Why You Need Self-Compassion More Than Self-Esteem in Difficult Times, Study Shows

The literature of self-esteem tells us that we need to gain self-esteem to be succesful. But this might be all wrong and a widespread misconception, according to a longitudinal study of nearly 2500 students. I’ll introduce you to self-compassion as an alternative to self-esteem, and the reasons why you should develop self-compassion more than self-esteem.

For decades, psychologists have examined factors related to mental health. This is where self-esteem shows up in the picture. Studies show that people who report happy and succesful lives tend to show higher levels of self-esteem compared to people who don’t report happy and succesful lives. Therefore, self-esteem has been considered to be an important factor for mental health. But, let’s see if that’s always true (guess not!).

Inflated Self-Esteem is Bullsh*t

I just watched a video about self-esteem. The title of the video caught my attention: “Inflated Self-Esteem is Bullsh*t” (2018). It features psychology professor Steven Hayes, the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, who has over 40 years of experience in research and therapy.

In the video, Steven Hayes mentions that attempts to boost self-esteem can help you feel better in the short term, but when you really need your self-esteem in difficult times, it can actually do more harm than good.

The reason is that the idea of self-esteem is based on the assumption that a positive self-evaluation is important, or even necessary, in order to live a fulfilling life, and therefore one will try to protect the self from being hurt in times of threats to one’s self-image.

First, imagine one of your successes… Didn’t it make you feel good about yourself? Then imagine yourself failing or losing… Didn’t it threaten you and make you feel bad about yourself? I suppose most people recognize such situations.

Struggling to maintain self-image

Typically, when we feel bad about ourselves, we try to do better the next time so that we maintain a positive self-image, OR we give up the challenge that makes us feel bad about so that we don’t challenge our self-image at all.

Whether we try to do better the next time, or give up the challenge, it makes us feel good about ourselves when the self-image is intact. It’s actually the human fight-flight response that kicks in when the self-image is threatened. In other words, fight against the “self-image threat” or try to avoid it to feel good.

Human nature chooses comfort (feeling good) over threat (feeling bad), as feeling bad can mean that your life is at danger, from an evolutionary perspective. So, try not to feel bad to survive. But what if it’s part of the human condition to feel bad, to experience negative emotions such as self-doubt and uncertainty?

What if we actually end up feeling bad about feeling bad as we try to get rid of those emotions as we don’t succeed. Have you ever wondered why others’ feedback of you can be difficult to adopt? It might not fit with your own self-image.

Intolerant of flaws & self-criticism

Early on in life, we learn that performing good is key to succes, as we simply get positive feedback for performing well. This, however, can make us intolerant of our own flaws, indirectly contributing to self-criticism and high self-expectations (and less self-compassion).

What if approval works best for people who already have a positive self-image. What if it’s just a quick fix? And what if we end up struggling to get this fix, meaning that we end up fighting against ourselves instead of accepting ourselves?

Willingness to experience self-doubt

Most people think that self-esteem helps us take up challenges. But what if that’s wrong? What if taking up challenges is about being brave, about the willingness to risk failing, about not having control over the outcome?

Therefore, taking up challenges and risks may not be about self-esteem at all, but instead about accepting oneself as a failing, learning and succeeding human being.

Summing up, self-esteem is about performing. When you perform well, you will build up your self-esteem. Consequently, if you don’t perform well, your self-esteem will be threatened, leading to either more or less engagement. If you don’t succeed, you may begin to feel that it’s a personal defeat (even though you are probably doing fine considering the circumstances).

Self-compassion is an alternative to self-esteem. It involves accepting self-doubt, negative self-evaluations and adversity as part of the human condition. So, instead of struggling to protect the self-image by performing more, or avoiding threatening situations, we should learn to accept ourselves.

Research findings on self-compassion

Now to the research findings! In a longitudinal study of 2448 Australian students, Marshall and colleagues (2015) assessed how self-esteem interacted with self-compassion to predict changes in mental health over the next year. The study suggests that fostering self-compassion can reduce the need for self-esteem in situations that elicit self-doubt.

The authors have listed the study’s highlights as follows:

  • Low self-esteem predicts poor mental health, but only amongst those who are low in self-compassion
  • Low self-esteem had little negative effects on those high in self-compassion
  • Self-esteem and self-compassion are statistically different
  • Self-compassion training may help people to respond effectively to self-doubt

So, before talking about self-esteem, we should in fact talk about self-compassion. Being self-compassionate means to expand one’s personal tolerance for failing or making errors, to focus on the effort and learning instead of the achievement, and finally to meet self-doubt with kindness and openness. Stated differently:

Self-compassion involves three aspects: (1) Treating oneself kindly, (2) recognizing one’s struggles as part of the shared human experience, and (3) holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness.

– Kristin Neff, Ph.D., researcher of self-compassion

Read more: Three Principles to Help You Develop Self-Compassion

Meta-analyses report large correlations between higher levels of self-compassion and lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress in adults (MacBeth & Gumley 2012) and adolescents (Marsh et al. 2018).

Remember these findings when you find yourself in difficult situations that provoke self-doubt. Try to develop self-compassion. Make friends with yourself.

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