confidence, intuition, and shame pops

Intuition-Self-Esteem In my recent giveaway over on Facebook, I asked readers about what kinds of topics they'd like to see covered on the blog. One of them, not surprisingly, was confidence (*hat-tip to Susannah*), so I wanted to address that topic in today's post. (FYI, I'll use "confidence" and "self-esteem" interchangeably here; I'm sure we could split hairs on the distinction, but I consider them to be more or less the same concept.)

My journey to confidence has been much like my journey to this career: very windy. And as I write that, I'm laughing because my biggest struggles with confidence in recent years have been about my competency as a therapist. It is a tough business to be a young person in, y'all. Probably the best words of advice I have gotten on that topic came from my supervisor (a very wise woman), who told me, "You just have to allow yourself to be a young therapist." I think that comment applies in a much broader way, too:

"You just have to allow yourself to be __________."

Who you are.

Where you are.

At THIS moment.

A lot of people fear that if they give themselves this permission, they will become complacent. It's okay to want to become more skilled or more experienced or more healthy. But it has to also be paired with some level of acceptance of where you are today. This is the critical difference between acceptance and settling.

Self-Esteem and Intuition

I have written about how I believe that having a strong practice of self-compassion is more important than having high self-esteem. And while I do still believe that, some of what I've been reading in Caroline Myss' Anatomy of Spirit has reminded me of the critical importance of self-esteem, too, at least when defined in a spiritual context. She writes,

As we develop a sense of self, our intuitive voice becomes a natural and constant source of guidance. How we feel about ourselves, whether we respect ourselves, determines the quality of our life, our capacity to succeed in business, relationships, healing, and intuitive skills ... Intuitive guidance means having the self-esteem to recognize that the discomfort or confusion that a person feels is actually directing him to take charge of his life and make choices that will break him out of stagnation or misery. If a person suffers from low self-esteem, she cannot act on her intuitive impulses because her fear of failure is too intense. Intuition, like all meditative disciplines, can be enormously effective, if and only if, one has the courage and personal power to follow through on the guidance it provides.

She does such a good job at articulating something I feel like I already knew inside (intuitively!), but couldn't find the words to explain. Of course self-esteem is critical in this sense. It's about becoming intimate with your sense of self and having faith in your gut instincts (intuition), not about giving yourself mental gold stars for being the best/strongest/smartest.

So How Do You Get There?

Myss also notes that "No one is born with healthy self-esteem. We must earn this quality in the process of living, as we face challenges one at a time." I believe that everyone is born inherently good, and will more or less believe that they are good until confronted with external circumstances (i.e. a highly critical parent, media messages, bullying) that challenge this. However, developing a deeper trust in oneself and a sense of self-efficacy only come with experience. With doing the miles, and often learning the hard way.

For me, it was about both: first, coming to believe that I am already whole (which only happened when I connected spiritually), and second, giving myself many opportunities to learn, try, fail, try again, succeed, celebrate, fall, learn, try again. And the longer I'm on this planet, the more I expect and am okay with this sometimes-painful process, because in the end I get to know that guiding voice inside me a little bit better.

Fear is always part of the equation, but when you do not try, the cold, hard reality is that you deny yourself the opportunity to be proud of your efforts, which is necessary for building confidence. This also involves the spiritual challenge of working to let go of outcomes, or at least to be able to move through the grief or shame a non-ideal outcome rather than living in it for days or months or longer.

Shame Pops and "Not Good Enough"

I'm not sure where the term originated (neither is Google), but some of my colleagues and I refer to those sudden cringe-worthy, nauseating moments of shame as "getting hit by the shame pop." I visualize either a big-ass bat or an actual huge lollipop that comes out of nowhere and smacks you across the face. It's visceral, and it sucks. I believe that shame is really the only emotion that is not productive or helpful. (Some camps separate "toxic shame" and "healthy shame," while Brené Brown and others classify it into "shame" and "guilt", the latter of which actually can be helpful because it gives you a signal that you're straying form your core values.) However, I also believe that just like the experience of vulnerability, we cannot opt out of shame, as much as we might want to. And efforts to avoid it altogether often mean that we also avoid taking the kind of risks that would be life-expanding. Rather than avoid shame, we just need to have an action plan in place (shame resiliency, in Brené's terms) to help us shake it off as quickly as possible when we get hit by the shame pop. Not to numb it, but to reach out quickly for support and take actions of true self-care (not the same as self-indulgence, which usually end in regret!)

