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Why Successful People Choose Self-Compassion Over Self-Esteem
Self-compassion isn’t about letting yourself off the hook. It’s about having a growth mindset that gives you authentic confidence.
For the past six years, I’ve been obsessed with the topic of confidence — how to get it, how to raise it, and how to keep it. My preoccupation grew out of fierce battles with insecurity while growing up, and out of learning to navigate life as a highly sensitive person who feels everything more intensely.
My obsession really took hold when I noticed a strikingly similar pattern among my coaching clients. Smart and highly accomplished people, they also had thoughts like:
“I’m falling behind in my career.”
“No matter how much I do, it’s never enough.”
“I want to start a business, but I fear looking foolish.”
Anyone who has tried to embark on a professional or personal goal is familiar with this voice of the inner critic — the one that says things like “you’re not good enough,” “this is a stupid idea,” or “nothing will ever work out.”
Common advice tells us to push these concerns away. We’re encouraged to keep hustling, try harder, and do better. If you’re like me, that voice is also cautionary. It says if you stop pushing to achieve more, you’ll lose your edge, your status, your income, and more. Cue catastrophic thinking!
It’s hard to quiet that voice because it speaks some truth. Failing to work on your weaknesses leads to blind spots at best and delusional overconfidence on the opposite extreme. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to be confident and ambitious.
Problems arise, however, when we try to achieve happiness solely by raising our self-esteem, which can be fragile. Too often, this approach leads to needless suffering and self-criticism.
The good news it that it’s possible to be driven and find inner peace. You do this by cultivating self-compassion instead of striving after higher self-esteem.
Why Self-Esteem is Not the Key to Confidence
Self-esteem is defined as your feelings about yourself (positive or negative), as well as how you think other people value you and feel towards you. In other words, you’re influenced by how you think the outside world sees you.
In order to keep your self-esteem high, you must look around and size up your progress versus your peers. These constant comparisons trigger stress. The body’s natural fight-or-flight response kicks in, just as if we we’re being attacked — only it’s all in our head (and our heart).
High-achievers have even more at stake. If you have achieved some success, you must work to maintain an image of being competent and effective. This is a precarious position. You may perceive any mistake, setback, or flaw as a failure, rather than a natural consequence of growth. If you become overly dependent on achievement, approval, or praise, your self-esteem can becomes fragile, as if it’s a roller-coaster going up and down in response to external circumstances.
Many people try to motivate themselves to be more confident by judging themselves harshly (I need to be doing better. I should be further along by now). If you hold yourself to exacting standards, your negative self-talk may be particularly vitriolic. For example, all through my academic years, I can remember berating myself for “only getting an A” and telling myself “you should’ve earned an A+”. Many top students share this struggle: going on to achieve great things, yet facing internal battles. Psychologists call this “Duck Syndrome”—the appearance of being placid, but with hidden flailing underwater to stay afloat. Your accomplishments look good on the outside, but inside there’s turmoil.
Using self-criticism as a motivator is usually ingrained at a young age, whether through the school system, societal messages about success, or even by growing up in a home with demanding caregivers. But negative self-talk is not an effective way to motivate yourself.
In her book The Willpower Instinct, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal summarizes the findings, saying that “study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.” In fact, it shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, which prevents us from taking action to reach our goals.
Research also suggests that self-esteem may not be the confidence-boosting panacea it’s always been cracked up to be. Following the “self-esteem movement” of the 1980’s and 1990’s, a sweeping meta-analysis concluded that there was no proof of high self-esteem improving academic achievement, job success, or health outcomes.
After observing these downsides of self-esteem and self-criticism, psychologists set out in search of a better solution. Now a growing body of research points toward self-compassion as a path to resiliency and emotional strength.
What is self-compassion?
Recall a time when you encouraged a friend, coached a co-worker, or soothed a child. It’s likely that you felt empathy for the person — not pity — and tried to acknowledge that life is messy, imperfect, and sometimes filled with pain. Self-compassion involves applying this sense of warm, positive regard towards yourself.
Dr. Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas Austin, and the foremost researcher on self-compassion. She defines the concept this way:
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?
Self-compassion, as defined by Neff, has three key components:
- Self-kindness — being supportive of yourself; treating yourself as you would a family member or friend.
- Common humanity—an antidote for isolation; understanding that everyone makes mistakes and you’re not alone; recognizing that suffering is a universal experience.
- Mindfulness—observing your thoughts and emotions with nonjudgmental awareness; being present in the moment even when negative feelings arise.
