Growing up in the individualist society of the United States I took for granted the importance of good self-esteem. Now I’m seeing that there may be other, more important factors in having a positive relationship with myself.
Self esteem means positive self image in comparison to others. Whatever happened to being okay with oneself without having to put others down in order to do so?
Evaluating oneself as “good” and others on a spectrum from “better than me” to “bad” requires constant judgement and critique. A simplified version of good self esteem is being proud of oneself and believing that one has unique talents and abilities that make them a good person. Even if a person believes themselves to be “good” and has positive self esteem most of the time, any failure or setback can impact this self image harshly.
There has also been a huge focus on being special and talented and successful or at least having these attributes as a goal of some kind. While fulfilling one’s potential is great, we can’t all be special and the best or that would become the new average.
So what are other alternatives? Some ideas can be garnered from a class at BC this quarter called Positive Psychology taught by Tabitha Kirkland. In addition to many other concepts surrounding ideal human functioning, she recently shared an idea introduced by Kristin Neff, who has dedicated her career to the idea of self-compassion and on contrasting this with self-esteem.
Self-compassion focuses on being as kind to oneself as one would be to a friend.Many people often speak to themselves harshly. Someone will do poorly on a test and think “I’m such an idiot, why didn’t I study more, I’m so awful” or walk around thinking that they are ugly, uncool or not intelligent. These thoughts express things that they would most likely never say to another person, because they know it would hurt them. Each person is the one human being that they will spend the most time with in this life. In seeking a life partner, qualities such as support, understanding and unconditional love are usually pretty high on the priority list. So in one’s life partnership with theirself, it makes no sense to be constantly critical and unforgiving.
Self-compassion as Neff describes it has the same three stages as compassion in general. Step one in being compassionate is mindfulness. This means noticing and acknowledging the current reality without judgement. This could be as simple as thinking “I just did really bad on this test and I’m feeling really upset about it.” Many people skip straight from this step to beating themselves up, but this misses being mindful completely.
The second step is to be kind. This can mean simply being nice to yourself. Rather than scolding harshly as if mimicking an angry internal parent, take a breath and think thoughts that could be said to a friend in the same position. Offer comfort, self care and kindness.
The third step is referred to as common humanity and is a reminder that whatever one feels, others have felt before. However overwhelming the obstacle may appear there is always someone who has felt anguish or been ready to give up. This can help life’s challenges become less overwhelming.
The Dalai Lama has written and spoken at length on the subject of compassion and love and on the common humanity that everyone shares. In his essay “Compassion and the Individual,” the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso discusses the need of every human for love and of the oneness of humanity and the way in which personal happiness and self love benefit humanity as a whole.
While Neff’s teachings may align with many Buddhist beliefs, her ideas are deeply rooted in psychological study and theory.
Neff’s concepts of self compassion can be linked to Carl Rogers’ theories of humanistic psychology in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He focused on the ways that having unconditional positive regard can help people be their best selves. If someone knows that they will be loveable no matter whether they succeed or fail they are more likely to take risks that can result in beneficial outcomes.
Having self compassion helps a person to focus on their goals in a way that is kind to themselves and leaves room for the mistakes that are inherent to any achievement. Having compassion and love for oneself also makes it easier to be empathetic and kind towards others because there is no fear of their judgements.