I’m going to mess up. 😳⠀
I’m so stupid. 😩⠀
I’m a failure. 😖⠀
I did well that time, but anyone could have. 🙄⠀
Does this kind of self-talk sound familiar?
In a world where we expect so much from ourselves, it’s easy to fall into a trap of not feeling good enough. The way we talk to ourselves when we fail to meet our or someone else’s expectations is important. In these situations, it makes a huge difference whether we provide some comfort, kindness, and encouragement to ourselves, or we turn to self-criticism. Unfortunately, too often, we choose the latter.
Where Does All This Self-Criticism Come From?
Self-criticism is an inner voice that takes a derogative stance when we don’t meet our expectations. It includes negative judgments of your abilities, physical appearance, intelligence, behaviour, even thoughts and feelings.
Rigidly demanding parents, teachers, culture or religion, unhealthy relationships, or friendships that undermined our confidence can all be the root of our self-criticism.
When we are young, we soak everything from our environment like a sponge; we learn about the world, about ourselves and other people from everything we see or hear. The messages important people in our lives send are crucial in shaping what we will believe and how we will behave. For example, if your parents had incredibly high expectations and harshly criticized you for every small mistake, their words may become an integral part of your inner voice, translated into self-judgment. They probably had good intentions – they wanted you to build working habits, to do well in school, to strive for achievement, and minimize mistakes, because they believed this would help you succeed in life and be happy.
This kind of self-talk was probably helpful to you at some point – in order to avoid punishment (both external, such as, for example, being forbidden to go out or watch TV for a month, and internal, which is more powerful – experiencing guilt and shame from failing to meet someone’s expectations), you did well, you achieved great things, and you derived a sense of pleasure from that.
So, not only that self-criticism became an integral part of how you talk to yourself earlier in life, but it’s also kept and strengthened because you may believe it’s a useful strategy. However, as you may realize now as an adult, although self-criticism may seem like it can serve certain functions, it can be psychologically devastating.
How To Tame Your Inner Critic (And Why It’s So Important)
Self-criticism is like living with a bully. That scolding voice that’s giving you a hard time over small things, always looking over your shoulder and keeping inventory of your mistakes, can seriously hold you back in reaching your goals and undermine how you feel about yourself. Self-criticism brings an overriding sense of not being good enough, can keep us from thinking realistically and from being present in our lives, and can contribute to feeling anxious or depressed.
By criticizing ourselves, we focus on our (many times non-existent, or at least exaggerated) weaknesses, or think irrationally. This moves us away from constructive evaluation and inhibits our capacity to be fully present and rationally and actively engage in our lives. Instead, we get so preoccupied with shame, guilt, and frustration that we may make even more mistakes and feel awful about ourselves.
An important thing is – you don’t have to be the victim of your harsh inner voice. Your thoughts have a powerful impact on how you feel and behave.
So how to be more friendly toward yourself when times are challenging? Here a few tips and techniques.
1. Actively notice and challenge your inner critic
Sometimes, the little voice that puts us down is so embedded in our daily inner monologue that we don’t even notice how harsh it is. What we can do is to pay attention to what the voice is saying but not giving it the power over us. We can commit to notice it and treat it as someone who is unnecessarily rude or annoying, and actively stand up for ourselves, showing it how to be more kind.
Conquering that unrealistic, overexaggerating, harsh inner talk and replacing it with a soothing voice that is not only gentler and kinder, but also more realistic, is possible and more than beneficial. But it’s not easy. Proactively changing the way you talk to yourself may not feel natural immediately. And it’s okay – you are used to one way of thinking and it takes time to rewire your brain and create new pathways. The key is to catch yourself in those unrealistic and extreme statements and not let yourself get away with them.
You’re not good enough. – I don’t need to be perfect to be enough and loveable.
You’re so dumb – Whoops, I made a mistake. Let’s see how I can do better next time.
No one likes you – I don’t need to please everyone all of the time.
