out with self-esteem, in with self-compassion

compassion

I'm starting off this post with something a little interactive, for those of you who are interested and willing to play. If you'd prefer to skip ahead without doing the activity, jump to the end of the section marked with ******.

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First, grab a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and on one side of the paper, jot down some of the things that your mind tells you when it's in "self-critic mode". Be relentless -- if I could  plug my headphones into your mind and hear some of the things it says about you when it's at it's meanest, what would I hear it say? (You're thinking at this point, "wow, what a fun activity!" right?!) Okay, so once you've done that -- flip the page over and jot down some of the things your mind says about you when it's in a more complimentary state: when you're succeeding at something, having a great hair day, etc. These might be similar to what the positive psychology folks call "affirmations." Or they might be things you wouldn't ever be heard saying out loud, like, "Yep, I'm definitely the smartest/thinnest/prettiest person in this class/office/restaurant/etc." Alright, do you have some things down?

This next part will require a little imagination since you're doing this exercise solo. So, after you finish reading this paragraph, close your eyes and imagine that, sitting across from you are some people (and possibly animals) in your life that you deeply care about. They're just there to hang out and spend time with you. So take a moment to visualize that and really connect to the feelings that show up when you think about those people...

Ok, now pick up your piece of paper and turn it critic side up, and read the rest of paragraph before doing it: Hold that paper with both hands and  bring it really close to your face, almost touching your nose, and just let yourself get really caught up in those thoughts. And remember that in your mind's eye, those loved ones are still sitting across from you. Notice what it's like when those people are there and you're all caught up in those thoughts. Then pull the paper away and read on.

What did you notice? Were you aware of your surroundings? Were you able to imagine yourself connecting to those people you care about? If I asked you to cook a delicious meal or watch your favorite movie while caught up in those thoughts, would you be able to?

Okay, the next part is pretty similar. Again, read this paragraph and then follow the instructions: Imagine those  loved ones are still there across from you in your mind's eye, and notice the feelings that show up. Flip the paper over to the "positive" side, and holding it with both hands, bring it up very close to your face and immerse yourself in all those thoughts. And as you're doing that, notice whether you feel connected to the environment around you, your loved ones.... and after a few moments, move the paper away and read on.

Same questions: What did you notice? Were you aware of your surroundings? Were you able to imagine yourself connecting to those people you care about? If I asked you to cook a delicious meal or watch your favorite movie while you're hooked in by those thoughts, would you be able to?

Now, bring that paper down and set it on your lap where you could look down and see it. Flip it over a few times and just notice, whichever side it lands on, whether you connect any differently to your surroundings, and whether you think you might connect differently with the people you're envisioning. Sure, you certainly could still stare down at it and get caught up in the thoughts, but you have a choice to also look up and engage with the world around you and do the things that make your life work.

What many people notice when doing this exercise is that, whether they're caught up in the "bad self" or the "good self" thoughts, both scenarios prevent them from feeling connected to the people they care about and engaged with the world around them -- and certainly makes it more difficult to take effective actions.  (Adapted from ACT Made Simple, Russ Harris, 2009.)

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What the exercise above really illustrates is that, at the end of the day,  the concept of self-esteem isn't all it's cracked up to be. When we are highly attached to any particular self-concept -- "good" or  "bad" --  it can keep us from living the life we want to live. We become absorbed in our self-evaluation and less able to think about and do the things we really care about. This stance on self-esteem is actually pretty radical, given that in the past two or three decades, it was often viewed as the premiere marker of psychological health. Every parenting book, therapist training manual, and school guidance counselor lauded "improving self-esteem" as a key focus in their work. You may be thinking, "I don't get it, how could better self-esteem possibly be a bad thing?" Well, it's not necessarily bad -- high self-esteem certainly has its benefits. But focusing on self-esteem also has drawbacks that are important to consider.

What happens in a society where everyone is taught that in order to be "good/acceptable," they actually need to be above average? As self-compassion guru Kristin Neff says, "the words 'logical impossibility' come to mind." Neff is an associate professor and researcher at The University of Texas at Austin (Hook 'em horns - too bad I didn't  know about her when I was still in school!) and over the past five years or so, has pioneered a whole new field of research on self-compassion. She did a TEDx talk earlier this year on exactly this topic (1), wrote an insightful and practical how-to book on self-compassion, and recently released an audio learning series, "Self-Compassion Step-by-Step" with Sounds True.

Self-Esteem refers to our perceived value/worth, or how much we like ourselves -- so, it's really about how we evaluate or judge ourselves. Certainly, low self-esteem can lead to depression and low motivation, but high self-esteem comes with its own problems -- most importantly, it's unstable and contingent on success (not very forgiving when we mistakes and need it the most!), and it fuels social comparison that can be harmful to our relationships. Neff writes,

"In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. It is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We also tend to get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately."(2)

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is not about how we evaluate ourselves, but rather about how we relate to ourselves. It means that even when you screwed up during your work presentation, you can treat yourself like you would treat a friend in the same situation. "Ouch, that really sucked. I maybe should have practiced that part a little more. I did my best in that moment, though, and I worked hard on it. It's not going to help me to beat myself up about this." Thus, self-compassion is not contingent on external circumstances, and it's also not based on feeling better than others to feel good about yourself. "People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on)... Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden," writes Neff.

You might be saying, "well that sounds nice, but I feel like if I did this self-compassion thing, I'd become lazy and complacent!" Actually, research has shown that people who practice self-compassion are just as driven as others, and kinder to themselves when they miss the mark -- which can actually lead to better likelihood that they'll keep trying. Research  also bears out other tangible benefits of self-compassion; in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with:

  • Greater emotional resilience
  • More accurate self-concepts
  • More caring relationship behavior
  • Less narcissism and reactive anger

When I first heard of Kristin Neff's work and became more familiar with the concept of self-compassion, it was very exciting for me -- something that already made sense to me in my own life and in my work with clients now had behind it a framework, research, and clear methods for implementation.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I'll go into some of the techniques for developing a self-compassion practice in day-to-day life.

(1)Warning before you watch Kristin Neff's TEDx talk -- it's an amateur recording and there are people whispering near the mic during the beginning and it's pretty annoying, but it goes away in the first few minutes.

(2) Quotations by Kristin Neff are from her website.

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.