Self-Compassion: The New Self-Esteem for Women

My 9-year old was finally old enough to enjoy The Karate Kid last summer (the original one, from 1984, of course) but what I saw when we sat down to watch surprised me: an important psychological mindset come to life through a favorite Hollywood character:

The main character, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, meets a great mentor in the form of Japanese handyman, Mr. Miyagi. The older man takes Daniel under his wing to teach him how to protect himself from his high-school nemesis, the perfect blonde karate star, Johnny. Mr. Miyagi’s compassionate stance towards self-improvement shone in stark contrast to the punishing training style of Sensei John Kreese from Cobra Kai, Johnny’s competing dojo.

Where Mr. Miyagi coached Daniel to fight with his brain and heart, evil Sensei Kreese shouted to his militant students:

“Mercy is for the weak…you’re nothing! You lost, you’re a loser!”

“The enemy deserves no mercy.”

Every woman I know, including myself, has had countless conversations with herself like this in the mirror. In our efforts to feel good about ourselves and look our best, we have taken the Cobra Kai path of toughening ourselves up to try and achieve higher self-esteem.

The Cobra Kai students were popular, boastful, and seemed to be brimming with self-esteem. They grew their strength and self-regard through fighting. A winner to them was tough, invulnerable, even violent. And yet, in the long run, Daniel-san beat them with the more compassionate tactics taught to him by Miyagi.

Turning the Cobra Kai path on ourselves

Women are especially adept at this type of punishing mindset — except it takes the form of self-flagellation: our perfectionism leads us to overwhelm, overwork, and overload more often than men, and it’s slowly killing us, dimming our spark, and leading to lives filled with disappointment and shame.

This outdated tactic of trying to boost self-esteem through force and violent self-punishment has created generations of women who are trying to beat ourselves into a happy relationship with our bodies, despite overwhelming evidence that these tactics don’t work.

In this study from Purdue, weight loss did not help raise long-term self-esteem, which may point to long-term body image issues for women who defined themselves as overweight.

The all-too-common advice to use positive affirmations can backfire for someone already stuck in the low self-esteem zone: this study from the University of Waterloo showed that the common self-esteem tactic actually made some subjects feel worse about themselves because their brains just didn’t believe statements like: “People like me and I’m smart.”

Feeling better about our lives has to start with how we feel about ourselves. And the path to falling in love with ourselves never begins with self-torture.

Up until recently, we have believed that self-esteem is the goal and the means to get there — what we want to feel and how we try to go about feeling successful.

Self-Esteem: The Cobra Kai way

However, self-esteem, or confidence in one’s own abilities, is the wrong measurement:

We have to compare ourselves to others or measure ourselves by how others view us in order to achieve high self esteem. Self-esteem is based on feeling better than others. Measuring yourself by the norm and coming out ahead in the math.

Comparison has a dark underbelly: we don’t actually feel better about ourselves when we compare ourselves to others because it inherently separates us from the other person as we judge them. Humans like to feel connected to each other, so separating, even to come out “better” than someone else, feels bad.

While we try to see ourselves as better than others, we also tend to turn that lens on ourselves and eviscerate ourselves with self-criticism when we don’t meet our own high standards.

As soon as our feelings of superiority slip — as they always do — our self-worthiness takes a nosedive. We swing wildly between high and low self-esteem — an emotional roller coaster ride whose end result is often insecurity, anxiety, and depression.

(This is why I prescribe to all of my self-worth seeking clients to stop watching reality TV, the black hole for comparison and judgment, for at least 2 weeks. “Watch a documentary instead and call me in the morning.”)

The ways in which we go about achieving self-esteem revolve around comparison, competition, and one-upmanship. (or one-up-woman-ship)

The other main problem with self-esteem is that when you need it, you don’t have it. Just when you need to feel better about yourself because things are going badly, self-esteem deserts you because you aren’t successful and you don’t measure up.

Then you’re stuck with the reality that you’re below average or not doing as well as others, which is when self-esteem vanishes.