You will never make it. – This is really hard, but I believe in myself.
You never get anything right. – I haven’t figured it out yet. Learning is part of the process.
2. Develop a compassionate relationship with yourself
Self-compassion is a way of treating yourself with acceptance and understanding whether or not you behave intelligently, competently, or correctly. It’s having a friendly attitude and sending a message to ourselves: “I see you with your strengths and flaws and it’s okay, I accept the whole of you”.
This is a new concept for many people; it’s different from what we are used to. Thus, there are some misconceptions about it. Some people are afraid that, by being kind to themselves and refusing to engage in self-criticism, they will become lazy or self-indulgent. Others see it as a weakness, something that will stay in the way of their progress. We debunked some of these myths HERE, and provided some tips for practicing self-compassion, so you might want to take a look.
Like a good coach, self-compassion motivates us through love, kindness, and support. This helps us focus less on dwelling on our mistakes, and more on the present moment and moving forward. It is the opposite of self-criticism, which induces guilt and shame. On the surface, self-criticism can seem like it helps to motivate us to change, but in reality, it’s an inefficient motivator. First, because there is a high price to pay for it. And second, because self-criticism might keep us where we are for longer because we may be reluctant to admit our shortcomings, afraid of the overwhelming feeling of not being good enough if we do. In contrast, self-compassion provides us with emotional safety to see ourselves realistically and, from there, acknowledge our mistakes and try to do better.
3. What would you tell to your best friend?
Would you talk to your good friend the way you talk to yourself? When times are challenging and we feel bad, when we are dealing with failure or loss, the last thing we need is to be criticized. Instead, we need someone to help us see things from a realistic perspective and offer support, guidance, and reassurance.
You can be that friend to yourself. Thus, acknowledge your good qualities and abilities, make an effort to appreciate your uniqueness more, and offer caring and gentle words to yourself.
RAIN Technique for Dealing With Difficult Emotions
Sometimes, shame and guilt that come from self-criticism in situations when we make a mistake or fail at something, can be overwhelming for us. So overwhelming, that it becomes difficult to concentrate on anything else, or move away from self-loathing and self-judgment. What we need the most in these situations is something to help us ease the emotional chaos first, and then slowly start overcoming these intense feelings.
In these moments, the RAIN technique can be helpful. It’s a mindfulness technique used to soften and de-channel negative thoughts and provide a soothing balm for emotional pain. It can help you be your best friend instead of your own worst critic.
Take a step back and observe your thoughts and feelings. Be honest and acknowledge what you are feeling without trying to sweep it under the rug. Naming can also help, for example: “I feel worried right now” or “I feel so embarrassed for asking that question”.
“How am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body?”
Step 2: ALLOW life to be just as it is
Accept that those thoughts and feelings are there, as part of your reality. No denial, no trying to remove or change them, no mental resistance. Just simply let them be there. This doesn’t mean you like them; it just means you are brave enough to face the reality within you.
“These thoughts and feelings are here. I can accept that, even if I don’t like it.”
Step 3: INVESTIGATE with kindness
Like a curious scientist, try to approach your state with interest and without judgment. You can investigate possible reasons you may be feeling this way, or ask if these feelings and thoughts are useful or in line with reality. Simply pause to ask questions so you can better understand what is happening.⠀
○ When did this feeling start?⠀
○ What triggered it?⠀
○ Have I felt this way before?⠀
○ What is this feeling trying to tell me?⠀
○ How realistic is my thinking?⠀
○ Is it helpful?⠀
○ What do I need right now?⠀
○ What can I do to support myself?
When you have an intense emotion, it can feel like it is the only part of you that matters at that moment. But you are not your thoughts and emotions. They come and go, and you can watch them like clouds flowing by. You are YOU, unique and complex, and this is just one of the countless experiences you had and will have.
You can use this technique to ground yourself and not feel consumed by negativity when everything seems just too much. However, we are all different which means that the same things don’t work for everyone or in every situation.