One of the most liberating ideas that I learned as I developed my sense of self and learned how to better handle shame was that you don't have to hate even the darkest parts of yourself. After I swung from anorexia into binge eating, I used to L-O-A-T-H-E the part of me that binged. It felt like a monster literally taking over my body, and when it was over, it was pure self-hatred, because I was just digging myself deeper into my existing hole of body-hatred. I learned from Geneen Roth about the Internal Family Systems model of therapy, and this was the first time that I could recognize that this part of me who binged was just a part that was trying to help me put out a fire but wasn't doing it in the right way. Rather than hatred, that part needed love and understanding, and to be told, "hey, I can see what you're trying to do and I appreciate that, but I've learned some things and have a way we can do it better now." I'll never forget the first time that I crawled into a hot bath afterwards and cried, finally not from a place of self-hatred, but from sadness and acceptance of this lost and scared part of me. Learning this fact and feeling it in my heart was a major turning point for me in truly recovering from my eating disorder.

The second liberating idea is to recognize that you will always have "not good enough" thoughts. I still have them regularly, but they no longer paralyze me (or lead me down a path of self-destructive behavior) because I've learned to use Defusion skills to name the story ("Yep, there's the 'not good enough' story again. Thanks, mind. I can take it from here because I actually want to do this thing anyway because it's important to me.") Sometimes we think that the people who are really good (worthy, talented, pretty, successful, confident, etc.) don't have these thoughts anymore. That's just plain wrong. They still have the "not good enough" thoughts like you and me, but they have learned to relate to them differently so the thoughts don't get in the way of doing what matters to them. If you think something's wrong with you because you still have these thoughts, I beg of you, please release yourself of that expectation and instead work to have a different relationship with the thoughts when they show up. Even just naming the story will help you get some distance from it.

And when you do that, you'll be more likely to follow through on whatever it is you're scared to do, and that is how confidence is built. Brick, by brick, by brick.

What does confidence mean to you? Do you agree with the connection between self-esteem and intuition? Please share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, or wherever else you're connecting. Much love to you all!

3 Comments

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.

the wisdom of imperfection + loving yourself when it's really hard {a personal story}

Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to sing one of my favorite songs ever in my church (First Unitarian Universalist of Nashville), accompanied by our Minister of Music, Jason Shelton — also my choir director, and a ridiculously talented composer and musician — along with a few other experienced musicians. It was truly one of those situations where the Universe intervened, because I had been thinking for months of mentioning to Jason that if it ever worked out with a service topic to sing this particular song, That Wasn’t Me by Brandi Carlile  that I would love to do it. Then right after my wedding, he contacted me out of the blue asking if I’d be available that Sunday to sing that song. I was ecstatic but also a nervous wreck about it. I wanted to do mad JUSTICE to the song, and also I still have very limited exposure to solo performance in public.

So, I practiced singing it in my car all week (sometimes there are benefits of my hour-each-way commute) and making sure I knew where all the words went, and on the day of, thought, “meh, I could make a printout of the lyrics and that would be okay, but I’ve sung this song a million times and really should’t need it. If I change my mind I’m sure I can make a printout at the church.” Would I go back and change that decision if I could? Not totally sure, to be honest.

I got to church early that morning and we ran through the song twice before the first service, and when my time came about 2/3 through the service, I had already gone to the bathroom probably 3 times in the past hour because of how anxious I was. I got up there and sang it with heart. People loved it, and I felt great. Next, doing the sermon, was visiting speaker, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, also known as the Holy Rascal. Right after I sang, he said in Jason’s direction, “I didn’t know you got Taylor Swift.” The congregation laughed and objected, “No, she’s way better!” I was embarrassed about the attention, but it also felt nice.

We ran the song again once or twice before the second service, since a few other choir members came to help with backing vocals in that service. Again before and during that service, I wondered if people thought I had some kind of health issue with how much I was running to the bathroom. I got up there, sang it with heart again, and then when I got to the last verse, I skipped a stanza. I realized it but it was too late, and looked at Jason (next to me on piano) with a look of somewhat-disguised-panic, and knew I had to Just Keep Going. I sort of fixed it, the best way that I could, and ended the song awkwardly, looking at him and mouthing “DAMN!” before sitting back in the first pew.

My heart was racing wildly. I wanted nothing more than to run out of the church, or at the very least, to appear that I was calmly going to the bathroom again and then continuing outside to the parking lot to cry. I even had old thoughts of scratching myself and pulling out my hair, something I’ve only done once in a moment of panic since I was a teenager (back then it was more frequent.) My self-talk was pretty brutal, and I was so ashamed. I knew that the rest of the song had been good, and that I salvaged the last 30 seconds or so the best I could, but here I was singing one of my favorite songs that has the power to bring people to tears (“when it’s sung RIGHT!!!”), and I’m wanting to cry for a totally different reason.  Even writing about it now, I can feel my pulse starting to pick up again and my eyes welling up a little.

