As usual, I’ve been reading like a madwoman. And if you read my writing regularly, you’ll know that I’m all into self-compassion and it’s amazing benefits. The book I’m about to tell you about was brought to my attention by a like-minded bookworm client who after we talked about self-compassion in a session, ran out and found a fantastic book on the subject! So you can thank this lovely woman for this recommendation. The book is called, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
While I have read a lot about self-compassion, I found this book to be one of the most concrete self-help formats available written in down-to-earth language and containing many useful exercises to help us practice the gentle but life-changing art of self-compassion. Also, it’s author spent over a decade rigorously researching the concept of self-compassion and speaks to the topic with much research and life experience backing her.
As a therapist, I am keenly aware that the horn that has been tooted loudly to all of us is the following idea:
We just need to increase our self-esteem
The prevailing cultural mythology leads us to believe that we feel badly about ourselves and are lacking in this elusive concept we call ‘self esteem’; and that the cure is to figure out ways to get and keep more of it- the more we can develop, the better. This line of thinking has never really sat well with me and for the longest time, I couldn’t pin down exactly why- until I read Neff’s book!
Twenty-three years ago, I was the lowest I had ever been in my life. I was dangerously thin due to a severe eating disorder, and was standing in the office of The Metropolitan Toronto Police Force placing charges on my recent ex for physical assault. My mother drove me there because I was too weak physically to make the journey on my own. I was in my second year of Social Work and was taking a course on helping abused women get out of abusive relationships. The practicum I was doing at the same time had me working intimately with women who were in abusive relationships and helping them to deal with the fall-out of leaving the abuser. You need not point out the irony- it is plainly clear to me now in retrospect.
The police officer that patiently listened to my story and soothed and comforted my mother who was understandably distressed upon learning about how I had been treated was a kind, fatherly middle-aged man with a soft voice. After I had given my report and was informed that my ex would be spending the night in jail and would have a restraining order placed on him immediately, the kind officer smiled at me and said, “I need your help- I’m having trouble understanding how such a bright, educated, and pretty young woman could have picked such an abusive, mean man? Can you explain this to me?”
My answer was immediate:
It’s because I have really low self-esteem.
According to Neff, self-esteem can be defined as:
An evaluation of our worthiness, a judgment that we are good, valuable people (p. 138).
After studying self-compassion in depth lately, I realize now how using the yardstick of self-esteem to assess my ability to choose a healthy and respectful partner was only part of the solution. In my early twenties, I was quick to buy into the myth that if only I had enough confidence in my self-worth, I could have avoided ending up with an abusive man. After reading Self-Compassion and digesting the concept, I realize that confidence and self-respect would have only gotten me so far in my quest for attracting a good choice in a mate. I also needed to develop a practice of self-compassion so that I could by demonstration, teach myself what it felt like to have someone treat me with compassion and loving kindness.
By first learning how to be compassionate towards myself and getting a sense of what that actually felt like- to me, it’s a sense of warmth all over my body, an open heart full of love, and a deep sense of being totally in tune with what’s right in the world– by literally embodying this concept regularly in a conscious and deliberate way, day after day, I would naturally grow to love this feeling and seek it out while in the company of others.
Why is Self-Compassion more helpful than Self-Esteem?
My favourite part of Neff’s book is when she painstakingly differentiates between self-esteem and self-compassion and makes an ironclad case for switching from a self-esteem focus to a self-compassion focus. Once you run out and buy this book, read chapter seven: Opting Out of the Self-Esteem Game. It is here that I learned that the whole concept of building people’s self-esteem is highly problematic. Neff talks about how for the past twenty years, we have focused on increasing children’s self-esteem through the school system, and popular parenting advice. The reasoning was that by building children’s self-esteem, problems such as bullying, crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and academic underachievement would be eased. (p. 136).
However, Neff points out that in one influential review of the self-esteem literature, results showed that high self-esteem did not in fact improve academic achievement, job performance, leadership skills or prevent kids from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early sex. This report shed light on the fact that high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviours. Not only that, but boosting countless numbers of children’s self-esteem has contributed greatly to a narcissistic culture of young adults. For an excellent article on this “Y” Generation, read this article.
In other words, in our misguided attempts to increase people’s self-esteem, we have in fact, created an even bigger problem than people ‘not feeling good enough’; we have set up a highly individualistic and competitive culture of people constantly striving to ‘be the best’- a very difficult status to achieve and ultimately, impossible to sustain in the long-term- which leads people right back to where they started- feeling like they ‘don’t measure up’ in comparison to those around them. Not only that, but research is showing that people with high self-esteem often suffer from narcissism. In my humble opinion (and probably yours too), I really think creating more narcissists is not exactly contributing what we can to making the world a better place…
To end, I’d like to give you a taste of the concept of self-compassion from this wonderful book. Make sure to also check out Neff’s wonderful website where you will find more information about her research on the topic. Also, be sure to buy her book so that you can try some of the fabulous methods for increasing your self-compassion. Here is her definition of Self-Compassion I found on her website which is also in her book:
Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.