How do you deal with self-criticism? Will you apply some of these tips to your daily life? Let us know how it goes!
And be free to share this blog post with your friends and family on social media.
Aronfreed, J. (1964). The origin of self-criticism. Psychological Review, 71(3), 193.
Neff, K & Germer, C. (2019) Kind to me. Excerpt in Mindful, 6 (6).
Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self–criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826-840.
Brach, T. Working With Difficulties: The Blessings of RAIN. Tara Brach. https://www.tarabrach.com/articles-interviews/rain-workingwithdifficulties/
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” – Jack Kornfield
The majority of us are eager to offer kindness and compassion to other people, and value when we receive them from others. However, when it comes to giving these same things to ourselves in the moment of suffering, we are more reluctant. Does being kind to myself means I’m self-indulgent? Selfish? Weak? Not only that, but when we fail to live up to our expectations, we often tend to let our inner critic become loud and take over, dismissing the value of kindness directed to ourselves. But what if there is a better way?
3 Elements Of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is a way of treating yourself – in a supportive way, with understanding, and acceptance. It’s having a friendly, caring, comforting attitude toward ourselves, like a good coach that motivates through support and understanding instead of through harsh criticism.
The concept has been around for a while, but Dr. Kristin Neff was the first one to operationally define it, measure it, and popularize it. She proposes there are three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness – Having an understanding, comforting, and caring attitude toward ourselves instead of using harsh criticism.
- Common humanity – Recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and experience pain at times, and that we are not alone in our experience.
- Mindfulness – Being with what is in the present moment. To be self-compassionate, we need to acknowledge what we feel and make room for it.
Self-compassion is a practice of being kind and loving toward ourselves, whether or not we behave intelligently, correctly, or competently, and whether or not others approve or respect us. It can increase our well-being tremendously, from feeling happier to coping with difficulties more successfully.
Self-compassion is very different from self-esteem. For a long time, self-esteem has been considered a foundation of mental health and the level of happiness. However, more and more researchers suggest that the concept of self-esteem is flawed and can have negative consequences, and that self-compassion might be a better, healthier alternative. We talked about it HERE.
Why Should You Cultivate Self-Compassion?
Studies show that practicing self-compassion releases feel-good hormones in our brain – oxytocin and serotonin – while also reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Long-term, self-compassion sets the stage for better mental health and relationships. It turns out that individuals who treat themselves with compassion and kindness tend to have:
- greater happiness
- greater life satisfaction
- increased motivation
- better physical health
- increased quality of their relationships
- less anxiety and depression
- higher levels of resilience that helps them better cope with stressful events
Practicing self-compassion can help us feel better in times of suffering, but it’s important to note that it’s not always the case. It is not a recipe for happiness or a tool to make the pain go away. Self-compassion is a way of treating ourselves while feeling pain. It helps us to not push ourselves to an even darker place with criticism and self-contempt.
Myths And Truths About Self-Compassion
In our culture that highly values strength and stoicism, there are sometimes some misconceptions surrounding self-compassion. Knowing what self-compassion is not and debunking some myths about it can help us feel more empowered to practice it.
Myth 1: Self-compassion means weakness
✔️ Truth: Self-compassion, research shows, is one of the most powerful sources of resilience, helping people overcome difficulties and thrive. Additionally, it doesn’t focus on “poor me” attitude, but exactly the opposite – recognizing that “things can be hard for everyone, including me”.
Myth 2: Self-compassion serves as an excuse for bad behaviour
✔️ Truth: Self-compassion provides emotional safety to see ourselves for who we really are and, from there, take responsibility for our actions. When we know that we are imperfect humans, it is less likely that we will feel the need to find excuses for our behaviour and blame someone else for our mistakes.
