Nobody is perfect. Far from being a new or radical concept, most people can probably recall hearing this phrase since childhood. No matter how hard people might work, it seems they can always find someone who is smarter, more athletic or more attractive.
The self-esteem movement tells people that this doesn’t matter: Something about every person is perfect, and that something will give individuals the confidence boost they need to achieve their wildest dreams. Aaron might have difficulties in math, but he’s a terrific artist. Katie might struggle with making friends, but she earned the highest test scores in the state. The danger of the self-esteem movement, however, is that it still requires that individuals compare themselves to other people. If Katie does poorly on a test or Aaron gets rejected from art school, their self-worth could plummet. Unfortunately, an occasional failure is inevitable – nobody is perfect.
Self-esteem also doesn’t work. In the 2009 book NutureShock: New Thinking About Children, the authors investigated more than 15,000 scholarly articles about self-esteem. According to these articles, self-esteem does not improve grades, reduce antisocial behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do anything else that helps children long-term.
It seems, then, that improving self-esteem might soon become an outdated treatment, not unlike blood-letting or homeopathy.
What’s the alternative?
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion does not require individuals to compare themselves to other people. Self-compassion is about loving oneself, warts and all.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., founder of the self-compassion movement and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains: “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?”
Since its conceptualization in 2011, self-compassion has been praised by writers from the New York Times, Psychology Today, and numerous other print and online journals. Research on this new self-compassion movement has been supportive and glowing. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.
There are three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is defined as being warm and understanding toward oneself after a failure. When an individual makes a mistake, it can be tempting to give in, self-flagellate or criticize. People who practice self-compassion, however, accept that they have made a mistake and do not judge themselves for it. They treat themselves with the kindness they would show a close family member or friend.
People make mistakes. People fail. When people practice self-compassion, they use their mistakes and failures as a way to feel connected with the human species. Suffering and feeling inadequate is a shared human experience and an essential part of being human.
Mindfulness means observing the world with openness and clarity rather than judgment or frustration. When people experience negative emotions, mindfulness encourages them to view those emotions with objectivity rather than subjectivity. “I’m miserable and useless,” becomes “I feel miserable and useless right now, and that’s OK.” With mindfulness, pain is not ignored – it is simply acknowledged.
What isn’t self-compassion?
Many people are reluctant to practice self-compassion because they’re afraid that criticizing themselves is the only way they can improve themselves. For these people, self-compassion can feel a lot like self-pity.
Self-compassion, however, is not about wallowing in self-pity. It’s not about being content as a failure or never striving to be a better person. It’s about treating oneself with the same kindness one would treat a friend. It’s about gentle encouragement and reassurance in the face of difficulties. It’s about support.