I’ve recently been through some drastic and stressful life changes, and I was surprised to note that I dealt with it surprisingly well. Not to toot my own horn but it would seem I am bordering on being a mentally stable individual, which definitely was not the case a couple of years ago. Eating disorders, self-harming, anxiety, maladaptive perfectionism… my teenage and young adult self was not doing very well, and my body still carries the marks of those darker time.
But as I grew I learnt to cut myself (pun-intended) some slack, take care of myself, and, all in all, like myself. I describe this journey as “becoming my own best friend”, but I recently discovered that there is an actual name for it in psychology: self-compassion. As I read more about this, my mind was blown: Why is no one I know talking about this?
Instead, all we speak about is self-esteem: Low self-esteem is bad and high self-esteem is good and healthy. But is it?
This piece is a distilled version of Neff (2003) as seen through the lens of my experience. I highly recommend reading the paper, it is very accessible.
What is self-esteem
Basically it is the evaluation of one’s self-worth. It is determined by considering personal performances in the context of society’s standards or compare them to the performances of others. We also look to others’ evaluation of ourselves to determine how much we should like ourselves (although we care about some people more than others.)
Low self-esteem is bad, but that doesn’t make high self-esteem the holy grail.
Low self esteem can lead to a lack of motivation, depression, suicidal ideation, and a whole flock of other fun stuff.
But high self-esteem can come with its host of negative tendencies too: narcissism, self-absorption, self-centeredness, and a distortion of self-knowledge - i.e not being able to see where we need to grow and change.
“You are perfect just the way you are”
- That one friend trying to be supportive in your Facebook comments
No, you’re not. Neither am I, neither is anybody.
And that’s okay.
The need for high self-esteem can make us prone to ignoring our flaws, or seeing the worst in others to make ourselves feel like we’re better than them. Too much self-esteem can even result in aggression when our ego is threatened.
So what other concept should we look towards to “measure” our psychological health?
What is self-compassion
The concept of self-compassion is not new in Eastern philosophy. In fact my journey to becoming my own best friend began when I started a regular yoga practice. They way the teacher spoke, the questions they asked, brought me to re-think how I talked to myself and took care of my mind and body.
In Western psychology, however, self-compassion was a new concept at the time Neff (2003) was written. That was over 15 years ago, and for the common crowd like us, the goal of high self-esteem for a healthy mind still seems ubiquitous.
So what is self-compassion? Dr Neff put it beautifully, and I dare not paraphrase:
Self-compassion, therefore, involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.
Basically it is extending the old adage “Don’t be a d*ck” to include yourself, not just your entourage.
When speaking to a friend about this, his first reaction was “I don’t want to be making excuses for myself”. But extending kindness to yourself in your less than glorious moments doesn’t mean you shouldn’t acknowledge your shortcomings. On the contrary, self-compassion makes it easier to clearly identify where we come short, because it alleviates the fear of self-judgment or self-flagellation.
Self-compassion isn’t synonymous for self-pity either. In the latter case, your negative feelings consume you, isolate you. In the former, negative feelings are acknowledged for what they are: a shared human experience.
There are three aspects of self-compassion described by Dr. Neff:
Self-kindness: Choose understanding over harsh criticism of yourself.
Common humanity: Our experience is part of the larger human existence.
Mindfulness: Acknowledging our thoughts and feelings without over-engaging with them, i.e ruminating or letting them change our self-concept. (Mindfulness is its own topic, for a start check out , )
It is important to see these aspects as being interconnected, rather than ordered.
Because self-compassion, unlike self-esteem, is independent of the way we rank ourselves amongst our peers, I truly believe that it is my best bet to stay sane in a world where social media is ubiquitous, and in a career where my h-index is often synonymous of my worth as a scientist.
Life isn’t Instagram, we shouldn’t aspire to be perfect or to be happy 100 percent of the time. That is far too much pressure.
I hope that this inspires you to cut yourself some slack and become your own best friend.
A fellow, fallible, human.
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