Last week I chatted with you about the juncture of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Today I’m going to teach you:

  • The three components of self-compassion
  • Why it’s so important to your love life (and all your relationships)
  • Why some think it’s even more important than your self-esteem
  • A top tip to become more self-compassionate in just minutes a day

This week we’re going to further that conversation and talk about self-compassion. I’m going to be basing all this on the work of the Queen of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, PhD. If you don’t know about her stuff, you need to. Her research is impeccable and compelling.

In some of her more recent work she’s talked about how self-compassion is even more important than self-esteem. She posits that if you work on self-compassion, it will naturally flow that you’ll build your confidence and self-esteem. Since I always like to give multiple tools to create a happy, connected life, there was no way I could leave self-compassion out!

What is Self-Compassion Exactly?

Self-compassion is a construct originally drawn from Buddhist psychology. The Buddhists basically saw it as relating to yourself with kindness and compassion.

Kristin Neff was really the first person to operationally define the term “self-compassion” so we could measure and study it.

Neff says, “Self-compassion is about relating to ourselves kindly, as we are, flaws and all.”

When you’re self-compassionate, you’re able to see the difference between making a bad decision and being a bad person. You understand that your worth is not conditional on a situation, something you said, or thoughts you might have.

Neff outlines three core components to Self-Compassion:

  1. Self-kindness: the idea here is that we treat ourselves as we would our best friend; with understanding, compassion, patience, empathy and gentleness (instead of being critical and judgmental).
  2. Recognizing our common humanity: this is all about feeling connected with others instead of feeling isolated. We all have struggles and you’re not so different. It’s not, how am I different than others? It’s how am I the same as others? Our struggles connect us to others, they don’t distance us from others.
  3. Mindfulness: Don’t ignore your pain and also don’t exaggerate it. Instead, be in the moment with what’s real.

According to Neff, you’ve got to have all three to be truly self-compassionate.

Neff takes all this self-compassion stuff to the next level because she believes that focusing on self-compassion is more important than focusing on self-esteem – that it’s actually the key to feeling good in your life.

Why is Self-Compassion Important for Relationships?

It’s probably not a shock to you that people lacking in self-compassion often have unhealthy relationships.

Think about it: how you treat yourself will no doubt be highly correlated to how you let others treat you. If you’re judgmental in your head to a high degree, you likely allow your partner to be judgmental of you to a high degree.

And if you never give yourself the benefit of the doubt, what are the chances that you’re doing that for your partner?

Controlling and abusive behavior diminish in relationships where self-compassion is central. In general, self compassionate partners show more supportive and positive relationship attributes than those who aren’t. In fact, in studies, it’s a stronger predictor of positive relationship behavior than self-esteem or attachment style!

 Why Self-Compassion Over Self-Esteem?

I definitely want to outline Neff’s argument because I think, in the end, it’s crucial to focus on self-compassion. However, I have a disagreement with her premise.

Neff defines self-esteem as… “a global evaluation of self-worth. It’s a judgment: am I a good person or a bad person?” If you haven’t listened to last week’s podcast yet (and I don’t know why not – it was awesome!), I defined self-esteem as having a good opinion of yourself. It means you don’t exaggerate your good or bad qualities and that you appreciate who you are in the world, warts and all.

Neff goes on to say that to have high self-esteem you have to think of yourself as above average and this puts you immediately into competition with others. After all, who are you comparing yourself to, to know you’re above average? We all can’t be above average at the same time.

If you’re trying to be above average then, and we all can’t do it together, according to Neff, “You’re going to find ways to puff yourself up and/or put other people down”

In other words, the problem isn’t whether you have high self-esteem, but how you get it. It’s the “how you get it” part that’s the issue because it can lead to very bad behaviors.

For example, researchers have been tracking narcissism levels of college undergrads for about 25 years and, right now, they’re at the highest levels ever! In fact, there’s an epidemic of narcissism in the U.S.

Many psychologists think this is due to the self-esteem movement in the schools. Everyone gets a ribbon! Don’t use red pencils to grade papers!

The other nasty turn all this can take is bullying. When you have to feel better than someone else, bullying seems like a natural thing to show up.

Neff’s other issue with self-esteem is that it’s contingent on success. When we fail, we feel lousy and self-esteem goes down the tubes.

I want to put out there that this premise is flawed for me because I don’t think this is healthy self-esteem. I see this as brittle self-esteem, so not healthy and not what I was talking about last broadcast. I also focused on how self-confidence and mastery are really at the center of self-esteem and other researchers would back me up on this

Having said all that, I still think that Neff’s self-compassion has a key place in a happy life and is a great thing to focus on versus self-esteem because I think higher self-esteem is a predictable outcome from great self-compassion. I also believe it’s a great tool to stop all the negative self-talk, harsh self-criticism and impatience with who we are as individuals (which, of course, raises our self-esteem since we stop yelling at ourselves).

It’s funny – if you heard that a parent spoke to a child so harshly you wouldn’t be surprised when that kid had poor self-esteem and didn’t feel self-efficacy. But we speak to ourselves with a super harsh voice and expect different results. People aren’t motivated by mean words. Just the opposite, we’re motivated when we feel like we can do something, that we have agency in the world. We take risks when we’re not afraid of being mocked and punished.

Neff says, “Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly.”

But what does the research show?

According to the research, self-compassion offers the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no downsides in sight.

Over the last decade or so, research has consistently shown a positive correlation between self-compassion and psychological well-being. People who have self-compassion also have greater social connectedness, emotional intelligencehappiness, and overall life satisfaction. Self-compassion has also been shown to correlate with less anxietydepressionshame, and fear of failure.

Like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more of all the good things like happiness and overall satisfaction with life.

Top Tip to Building Self-Compassion

I’m going to link to a whole list of self-compassion tools that Neff has on her website in case you want to go deeper with this. But, right now, I want to tell you about the one I like best.

She calls them Self-Compassion Breaks. They’re meant to remind us that we’re all human, we all make mistakes or struggle and it’s human to judge ourselves. She uses her three core concepts for self-compassion (mindfulness, self-kindness, and sense of humanity)

Here’s How You Do It:

  1. Think of something that you’re struggling with right now or that’s causing you stress.
  2. As you think of it, see if you can feel where that discomfort or stress is in your body.
  3. Now say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering” or whatever feels more natural to you: “This sucks,” “This really hurts,” “This is stress I’m feeling.” (this is the mindful part)
  4. Next, say to yourself something like: “Lots of people have struggles in their lives,” or “I’m not the only one who feels this way,” or “I’m not alone in my life and how I feel,” or “It’s impossible to never have difficulties.”
  5. Now put your hands over your heart, cup the side of your face, give yourself a hug or any other kind of soothing touch that feels right to you (This is the common humanity component).
  6. Now, say to yourself: “May I be kind to myself” or “May I forgive myself” or “May I be patient” – whatever feels natural to you. (This is, obviously, the self-kindness part).

It’s great to take as many Self-Compassion breaks as you can throughout the day. My suggestion is to set a reminder for three times per day for the next three days to do these and see what kind of difference it makes in how you feel and where your attention goes. 

In the end, the more you keep your heart open to yourself, the more love you have to give to others.

Resources and Links:

Exercises for self-compassion

Self-compassion test


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