles and challenges.
Neff shares on her Self-Compassion website three important components of self-compassion:
Self-kindness: Being supportive, understanding and compassionate with ourselves and giving ourselves a break when we make mistakes. Self-kindness includes doing the best we can while not expecting ourselves to be perfect—and nurturing and soothing ourselves when the going gets tough.
Common humanity: This is a mindset that embraces our connectedness to others and the idea that we are not alone in our imperfections. Understanding our common humanity involves accepting that we all make mistakes sometimes—that we all experience pain and struggles and believing that it’s not just about “me.” Focusing on a shared human experience contributes to feeling less alone and isolated which helps to foster self-compassion.
Mindfulness: Being mindful is about paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity, flexibility and kindness for self and others. It is about becoming more able, more often to notice without judgment our internal experiences including our feelings, thoughts, state of mind, mood, breath and other sensations in our bodies. In order to practice self-compassion we must be willing to turn toward our painful thoughts and emotions and just be with them rather than becoming over-identified with them or trying to suppress, change or “fix” them. Research shows that the blending of mindfulness and self-compassion practice has positive emotional benefits.
Self-compassion is about asking ourselves what we need and offering comfort and care during times of stress, pain and difficulties. According to Neff, an increasing body of research suggests that self-compassion reduces anxiety and depression—and enables people to suffer less while also helping them to thrive.
Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help parents, adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments
This article was written by Karen Pace and published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu.