When you have compassion for yourself and others, you can become more forgiving and accepting of mistakes or failures.
You recognize that you are not alone—that what you are going through is part of the human experience.
All people make mistakes.
As counsellors at Walmsley, we see many people who claim their problem is low self-esteem. We all know that self-esteem is tied to self-worth, yet when we try to raise our self-esteem, it often seems to be an elusive quest.
Kristin D. Neff,* a professor at the University of Texas, argues that while self-esteem is related to psychological well-being, the pursuit of high self-esteem can be problematic. In the quest for high self-esteem we need to be better than average. When we notice that we are simply average, or less than average, it is a huge blow to our self-esteem. It leads to constant comparison to others, constant criticism of others, and the need to find fault with others.
We are highly critical of ourselves in areas where we find that we are merely average or below average. If we decide to take up a hobby, painting, pottery making, guitar playing, or singing, for example, and discover that we are merely average, or below average, we find this esteem crushing. We want so much to shine, to excel, to find some way to prove our specialness. Self-criticism for not being special can even lead to narcissism as people find it necessary to exaggerate their qualities or accomplishments while minimizing or ignoring their deficits or failures.
More and more parents are also feeling the pressure to do the same for their children; to encourage them to believe that they have a special talent, even when they don’t. Being ordinary or average is no longer okay. We may find ourselves resentful of others’ successes and therefore downplay and minimize their successes, exaggerating their faults, all in an effort to build our own flagging self-esteem.
Since the quest for high self-esteem began in the 80’s, many psychologists have seen the opposite occur—increased negative self-perception and an increased pre-occupation with self as the centre of the universe.
Jean M. Twenge Ph.D and Keith Campbell, Ph.D argue in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, that the quest to feel special and increase self- esteem has led to an increase in narcissism in our culture.
Many psychologists are rejecting the notion of self-esteem all together and are searching for a more useful term. Self-esteem is too vague, too out of reach, and if what Twenge and Campbell are saying is true, too harmful a concept that is moving us away from what is helpful: self- acceptance.
What Kristin Neff suggests as a more helpful concept is self-compassion, which she claims offers similar mental health benefits as self- esteem, but without the negative downsides.
Self-esteem involves the need to be special while self-compassion allows us to be kind to ourselves, even when we have failed, have a perceived inadequacy, or imperfection. It also looks to extend that compassion to others and is not looking to constantly compare oneself to others. It is your ability to recognize that you are not alone, that what you are going through is part of the human experience.
This is not about you being a loser, or a terrible person. This is about you being human. It is learning to be gentle with yourself and extending kindness and understanding to yourself—the same kindness you would extend to a dear friend or loved one.
The last component of self-compassion is learning to be mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to stay objective, to avoid getting so caught up in your story that you exaggerate or obsessively fixate on your story. When you get caught up in your story you lose the ability to see things clearly and learn life’s lessons—to let things go and move on.
You want to have the ability to accept with love and understanding, and a dose of humour, the flaws and weaknesses and human frailties that you find along the way and to recognize that these human failings exist in us all.
If you would like to explore this topic further with the guidance of a compassionate counsellor, give us a call. Let’s talk.
Jenny DeReis, MC Psych. CCC *Neff, D. Kristin, Social and Personality Psychology, Compass, (2011) Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1-12, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330x