But of course, after I sang, the very next thing was the sermon. And guess what the topic was? The Wisdom of Imperfection. Of Freaking Course. I had really enjoyed it during the first service, and I knew the irony of me beating myself up or escaping during this particular sermon, but I wanted to run nonetheless. When Rabbi Rami got up to the podium after I sat, no Taylor Swift jokes, no anything. And of course I told myself, “He doesn’t want to draw any attention to you because you just screwed up.” The cool thing about Rabbi Rami is that he never does the same talk twice. He brought in all kinds of different anecdotes and jokes the second time around, so ultimately I was glad that I had stayed, but man-oh-man was it difficult.

I listened to him as he referred back to the reading he’d done earlier in the service — Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, which he deemed “one of the great spiritual texts” (I agree with him). He talked about how we are often taught by religious institutions that on one side we have Life and Prosperity (and Heaven!), and on the other side, Adversity, Suffering, Sin, Death (and Eternal Damnation!). And of course, we want to pick the former — but he argued that it is not actually either-or at all, but And. If we spend our lives trying to “get rid of” our “sinfulness” or our dark sides or our imperfections, we are missing out on the truth of humanity and life. Since this is one of my core foundational philosophies as a therapist (it lines up perfectly with DBT’s Dialectical Thinking concept and also the “Acceptance” of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), I needed no convincing of this from an intellectual standpoint. During the first service, I sat there with rapt attention, nodding vehemently and going “Amen!” in my head.

During the second service, however, at first I was doing the internal eye-roll, thinking, “sure, perfection isn’t realistic, but ROYALLY SCREWING UP IN FRONT OF HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ISN’T OKAY!!” Still trying to convince myself to not get up and run.

This was one of those times that I was just as much in need of coping skills as any of my clients in residential treatment right now. So what did I do?

Well, after I was done cursing myself, I just did my best to accept what was happening with me.

I breathed.

I crossed my arms, grabbing my shoulder with my opposite hand, and I squeezed, literally holding myself.

I let my eyes well up.

I listened to Rabbi Rami.

I stared at the ground.

I just let it happen.

And at the end of the service, I did more or less run out to the parking lot, get in the car, and self-pity-cried for a minute. My husband comforted me the best he could, telling me I did amazing and that my flub was not that bad. At first I told him to just drive on to the grocery store, but he didn’t rush, and I pulled my head up a little and said, “maybe we should go back in for a minute.” I dragged myself out of the car and we went back into the social area of the church. Numerous people came up to compliment me, a couple saying “I know you thought you messed up, but it was great,” and one lady saying that plus “It was so powerful I was tearing up.”

I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed these accolades from a standpoint of external validation — it was more about that I was going to allow myself to receive them even though I wanted to run from it because I didn’t feel like I had deserved it at first. But I changed my mind. I deserved to hold my head up high and not run just because I was embarrassed about my mistake. I deserved to be gentle with myself because mistakes are inevitable, and because dammit, Shel Silverstein and Rabbi Rami are right. Perfection is not real. If I want the sweet, I have to also accept the sad, because in embracing both, I am human.

I am me, and I can be loving toward toward myself — flubs and all. And only when I do that can I truly love others and their mistakes, too.

8 Comments

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.

self-compassion: how to use it to make a difference in your life

Garden of Mind by Davide  Brusa and Leonardo Dentico Last week, I wrote about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why building a self-compassion practice offers even more benefits for our daily lives and overall wellbeing. Today, I'll go into a brief "how to" on self-compassion to offer a better understanding of ways that you can begin to actually DO it. First and foremost is noticing the word "practice." Just like most worthy ventures in life, self-compassion is not a goal you can check off a list, but a value you can strive to live out through patterns of committed actions (to put it into an ACT framework) -- a direction you can go in, not a destination you can reach. Dr. Kristin Neff provides numerous free exercises for self-compassion on her website, and of course, even more in her book. I'll also offer some of my own suggestions below.

In her research and personal experience, Neff discovered that self-compassion seemed to consist of three primary components:

"First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness -- that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it."

All three elements are required in order to practice true self-compassion. Let's break each of these down a bit more.

Self-Kindness This component requires that we question the voice of our all-too-familiar inner critics. Are you willing to speak to yourself the way that you would speak to a dear friend in the same situation? Self-kindness does not mean coddling ourselves or excusing inappropriate or ineffective behavior. Spiritual and meditation guru Tara Brach writes, "Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance." This reminds me of a line from one of my favorite comic illustrations, "Fat is Not a Feeling" by Corinne Mucha (click through for the badass full comic):

"Hate is not a magic wand that shrinks your thighs."

