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Self-Kindness: A Healthier Alternative to Self-Esteem?

By on October 15, 2010 – 12:05 pm  35 Comments

Steve Safigan, MAPP '09, is a practicing life coach (CPCC). He is president of Foundations Seminars and presents personal growth seminars specializing in positive interventions for healthy adults looking for more happiness, meaning, and connection in their own lives. Full bio.

Steve writes on the 4th of the month, and his articles are here.



For decades, high self-esteem has been nearly synonymous with positive mental health. Governments, teachers, and parents have spent millions of dollars and countless hours nurturing self-esteem in our children. Self-esteem is associated with less depression and anxiety, and with greater happiness and life satisfaction. With so much in favor of high self-esteem, what’s not to love about it? Still, many social psychologists no longer hold self-esteem in such high esteem.

The Problem with Self-Esteem

Kristin Neff

Kristin Neff

According to research by Kristin Neff and colleagues, self-esteem is associated with a steady rise in narcissism over the last 45 years. High self-esteem is associated with the need to feel superior to others in order to feel okay about oneself. Garrison Keillor speaks of the fictional Lake Wobegon, where “all of the children are above average.” High self-esteem encourages us to maintain an unrealistically high view of ourselves in comparison to others. This has a particularly devastating effect when we face failure. People with high self-esteem tend to dismiss negative feedback, trivialize their failures, and take less accountability for their own harmful actions.
 

Because people with high self-esteem must bolster their self-concept, self-esteem is also associated with a distorted self-view, self-centeredness, and a lack of concern for others. Those who threaten one’s self-concept are often met with prejudice and even violence and aggression. Indeed, counter to common wisdom, bullies tend to have high self-esteem. In short, self-esteem can create distance between us and others. Self-esteem has become so tarnished in recent years that some psychologists have attempted to define “true self-esteem” or “optimal self-esteem” as a healthy alternative to general self-esteem.

Self-Kindness: A Different Way to Relate to Self and Others

Self-kindness, also referred to as self-compassion, comes from Buddhist cultures and is less intentionally cultivated in the West. However, Christian writers such as Henri Nouwen also emphasize the value of treating oneself kindly. Social psychologists have recently sought to quantify and evaluate the role of self-kindness.

In comparison to self-esteem, self-kindness does not require that we feel superior to others. Self-kindness is not an evaluation of ourselves at all, but is an attitude we adopt toward our own failure and suffering. Researchers have identified three components to self-kindness:

Lotus

Lotus

  1. Self-compassion instead of self-judgment: People who are kind to themselves are tolerant and loving toward themselves when faced with pain or failure. Self-judging people are tough and intolerant toward themselves.
  2. Common humanity instead of isolation: Common humanity is a perspective that views our own failings and feelings of inadequacy as part of the human condition shared by nearly everyone. By contrast, people who isolate tend to feel alone in their failure.
  3. Emotional regulation instead of over-identification: People who can regulate their emotions take a balanced view and keep their emotions in perspective. They neither ignore nor ruminate on elements of their lives that they dislike. By contrast, over-identified people tend to obsess and fixate on failure and view it as evidence of personal inadequacy.

Self-kindness is a positive, proactive attitude toward oneself. It is not simply the absence of negative attitudes. For instance, the absence of self-judgment does not necessarily mean that one is compassionate toward oneself. One may not isolate during times of failure, yet also not place one’s failings in context of a common human experience.

Self-kindness as the New, Improved Self-esteem?

Neff’s research suggests that self-kindness has nearly all of the benefits of self-esteem, with fewer downsides. Unlike self-esteem, self-kindness does not promote narcissism or unhealthy comparisons with others. The practice of self-compassion has been associated with the following psychological benefits:

  • Feelings of happiness, optimism and curiosity
  • Decreased anxiety, depression, and rumination
  • Fewer feelings of failure and inferiority
  • More resilient feelings of self-worth over time
  • Less self-criticism and perfectionism
  • Stronger buffers against negative social comparison and public self-consciousness
  • Social connectedness
  • Less anger and close-mindedness
  • Emotional intelligence and wisdom
  • Greater initiative and mastery of goals

A Kind Look at Self

A Kind Look at Self

While some might be concerned that self-kindness might cause people to become unmotivated and self-indulgent, research indicates that this is not the case.
 

