The other night I went to my first Compassionate Practice group meeting. Before that night I never made a distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem; I had an inkling that they were profoundly different, I just didn’t know how.
On the surface the two concepts seem similar, but differ in a few primarily different ways.
Self-esteem is often a measurement (self-evaluation) of our self-worth; our perceived value; and on a scale of 1 to 10, how much we like ourselves. They call it self-esteem “building” for a reason; it is a goal or expectation you or others place on yourself that you have to live up to. This is not all bad. We need self-esteem in order to function in society or get out of bad situations (e.g., abusive relationships), but it is not the quintessential element in dealing with personal suffering that it is sometimes made out to be. We are always seeking help for better self-esteem and leaving self-compassion in the dust.
In high school I remember reading articles about how teenage girls who play organized team sports have higher self-esteem and thinking, “Oh, great, what about those of us who suck at sports?” I tried fitting in by playing sports—it did nothing to bolster my self-esteem; indeed, it made it worse. Therein lies another problem with self-esteem, it is determined by your competency in areas society currently deems important. (1)
Inherent in the ideal of high self-esteem is a value of “I am special,” “above average” or “better than” in comparison to others. Heaven forbid you are mediocre or average or boring (and who decides this anyway?). High self-esteem as a goal is flawed because it is conditional—it fluctuates depending on how you compare to others (you can’t be “above average” all the time) and your latest success or failure (humans inevitable fail sometimes). Self-esteem can be isolating if it hides or ignores personal flaws from yourself and others while only showcasing that which you want to highlight. If you can’t accept or see your personal shortcomings, how can you be compassionate toward the shortcomings of others? At the other end of self-esteem is self-criticism and you may find yourself constantly fighting between the two.
Self-compassion is available to everyone; it is not dependent on external circumstances, and therefore remains steady through all of life’s ups and downs. The practice of self-compassion is based on kindness and acceptance for yourself and our shared humanity. We are all deserving of compassion and have the ability to be compassionate to others regardless of character traits, accomplishments and abilities. No one’s suffering is either greater or lesser than, more important or less important than anyone else’s. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a burger flipper, we all suffer, and having compassion for yourself teaches you how to be with the suffering of others. It is not a comparison or a race in the marathon of self-improvement, because you are okay, right now, just as you are. Self-compassion removes all the veils that hide the parts of yourself that you do not like, allowing for clearer, big picture-thinking and the recognition that you are only human.
Self-compassion is not in lieu of kind self-discipline and loving self-care. In other words, it is not an excuse for short-sighted self-indulgence or “giving up.” Mindfulness practiceis an important part of self-compassion, giving you the ability to take a balanced and rational approach to your suffering, neither suppressing it nor exaggerating it. With awareness you can observe your negative emotions and thoughts. Drowning yourself in a tub of ice cream after a hard day is not self-compassion—it is avoidance regardless how you wrap it up in compassionate language (“I had a really tough day today; I’m going to allow myself to veg out on the
couch all night with a tub of ice cream. I deserve it.) These kinds of self-indulgences may happen from time to time, but it’s important to recognize them for what they are and not confuse them with acts of self-compassion (and maybe laugh at yourself, too).
Studies have shown that self-compassion in comparison to self-esteem, develops “greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.” (2)
Imperfection can be a gift—if you make the choice to see it that way. So have some compassion for yourself and others. We all share in the human condition—we all have shortcomings, failures, mistakes, and “flaws.” So develop a sense of wonder and curiosity (and humor) and marvel at this thing called life!
Grace Bezanson lives and creates nourishment in her handmade home in beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada. She blogs about yoga, nature, and finding enchantment in everyday life at gracefulsimiplicity.com.