Myth 3: Self-compassion is narcissistic
✔️ Truth: Self-compassion, opposed to self-esteem, doesn’t encourage us to see ourselves as better than others in order to hold ourselves in high regard. Instead, it is a way of relating to our experience in a kind, accepting way and acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection.
Myth 4: Self-compassion will undermine my motivation to do better
✔️ Truth: Actually, research shows that being hard on ourselves is a serious motivation-killer. It can draw us back because, if harsh criticism is how we treat ourselves, we know that failure comes with very unpleasant emotional consequences. In contrast, self-compassion can be a motivating force that moves us forward because it provides emotional safety for making mistakes and, further, learning from them.
Myth 5: Self-compassion is just self-indulgence
✔️ Truth: There is a big difference between giving ourselves temporary pleasures and making choices that lead to long-term wellbeing. With self-indulgent behaviour, we try to make ourselves feel better instantly, even if those actions are not beneficial for us in the long term. On the other hand, as mentioned before, self-compassion is not a tool to take away the discomfort; it focuses on our long-term wellbeing, even if it means a certain amount of displeasure in the present moment. But it also provides comfort and emotional safety needed while going through that unpleasantness.
How To Be More Self-Compassionate?
Self-compassion is not always easy to do. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, especially to those who didn’t have caring or particularly supportive figures in their lives. For many, it is a completely new way of relating to themselves. But we can allow ourselves to slowly learn how to do it, one self-compassionate act at a time, step by step.
Here are 5 practices that can bring us closer to being more self-compassionate:
RE-EVALUATE YOUR SELF-TALK
Are you your own worst critic? When you make a mistake, do you blame yourself or put yourself down? Is it how you would talk to your best friend? It’s important to notice our self-talk throughout the day and make a transition from negative self-talk to more kind and empowering way of treating ourselves.
STOP THE COMPARISON GAME
Social comparison is a strong weapon against our happiness. Oftentimes, we tend to compare someone’s best with our average, or even our worst moments which, on top of being pointless, is a recipe for feeling bad about ourselves. Instead, realize we are all different, not only in our traits and abilities, but also in our history and life circumstances.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO MAKE MISTAKES
Encouraging yourself to do your best is not the same as forcing yourself you absolutely must do your best. Allow yourself to make mistakes and forgive yourself for them. This is particularly difficult for some people because they derive a sense of self-worth from performing well, or from perfection. However, you are worthy of love because of who you are, not because of being “flawless”.
Mindfulness and self-compassion go amazingly well together. Noticing what is happening right now, without labelling and with acceptance, is the first step toward allowing yourself to feel how you feel with no judgment. From there, it becomes much easier to manage your emotions and thoughts.
The relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you will ever have. You can’t run away from your own company, so it’s crucial to nurture it. Get to know yourself, your needs, interests, and curiosities, and don’t judge yourself for having them. Instead, allow yourself to schedule some quality “me” time every so often and have a fun or nurturing date with yourself.
Self-compassion is all about giving ourselves room to be human – imperfect and unique, creative and capable of great things at times, flawed and sensitive at other. It teaches us to, though all those ups and downs, unconditionally accept ourselves, and realize that we are connected with others in our imperfections.
How do you practice self-compassion?
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.
Cousineau, T. (2018). The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World. New Harbinger Publications.
Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of research in personality, 41(4), 908-916.
Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality, 41(1), 139-154.
Most of us want to be liked by other people. It feels great to know that others think good of us. However, when we believe that being liked depends on how much stuff we do for other people and how helpful we are, that’s when the problems arise. People-pleasers know this issue too well – the inability to say no.
Helping others can be really fulfilling, but if you do it at the expense of yourself, out of fear or anxiety, it becomes an unhealthy pattern of behaviour that can suck all your energy and negatively impact your relationships. You spend so much time on what you think you need to do that there is almost zero time left for what you actually want to do. In the end, you feel exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, and even resentful.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Learning how to say no and not feel awful after is absolutely possible. In fact, knowing how to set boundaries is one of the most important things in sustaining healthy relationships with others and yourself.