Self-kindness is distinct from self-pity. People who engage in self-pity generally feel disconnected from others while exaggerating their own problems. Self-kindness directs us toward the universality of our condition and allows us to adopt an objective perspective toward our own suffering. People who are kind to themselves are more able to admit mistakes, change unproductive behavior, and accept new challenges.

Self-kindness in practice

Self-kindness is comparatively easy to practice. Unlike self-esteem, it is not affected by social approval or the attainment of particular outcomes. Self-kindness does not require that we have an inflated view of ourselves, but instead allows us to accept ourselves as we are. Indeed, it is best practiced when we need a boost in our self-image, such as when we fail or are humiliated. Most of us are already good at being kind to others. Self-kindness turns this practice inward, so that we treat ourselves as kindly as we would treat a good friend. Self-kindness allows us to embrace our basic, imperfect humanity.

 


 

References

Neff, K. D. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

Neff, K. D. (2009). The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself. Human Development, 52, 211-214.

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, 908-916.

Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-Compassion Versus Global Self-Esteem: Two Different Ways of Relating to Oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), 23-50.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: How to Stop Judging Yourself and Embrace the Joy of Being Human. William Morrow.

Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True.

Nouwen, H. J. M. (2002). Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York: Crossroads Publishing.

Images
Dr Neff, from her University of Texas profile
White Lotus Flower courtesy of Matthias Ott
Woman in the Mirror courtesy of Quali-T

35 Comments »

  • oz says:

    Steve – not surprisingly I absolutely agree with you. I have some research somewhere linking self compassion to eastern mindfulness.

    How do you teach self compassion?

  • oz says:

    Steve – found the research I was talking about

    http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=852

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Neff specifically links mindfulness to self-compassion/self-kindness. It’s part of the third factor (emotional regulation). I chose to call this factor emotional regulation instead of mindfulness because I felt it would be easier to explain to people who were not familiar with the psychological construct of mindfulness.

    How do I teach self-compassion? Much like CBT: I encourage people to make it a habitual thinking pattern.

  • oz says:

    Steve – I’d be interested in specific strategies – always trying to improve my workshops

  • Steven says:

    Another Steve here! I don’t like this definition of self-esteem:

    “High self-esteem is associated with the need to feel superior to others in order to feel okay about oneself.”

    Rather I prefer to equate self-esteem with self-efficacy. People that feel they are capable to overcome challenges don’t need to boast or try to artificially boost their “superiority” when around others.

    However, kindness is also a very important aspect of happiness. I emphasize this in my latest article, “Practice Interconnectedness Through Empathy” which you can check out at my blog Theemotionmachine.com

  • Everyone thinks they are above average, but half of us are wrong.

    I’m currently reading “Go Put Your Strengths to Work” by Marcus Buckingham. Rather than being all about focusing on strengths and ignoring weaknesses it is about getting a better understanding of both and being able to communicate that properly and make your own unique contribution based on your strengths and weaknesses. Seems like a good tie in with what you describe here.

    Good article, thanks Steve!

  • I get a little impatient with the line about half the people being wrong about being above average. Can we line everyone in the world up on one line and point out the dividing line between above and below average? Doesn’t it matter with respect to what? The mentality of lining people up based on one or a few attributes is one of my least favorite memories of going to school.

    I know I’m way below average, for example, as a basketball player, soldier, gambler, actress, painter, and so on.

    But I’m sure there are ways I’m above average.

    So maybe Lake Wobegone is right after all, if we take a wide enough view.

    Kathryn

  • oz says:

    Steve – checked out Kristen Neffs wesbite. I says the following:

    During Kristin’s last year of graduate school she became interested in Buddhism, and has been practicing meditation in the Insight Meditation tradition since 1997. While doing her post-doctoral work with Susan Harter, she decided to conduct research on self-compassion – a central construct in Buddhist psychology and one that had not yet been examined empirically

    I wonder if the main intervention is meditation

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Correct, self-compassion comes from Buddhist psychology. Neff seems to come from this perspective. So meditation, particularly loving-kindness meditation, I believe could be a positive intervention for self-compassion.

