Since early childhood, you’ve probably heard all about the importance of “self esteem." Believing in yourself is popularly considered a crucial element to success in all forms — however, one psychologist claims that the pursuit of self esteem can create unfair pressures and can reinforce the development of narcissistic tendencies. Instead, psychology professor Kristin Neff of the University of Texas tells The Atlantic that she’d sooner see her patients investing their energy in “self compassion," treating themselves with the same open-hearted and generous spirit that they offer to their friends and loved ones.
Read on for more information on the issues behind “self esteem” and why “self compassion” might be a more realistic (and, ultimately, more beneficial) goal.
Why is “self esteem” a problematic focus?
Neff argues that the Western concept of self esteem relies on comparing oneself constantly to others, creating a dangerous pattern of thought that can derail personal growth and progress. Also, she explains that focusing solely on your own idea of self worth can lead you to become a narcissist.
“When you take it too seriously, you become a narcissist. And we know narcissists tend to have problems with relationships, they push people away, so there are definitely maladaptive consequences to narcissism. The other thing is, it's pretty common, at least in American society, that in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average. If someone said, "Oh, your performance was average," you would feel hurt by that, almost insulted. When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most,” Neff told The Atlantic.
What’s the difference between “self esteem” and “self compassion”?
Instead of the slippery (and arguably unattainable) idea of “self esteem”- which is ultimately contingent on outside approval- Neff champions the notion of “self compassion”. In the most basic terms, Neff describes “self compassion” as “treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones.”
This seems like an easy goal to pursue, but Neff warns that it takes some time to build up your own ability to forgive your mistakes and push through your more unsuccessful efforts. “Self-compassion also entails a mindfulness. In order to have self-compassion, we have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don't want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don't want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving,” she said.
Neff believes that self compassion can help individuals contextualize and cope with challenges in many aspects of their lives, from career difficulties to relationship issues to body image struggles.