Why Saying NO Is So Difficult?
In general, as children, we learn that saying no is inappropriate and rude. If you said no to your parents’, cousins’, or teachers’ requests, you’ve probably been told off for it. Over time, you associated saying yes to requests with getting approval and saying no with criticism. On top of that, early relationships maybe additionally influenced your “people-pleasing” patterns of behaviour.
You may have been raised to be a sweetheart who always took care of other children, especially if you were the oldest child in the family. An influence like this can lead to the formation of beliefs such as: “I am only lovable if I’m accommodating and helpful”. Or maybe you come from a family where providing emotional support was conditional and inconsistent. Thus, in the attempt to secure love from important adults, it’s possible you developed the underlying belief: “If I don’t do everything to make others happy, they might leave or stop caring for me”. Inability to say no can also stem from early experiences with highly-critical parents who severely punished their children, even for small mistakes. Such experiences can lead to beliefs such as: “If I don’t do everything right, I will disappoint others or be punished”.
Whatever the case is, your self-worth may have come to depend on things you do for others. This is a tricky thing because it forms a vicious circle with no satisfying solution. On the one hand, being unable to say NO can make you stressed, exhausted, and resentful toward others. On the other hand, saying NO might be a threat for your self-image and result in you questioning your decision, feeling bad about yourself, or worrying others will get hurt, angry, or disappointed at you. Either way, with this kind of pattern, you can’t win.
But there is a way to actually win, and that is – change the pattern. Here are some steps you can take to help you say no effectively and create space for a more intentional yes.
Step 1: Get To Know Your Priorities
If you don’t know what you want, it’s a high chance you don’t know what you don’t want. Identify what is important to you, and acknowledge what is not. We all have limited energy and time; decide where you want to direct those, and where you definitely don’t. Before you say no, you have to be clear that you want to say no.
There are, of course, things that need to be done, even if we don’t like it, like finishing that important but boring report at work. But there are also things that you are not obliged to do, like spending another two hours at work helping your colleague finish their task while you really wanted to spend that time at the movies with your significant one.
You can’t be all things to all people. Choose what and who the priority is, and invest your limited time and energy there. The rest gets your resources only in case you really decide it’s worth it.
Step 2: Know What Saying NO Is And Is Not
- Saying NO means you’re rejecting a request, not the person. Make clear to yourself (and to the other person) that you’re not rejecting them as a whole person; you’re just turning down their invitation. People will usually understand that it is your right to say no, just as it is their right to ask for the favor, and that your no doesn’t mean “I don’t like you” but simply: “Sorry, my plate is full/my priorities are elsewhere”.
- Saying NO doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Just because you say no to sacrificing your time and comfort to accommodate others doesn’t mean you’re unlikable, rude, or selfish. It means you’re thinking long term and saying no is a preventative act against self-loathing and resentment in the future.
- Saying NO is not a missed opportunity but a trade-off. Some people hate to say no because they feel like they’re missing out the opportunity. However, saying yes to something unimportant often means saying no to something important. So, instead of looking at NO as a missed opportunity, you can see it as a trade-off. You’re choosing the opportunity to do something you value more than the request. It seems like a fair deal.
- Your NO might be much less threatening than it seems to you. Research from Columbia University found that, very often, people whom others see as appropriately assertive mistakenly thought others judged them as being over-assertive. This effect is called the line crossing illusion. So, if you feel you might be confrontational, there is a high chance the other party doesn’t see you that way.
- Saying NO is a form of self-care and self-respect. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first if you want to have the energy to help others.
Step 3: Learn To Tolerate The Reactions Of Others
The reality is, with some people, setting boundaries will unleash some unpleasant emotions and reactions. There is a possibility they get angry or disappointed, especially if they’re used to you being always available and accommodating. Some might even try to cross your boundaries and continue to push to change your NO into YES. However, when you know this, you can be prepared to work to firmly maintain the boundaries that you have set.