    I also wanted the article to reflect a more general mindset for us Westerners that we can cultivate self-kindness without *necessarily* engaging in Eastern practices. For instance, Neff lists mindfulness as one of the three subfactors of self-compassion, so I looked at the questions for the mindfulness subscale of the self-compassion scale. They are:

    “When something upsets me I try to keep my emotions in balance.”
    “When I’m feeling down I try to approach my feelings with curiosity & openness.”
    “When something painful happens I try to take a balanced view of the situation.”
    “When I fail at something important to me I try to keep things in perspective.”

    To me, these questions relate to emotional regulation (a part of emotional intelligence) as much as to mindfulness. So it really depends on what you think Neff is really measuring here. Still, I think meditation would be an excellent positive intervention for self-compassion. I wonder if any studies bear this out?

  • oz says:

    steve – here is one piece of research linking mindfulness to self compassion

    http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=852

  • Coert Visser says:

    Dear Steve, interesting. Self-Kindness indeed seems like a healthier alternative to self-esteem? I think it would be a good thing if we’d generally approach ourselves with the same kindess (and MILDNESS) which with we approach our clients. I’d be interested to see some research into self kindness.

  • Hi Steve,
    Great, thought-provoking article. I think practicing self-kindness can have a dramatic effect on resilience. Especially women who may ruminate more, emotional regulation is a very interesting topic to explore. I can see how practices in self kindness combined with practices in improving self-efficacy can be useful in organizations too. One allows people to feel okay about mistakes while the other may build toward higher level goals and skills. Thank again for an interesting read!
    Louisa

  • Paul Ray says:

    Mr. Safigan,

    After reading this article, I can honestly say the answer is no. The negative view toward “self esteem” is unreasonable and it cannot be replaced by self-kindness. Don’t you think the psyche needs something deeper than just an attitude of inner kindness and the ability to forgive oneself for mistakes or failures? I believe that people need to develop a personal sense of validation which comes from comparative analysis of self-worth, and which gradually builds our self esteem. We subconsciously evaluate how our actions and behaviors compare to others in our society. Are we comparatively smart, athletic, or good looking? Self esteem fluctuates throughout a lifetime, but a healthy level of self-esteem develops through both highs and lows, checks and balances that are gained from personal achievements, failures, pride, shame and everything in between. I do not think it is fair to directly correlate high self-esteem with Narcissism since that is a personality disorder and not normal behavior. High self-esteem is a perception of worth that is balanced in relation to others, where narcissism is unbalanced and selfish by nature. Too much praise without the right balance could fuel a narcissistic personality, but too much food without self control can lead to obesity. It is not necessary to look for a substitute for self-esteem just like it is not necessary to stop eating. Without being said, I do believe that self-kindness is a valid trait, but it lacks depth and complexity compared to self-esteem. What do you think about some of those points? Thank you for the article. Paul…

  • Elaine O'Brien says:

    Dear Steve,
    I love this piece and believe you hit on some really important points. I believe that self-kindness and self-compassion can lead to more kindness and more compassion toward others. Thank you, Elaine

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Mr. Ray, thank you for your thoughtful response to the article. Your thoughts reflect a belief in, and a search for, a definition of “true self-esteem” or “optimal self-esteem” as mentioned in the article. I support this.

    My only quibble is that the link between high self-esteem and narcissism, fair or not, is well-established. Empirical research has shown that the two are associated. A tendency toward narcissism does not equate to narcissistic personality disorder.

    Upon reflection, I may have been too hard on self-esteem. I was provocative because many are surprised to learn that there is any downside to self-esteem. You may be interested to know that researchers have found that high self-esteem is associated with high self-kindness. So we can search for how and why the two concepts support one another. It’s a rich area for research.

  • Katie Manning says:

    Hello,

    I found this article very interesting. As you mentioned in your article, everyone focuses on raising self-esteem but this does have problems. I am wondering how do you think the components of self-kindness compare with self-esteem? Is there any overlap with the elements of the two or does self-esteem hold the opposite qualities, i.e. self-judgement, isolation, and over-identification?