Along those lines, one of the concepts that changed my life was when I realized I do not have to hate my inner critic, either. I could maybe even be kind to that part, and understanding of the part who did the self-destructive things that infuriated me so much. I was lucky to learn that at the young age of 19 (not that I've practiced it perfectly since then!) at a Geneen Roth workshop when I was still entangled in an eating disorder. When Geneen briefly introduced Internal Family Systems Therapy, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I had to learn that the part of me who binged -- in a reactive fear of my past anorexia -- needed to be loved, too, even though it felt like a monster that took over my body and turned it into something that repulsed me. That part was just trying to protect me from having to experience the fear of what hunger represented, to keep me anesthetized of all my other insecurities. And if I waited to be kind to myself until my body looked the way I wanted it to, I'd be waiting forever. I'll never forget the day that I stood naked after a shower in front of a bathroom mirror at that retreat, put my hands around my belly button in the shape of a heart, and cried. I was forgiving myself, and making a decision in that moment to start practicing kindness with all the parts of me, even when it was really hard to be kind.

Although I didn't know it in that moment, one of the things that I was doing with that gentle touch was giving my body a shot of oxytocin (the hormone of love and bonding, or sometimes adorably referred to as "the cuddle hormone"). As Neff describes, physical touch releases oxytocin, which "provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress." Her research has gone further to show that it does not have to be the physical touch of another -- our own touch can release the same soothing hormone. So whether it's a hand your heart, a massaging stroke on the back of your neck, or wrapping your arms around each other with a loving squeeze -- basically anything works if it's done with the intent to self-soothe. And some ways are perfectly subtle enough to be done surreptitiously in public without others wondering what the heck you're doing.

Common Humanity One of the mind's favorite things to tell you when you're struggling is that you are alone: you are the only one in this situation, the only person who could have let things happen this way, and the only one who feels like this. In these moments, it's critical for us take a step back and remind ourselves that our suffering is not what makes us unique, it's what makes us human. Neff points out that the word compassion actually means "to suffer with." Try not to get caught up on the specifics of your situation that "no one else could possibly understand" -- what's more important is to remember that this intense grief or fear that you're feeling is something that others in your life -- and across the world -- have felt for as long as humankind's existence. When we know we're not alone in our pain, it doesn't make the pain go away -- but it allows us to connect, which can provide soothing in the moment healing in the long run. As a Unitarian Universalist, I have to throw in that one of our seven principles is "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." When I remember that I am part of this interdependent web, it brings me a sense of peace and belonging. Connecting to our common humanity also reminds us that none of us are perfect -- and when you think others' lives are perfect, remember that you can't compare your insides to someone else's outsides.

Mindfulness It's pretty difficult to be compassionate with our own pain if we're not mindful of it! Mindfulness in regards to self-compassion involves stepping back from our autopilot mode to be present to the difficult experience rather than jumping into reactivity or getting stuck in our unhelpful stories about the situation. I love this analogy that neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson uses:

"Imagine that your mind is like a garden. You could simply be with it, looking at its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. Or, you could pull weeds by decreasing what’s negative in your mind. Or, you could grow flowers by increasing the positive in your mind. In essence, you can manage your mind in three primary ways: let be, let go, or let in. When something difficult or uncomfortable happens—when a storm comes to your garden—these three ways to engage your mind give you a very useful, step-by-step sequence."

Hanson describes that different people have different tendencies with pain: some tend to want to jump right over the pain into happiness, and others tend to wallow in the pain long after it's useful. (This parallels ACT's core indicators of psychological inflexibility -- experiential avoidance and fusion, respectively.) Are you aware of your own tendency? If you are a jumper, then you need to practice just being with your garden -- observing it -- before giving into desires to "fix" or move past it. If you're a wallower, first mindfully observing your garden and then truly allowing yourself to move through the pain (pulling weeds and planting flowers) is critical.

Recently on Conan O'Brien, comedian Louis CK poked at about our culture's desire to avoid any ounce of pain, and how this prevents us also from fully experiencing other emotions such as joy and happiness. The clip already has over six million views, and if you haven't already seen it, it is well worth your five minutes! Being mindful of our pain means neither avoiding nor fusing with it, neither minimizing nor exaggerating it, but seeing it for what it is and allowing ourselves to be with and then move through it. 

I hope this post has been helpful you to consider ways that you can integrate these three core components of self-compassion more into your day-to-day life. I appreciate any comments about the post or what helps you practice self-compassion. If you're interested in digging deeper into this concept, Kristin Neff has a wonderful list of links on her website to all kinds of self-compassion resources.

What I listened to while writing this post: Horner, James - Braveheart - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

8 Comments

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.

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 ******.

*******

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.)

******

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.