Remember that you’re an individual to yourself and that everyone is responsible for their own reactions. Sometimes, deep down, negative response and unpleasant emotions of others are simply not about you. But even if they are, don’t overgeneralize and jump to conclusions too fast. If someone is disappointed or angry, it doesn’t automatically mean they will ditch you out of their life or think you’re an awful person. It means they are disappointed or angry in that particular situation.
If someone keeps crossing your boundaries even when you communicate them clearly and gets upset because you’re not ready to sacrifice your happiness for their comfort, it may be a good idea to ask yourself is it the kind of relationship you want to nurture in the long run. In the end, you want to surround yourself with people who respect you for who you are, not only for what you do for them.
Step 4: Learn Some Practical Skills For Saying NO
Here are some tangible tips for practicing saying a polite but effective no.
✔️ Express your appreciation. More often than not, when people make a request, it’s because they trust your capabilities or they like your presence. Thus, even though you’ll refuse the invitation/request, thank them for approaching you.
✔️ Be kind but firm. Being polite doesn’t need to lead to a YES. Simply expressing your NO with a kind tone can help the other person (and you) feel better about the situation. However, some people don’t give up easily and will test your persistence. In this case, it’s important to know that nobody can “make” you change your answer with their repeated requests; the decision is completely yours. It’s your job to set boundaries. You can be as decisive as they are pushy. This is a good opportunity to practice your assertiveness.
✔️ Give some reason if you want but don’t over-apologize. Some people find it easier to say no if they give a reason for it, and that is okay. If you feel more comfortable saying: “I’m sorry, I have something else in my schedule already” instead of: “Sorry, I can’t”, that is completely fine. Just don’t lie about it and don’t make up excuses, because that will make you feel even guiltier and possibly complicate your life further. It’s important to know that you don’t need the good excuse to say no – having your priorities elsewhere is enough. Remember, you’re not asking for anyone’s permission to say no – you already have the right to it.
✔️ You can take time to think about it. Sometimes we just babble out YES and commit to something we don’t want to because we feel pressured to give the answer right away. It’s okay to take some time to think about it. That way, we give ourselves the opportunity to answer from the logical and realistic point of view instead out of anxiety and desire to please. If you’re really not sure about the request, tell the other person you’ll get back to them when you think about it. Just make sure you actually do it in a timely manner.
Saying no is a new thing for many of us, and therefore takes practice and courage. But with time, it becomes easier and brings amazing benefits. You are unique, important, and valuable even when you say no to being everything to everyone and take time for yourself. Don’t be afraid to practice it.
What are your experiences with saying no? Share it with us in the comments below! And also, share this post on social media; some people-pleasers you know might be thankful ?
Smith, M. J. (1975). When I say no, I feel guilty: how to cope–using the skills of systematic assertive therapy. Bantam.
You probably heard that self-esteem is one of the most important things for leading a productive, successful, pleasurable life. But the term is a little confusing – does it mean self-worth? Self-respect? How do you know your self-esteem is too low and how much of it is too much? What is the optimal level of self-esteem?
Cambridge English Dictionary defines self-esteem as “belief and confidence in your own ability and value”. Self-esteem is also often defined as “One’s own sense of self-worth or personal value”. What is problematic in this concept is that it refers to “worthiness” and “value” of the human being.
The Illusion of Self-Esteem
Let’s stop for a second and see what value means: “The regard that something is held to deserve”. Indirectly, the term “self-esteem”, therefore, suggests that holding ourselves in high regard is something to be deserved. It suggests that we need to have certain traits or do certain things to earn to be “worth” of respect and love. It inevitably includes self-evaluation. But here is the thing…
You are “worthy”, “valuable” and “deserving”, if you want to use these poor terms, simply because you exist, because you are alive. There is no such thing as “more valuable” or “less valuable” person. Achievements, skills, talents, or some qualities or lack of those can’t determine our human value, because our worthiness is already set simply by our existence.
