Self-Esteem is Cool. Self-Compassion is Cooler.


Self-Esteem is a very popular term. An entire industry of new age self-help marketing thrives on promoting self-esteem. Even in the clinical world, self-esteem is a measurable criteria in diagnosis. Low self-esteem indicates a problem; high self-esteem can indicate a problem. If there has been notably low self-esteem, a mark of increased self-esteem is progress. Compassion is also a buzzword, for the new age spiritual world. Finding compassion, having compassion, being compassionate, are all becoming virtues of a fulfilling and successful life. Esteem has become something you do for yourself while compassion is something you do for others. Should that necessarily be the case?

Defining compassion and esteem reveals a stark contrast. Esteem means “respect and admiration”; self-esteem, therefore, means respect and admiration of the self. Compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”. It’s easy to see why self-esteem might be the better sell.

What if the two terms were switched around? Imagine a world where we emphasized practicing esteem toward others and building compassion toward ourselves. Is it so topsy turvy? In a recent interview with The Atlantic, psychology professor Kristin Neff revealed that she certainly does not think so. In fact, she argues that self-compassion is more productive than self-esteem.

Self-esteem, she points out, hinges on three major factors, all of which point toward it’s point of evaluation: success. First, is approval. Validation and approval from the outside world are important to boost esteem. Mostly, these ratings are inauthentic. Though we seek approval from people we know, those people don’t likely know us well at all. Second, is how we believe we appear to others, for example, attractiveness. Third, is achievement. If we were to have nothing, be nothing, and do nothing, would we be deserving of that coveted self-esteem? Success is something to be admired. In Neff’s description of self-esteem, the esteem has relatively little to do with the actual self, but instead largely to do with how the self as seen by other people. Self-esteem is, among other things, conditional.

Compassion is meant to be unconditional. Having concern for someone’s misfortunes should be an inexhaustible character trait of all humanity. Self-compassion, “means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about—your good friends, your loved ones”, states Neff. Rather than be based in comparison, self-compassion is rooted in kindness, mindfulness, and humanity. In order to be self-compassionate, you have to be aware of your suffering and understand that humans suffer. It is okay to have misfortunes in life. With kindness, you can embrace all things that occur, without letting them define who you are or how you feel as a person.


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