Pretty wicked circle, isn’t it?

Compassion: The Mr. Miyagi Way to Self-Love

“No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher” — Mr. Miyagi

The way to feel good about ourselves is actually much more simple, and perhaps not easy:

Self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the ultimate, healthy, free way to feel better.

When you love yourself, you just love yourself.

When you have self-compassion you treat yourself with the same love and care you would offer to a dear friend.

When you help a toddler learn how to walk and s/he inevitably falls down, do you stand over said child and yell, “Dumb baby! You might as well give up! You’re terrible at walking!”

Of course not! You would kindly offer soothing words, help them back up, and guide them to try again.

We can and must do this for ourselves as we learn the more challenging complexities of negotiating adulthood.

In matters of the heart, purpose, and our ever-changing bodies, self-compassion is truly the best way to enjoy a healthy life.

We think self-compassion is a weak stance, just like Cobra Kai’s Sensei Kreese told us. If we let up on our bodies, aka “the enemy,” we’ll stop driving for achievement. We’ll get lazy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

New positive psychology science on compassion shows us that self-compassion is like Mr. Miyagi teaching us to “wax on, wax off.” When we practice basic precepts of awareness and compassion, and that self-improvement, like karate “is only for defense,” then we can master our mindset and truly make huge leaps forward.

The science of self-compassion

Students do better when they are primed to be more self-compassionate:

In one study, college students who performed worse than desired on an exam then performed better on the next test if they were primed to be higher rather than lower in self-compassion. This may show that students low in self-compassion beat themselves, felt more stressed, and remained in a fixed mindset which did not help them improve on the next test.

Students with lower levels of self-compassion tend to procrastinate more:

This study found that people prone to procrastination had lower levels of self-compassion and higher levels of stress.

Aging adults thrive longer and better with more self-compassion:

This study shows that adults with higher self-compassion scores better handle the challenges of getting older. Self-compassionate people had fewer emotional problems, greater life satisfaction, and felt that they were ageing more successfully.

And self-compassion helps people deal with the innate suffering of life, pain, trauma, and loss. Self-compassion is a core ingredient in post-traumatic growth, where people who experience trauma actually thrive and grow. It also allows us to maintain a “growth mindset” which keeps us open to progressing, learning, and asking for help.

Self-compassion is a teachable skill and you can begin growing this skillset right now.

3 ways to grow self-compassion

  1. Permission to be Human: Notice when you are not being nice to yourself. When you find yourself beating yourself up, remember that you’re human and all humans make mistakes and fail. The trick is to keep going and love yourself through the failure.
  2. Bring self-kindness to your thoughts as if you were talking to your very best friend. How would you talk to her in the same situation? Imagine you’re talking to her, rather than yourself. Many of us are more likely to feel authentic compassion for a loved one.
  3. Yet: This little 3-letter word is the most useful way to reframe your thoughts in a moment. When you hear your thoughts making negative declarations, just add YET to the end of the sentence, like a positive psychology fortune cookie. This kind of thinking puts you into growth mindset right away…try it!

“I haven’t lost the weight…YET.”

“I don’t know how to cook kale…YET.”

“I don’t have the partner of my dreams…YET.”

Remember: Mr. Miyagi’s great line: “First must stand. Then learn fly. Nature’s rule, Daniel-san. Not mine.”

It’s important to know that self-compassion is not just some mantra-quoting positive thinking trip. Self-compassion is a reality check: get real with yourself about the situation and your responsibility for your mindset. If you truly desire to create lasting change in your life, body, and health, a compassionate, growth mindset is truly important.

And in the end, the self-worth you develop as a result of self-compassion is more authentic and long-lasting than the fleeting, judgmental variety we touch with self-esteem.

Don’t forget: seemingly tiny, ill-prepared Daniel Larusso won in the end. He had a Mr. Miyagi at his side, whispering compassionate lessons along the way. Now you can, too.

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