It is important to note that self-esteem is a concept different from self-efficacy, which refers to how well you believe you’ll handle future actions, it represents your belief in your own abilities. Someone can be appreciated by many people, accomplish great things, be successful in several areas, and those are all amazing things that are certainly pleasant. You may achieve greater happiness or more efficiency by achieving your goals or by believing in your abilities, but that doesn’t increase your intrinsic worth, nor do your failures can lower your human value.
Chasing Self-Esteem Won’t Make You Happier – Maybe Even the Opposite
Another problem with the concept of self-esteem, other than the fact that it is based on non-existent, or at least unhealthy, premises of “worthiness” and “value”, is that it also obliquely requires comparison with other people. Evaluation can’t exist without comparison to some “standard” or some external object. Therefore, determining our own worth means we first have to compare ourselves with others. As Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) claims: “Self-esteem theoretically rests upon an often inaccurate and unstable global rating of the self in comparison to others”. This necessarily means that, to have high self-esteem, we need to feel above-average. You can easily see it in the simple fact that today, in our culture, being seen as average is considered an insult. But for every human being to be special and above average is logically impossible.
Trying to see yourself as better than others all the time is exhausting and can easily lead to self-criticism. To retain superiority, we have to meet very high standards. As soon as our feelings of superiority slip – which is inevitable because there are so many different people in this world and there is always someone better, smarter, prettier etc. – our self-esteem easily goes down.
For a long time, mental health professionals believed that high self-esteem is a predictor of greater happiness and life satisfaction. However, as much as this notion seems like common sense, research shows that there is no scientific evidence of a correlation between higher self-esteem and pleasurable living.
Another study states: “Self-esteem in the West is not based upon an unconditional appreciation of the intrinsic worth of all persons. (…) Research, in fact, demonstrates that high self-esteem displays associations with a broad range of psychosocial dysfunctions, including, for example, narcissism, poor empathy, depreciation of others, prejudice, aggression, and distorted self-knowledge”.
Okay, if not self-esteem, then what? Well, there is actually a healthier alternative to self-esteem that really predicts better mental health, greater life satisfaction, and overall happiness – self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
“Self-compassion means that the individual fully and unconditionally accepts herself whether or not she behaves intelligently, correctly, or competently and whether or not other people approve, respect or love her” (Ellis 2005, p. 38).
Self-compassion is the way of treating yourself – in a supportive and non-judgmental way, with kindness, understanding, and love. Being self-compassionate mean that you recognize previously mentioned notion about all humans having value simply by the fact they exist in this world, not by the set of traits and abilities they possess. Self-compassion encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, without forcing yourself to meet some high standards to feel that you are okay as a person. It allows you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view without evaluating or comparing yourself with others.
Why Nurturing Self-Compassion Over Building Self-Esteem?
Opposite to high self-esteem, studies haven’t found any negative effects of self-compassion yet. In fact, self-compassion predicts better psychosocial adjustment and resilience while avoiding the liabilities associated with high self-esteem.
Self-compassion gives us a more stable sense of self-love because it comes from within. On the other hand, as it’s based on comparison with others, self-esteem is unstable because it depends on external circumstances. This often results in having a more negative emotional reaction or protecting behaviours when people evaluate us negatively or even neutrally because we are trying to protect our self-esteem from collapsing. With self-compassion, in contrast, we don’t need to defend or protect ourselves from negative feedback, because we know that it won’t affect how we see ourselves as a person.
Self-compassion provides emotional safety to see ourselves as we really are. Instead of labelling ourselves as good or bad, as of high-value or worthless, we should accept our flaws with an open heart, take responsibility for our behaviour and choices, and still be kind to ourselves. It’s okay that we are imperfect humans leading imperfect lives, and we don’t need to strive to be “better” than others to love ourselves or hold ourselves in high regard.