I wasted many years feeling crappy about myself. I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and hate what you see; take inventory of your life and not like the path you’re on. The antidote, everyone said, was self-esteem. I needed some. Well, let’s get real, not just some, a lot. People often prescribe a self-esteem booster, if you will, to people who are feeling down about themselves. People who are getting trapped in the comparison cycle and allowing that entrapment to pull them down to where they feel inferior in many, maybe all ways. In fact psychologists for years believed high self-esteem as indicative of mental health.
What if, though, building self-esteem isn’t the answer? Or, at least not the whole answer. What if developing self-compassion is?
Some, including leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph. D, say building and practicing self-compassion is a stronger choice compared to self-esteem. Because self-esteem lays traps for overcorrection, such as varying degrees of narcism. Whereas self-compassion simply means being kind to yourself, giving yourself a break when you perceive imperfections.
In her TED Talk, Neff defines self-esteem as “a global evaluation of self-worth, a judgment: am I a good person or am I bad a person?”
Self-esteem asks you to compare yourself to others, rank yourself against others and encourages your need to feel above average in order to build your self-esteem. This exacerbates the comparison cycle–in schools, she said, it’s contributing to the bullying epidemic.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about embracing your flaws, and your similarities to others. In her talk, Neff defines self-compassion as having three components: practicing self-kindness, observing common humanity, and mindfulness or being present.
Research is showing that self-compassion offers the same benefits of self-esteem: less anxiety, less depression, less perfectionism, and greater happiness and joy. And it delivers these benefits without the negative side-effects of self-esteem.
First, start by watching the words you use with yourself. I’m a fan of the Procabulary course, which focuses on building positive language use in the home, the office, and in the head.
The words you use when speaking to yourself shape how you think about yourself, the value you assign yourself, and the degree to which you will work to better yourself. As a final thought on this point, remember that abracadabra is Aramaic for “with my words, I create.” What you say and what you think, is what you will get.
Second, and related, start treating yourself the way you would treat a close friend. Would you criticize him or her the way you criticize yourself? Would you hold him or her to impossible standards? Probably not.
Third, meditate. Meditation was really hard for me for a long time. Sometimes still is. (Probably because I thought I needed to be perfect at it…) What has helped is the Daily Calm app, and frankly committing to the paid version because it made me literally invest in practicing.
Also helpful was shifting my mindset from thinking of meditation as something to do and be good at, to a practice I can develop over time.
Finally, find a phrase/mantra that rings true for you. One that will bring you back to reality and snap you out of the comparison cycle. For me, my root cause is anxiety. The mantra that has helped me for years is, “whatever happens, I’ll handle it.” Find one that works for you or make one up! Own the phrase. Maybe make it your phone screensaver/wallpaper. Hang it for you to see throughout the day.