While self-esteem is fixated on how you feel about yourself positively or negatively, self-compassion is about having understanding for wherever you’re at right now and embracing a full range of thoughts, emotions, and reactions — without judging them as right or wrong. It’s about recognizing that your inner voice is trying to protect you, and shifting your self-talk to be benevolent, not punishing.
Why build skills for greater self-compassion? Simply put, because it works. Self-compassion gives you greater confidence, makes you more resilient, and fosters authentic growth in your abilities.
The Benefits of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is associated with a number of mental health and performance-enhancing benefits, including:
- Lower levels of depression, anxiety, and rumination.
- Greater ability to cope with negative emotions.
- More positive emotions like happiness, wisdom, and connectedness.
- Increased optimism.
- Showing more personal initiative.
High-achievers, take note of this final point: self-compassionate people are more likely to take action and reach their goals. In particular, research shows that inducing self-compassion helps people stick to a diet, stop smoking, and find intrinsic motivation to exercise for fun.
The biggest misconception about self-compassion is that it undermines motivation. When first introduced to the concept, many people fear that being kinder and gentler to themselves will make them lazy. They fear losing their ambitious drive and competitive edge. The opposite is true. Self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional resilience. Self-compassionate people fear failure less, and when they do face setbacks, they are more likely to try again.
How to develop more self-compassion
Interested to see how self-compassionate you are? You can take an evidence-based assessment on Neff’s website here.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we could all stand to be kinder to ourselves sometimes. Here are some science-backed ways to boost your self-compassion today:
Watch your words
For the next week, take notice of how often you use words like always, should, and never—often indicators of self-criticism. Raising your mindful awareness is the first step towards cultivating a more balanced internal dialogue. Changing your negative self-talk to be friendlier is a core skill of self-compassion and can help control stressful emotions.
Try a re-do
Take an example of a recent situation in which you beat yourself up. Examples might be sending an email to the wrong person or botching a work matter. Consider how a self-compassionate response would differ. This is a form of cognitive reappraisal. What would you say to a friend or family member who made the same mistake?
Write a letter to yourself
One study found that adults who wrote a compassionate letter to themselves for one week experienced significantly less distress and large increases in happiness for six months. To write a ‘compassionate letter’, take something you are unhappy about with yourself, and express acceptance, understanding, and encouragement for yourself about it. You might pretend that you’re someone who loves you unconditionally—what would they say to you?
If journaling is not your thing, you could also use a tool like FutureSelf to practice processing your hopes, dreams, and fears in a more compassionate way.
Learn to stabilize
Overwhelming or painful emotions may arise as you try to be kinder to yourself, a phenomenon that Neff refers to as backdrafting. You may recall times when you felt ignored, rejected, or invalidated. Fears came rushing up. When this happens, it’s important to catch yourself before you fall back into old habits of using self-criticism as a motivator. Instead, create some distance to observe your reactions, using a mindfulness technique developed by psychologist Tara Brach: RAIN, which stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Natural Loving Awareness. The steps to practice RAIN, from Brach’s article for Mindful Magazine, are:
Recognize what is going on — Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings in the moment. Label them.
Allow the experience to be there; just as it is — Pause. Relax your body and your mind. Breathe.
Investigate with interest and care — Get curious. Ask questions like, “What is this reaction telling me? What do I need most right now?”
Natural Loving Awareness—not identifying with the experience. “This practice of non-identification means that our sense of who we are is not fused with any limiting emotions, sensations, or stories.”
You can also learn to stabilize by reminding yourself to use healthy, realistic self-talk and shift perspecitve. Practice gratitude. Recall past times you’ve overcome challenges. Remind yourself of life’s simple pleasures, like a hug, the blue sky on a clear day, or your favorite smell.
Neff’s website includes a vast set of guided meditations and other exercises to help you work through challenging emotions and develop inner calm.
Meditation is a well-known method to improve your ability to handle situations in a more rational way. While we normally think of this kind of emotional control in terms of regulating outbursts with others, it can also help us avoid tendencies to dump or rage at ourselves internally.
Keep practicing to reap the rewards
Like any skill, developing self-compassionate takes time and deliberate practice.
Truthfully, it’s a lesson I have to remind myself of frequently. I’ve internalized reframing, especially as a valuable strategy to spot my unhelpful stories and acknowledge my inner voice, without slipping into comparison and self-criticism. But, I still slip into funks now and then. I’m human, after all (which, if you’re paying attention, is self-compassion in action!)
While it’s important to be patient and understanding with yourself throughout the process, self-compassion also entails responsibility and gentle-but-pragmatic firmness.
Self-compassion is not about letting yourself off the hook. It’s recognizing that you have the ability to improve and understand the science that shows accepting yourself works far better than hating yourself — especially if you want to achieve big goals.