    Thank you,

    Katie

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Hi Katie, I did not mean to imply that self-esteem necessarily has the qualities of self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification. There probably is a lot of overlap because people with high self-kindness also tend to have high self-esteem and vice-versa.

    Your question had me taking another look at the research. The 2009 Neff and Vonk research report asserts that high self-esteem “creates interpersonal distance and separation that undermines connectedness… when compared to trait levels of self-esteem, self-compassion (self-kindness) was associated with more noncontingent (unconditional) and stable feelings of self-worth over time, while also offering stronger protection against social comparison [and] public self-consciousness.”

    Although self-esteem and self-kindness have many of the same benefits, there is a fundamental difference between what the two *are*. Self-esteem is a self-evaluation. By contrast, self-kindness is a way of treating oneself. It is not a self-evaluation. The research quoted above indicates that high self-kindness may act as a buffer when our self-esteem takes a hit, allowing us to maintain a good self-concept in the face of negative feedback.

  • oz says:

    Steve – there is another level of complexity – there is now work being done that distinguishes between implicit and explicit self esteem. Implicit self esteem seems to have more predictive validity.

  • Amanda Horne says:

    Hello Steve

    I love this article. “Common humanity instead of isolation” reminded me of Tal Ben Shahar’s ‘permission to be human’.

    You comment that you used ’emotional regulation’ instead of mindfulness. This got me thinking about my experiences of mindfulness. I find the two descriptions to be two separate ideas. In mindfulness I’m observing everything (thoughts, body, emotions) but I’m not attempting to regulate emotions, I’m just letting them be. Regulated emotions might be an outcome of mindfulness, but it’s not an action I set out to do.

    I read through your third component and replaced ‘regulate their emotions’ with mindfulness / meditation, and the explanation reads very well, I think! E.g. “People who can [practice mindfulness] take a balanced view and keep their emotions in perspective. They neither ignore nor ruminate on elements of their lives that they dislike. By contrast, over-identified people tend to obsess and fixate on failure and view it as evidence of personal inadequacy.” This works well in my opinion.

    I like how you wrote ‘they keep their emotions in perspective’ which to me is different from regulating them.

    Again, a great article, and thank you!
    Amanda

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Amanda, it’s no accident that mindfulness works as least as well as emotional regulation as a label (or in psych jargon, “construct”) for the third component. It’s what Neff herself calls this construct, what she is attempting to measure.

  • Ms. V says:

    Hello Steve,

    Recently I was notified by my daughter’s school psychologist that they were randomly selecting students to participate in a study that focused on self-esteem. Based on your article it seems that it’s best to focus more on self-kindness than self-esteem; appreciating who you are, your goals/accomplishment, etc. It seems that the difference in the two is that self-esteem focuses on boosting yourself to be a certain person, whereas self-kindness allows you to be who you are and work on being a better you. I like these ideas. My question is how do we teach our children this concept, and do you think there are strategies that schools should/could use in order to practice self-kindness? It would also be nice to know how parents could teach their children how to practice self-kindness as well….suggestions?

    Looking forward to your comments,

    Vera

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Hi Vera, according to Neff, “maternal support, harmonious family functioning and secure attachment all predicted higher levels of self-compassion among teens.” Also, “If parents are angry, cold or critical to their children, they may be colder and more critical towards themselves. If they are warm, caring and supportive, this may be reflected in children’s inner dialogs.”

    I wondered what “maternal support” meant so I pulled her research paper on the subject entitled “Self-compassion and Psychological Resilience among Adolescents and Young Adults.” It’s available for free online here:

    https://webspace.utexas.edu/neffk/pubs/Neff.03.13.09.doc

    Maternal support was measured using questions concerning supportive versus critical messages from one’s mother. Examples: “My mother tells me that I am a good person” and “My mother tells me I can’t do anything right.” I encourage you to read the full research report as there’s a lot of good information for the curious.

  • Coert Visser says:

    Dear Steve,
    As I said, I liked your article and today I wrote a post partly inspired by it: Encouraging Self-compassion. In it, I relate this topic to solution-focused guidance and complimenting.

  • Jim Rich says:

    My work in self esteem training never promoted feeling or being superior to anyone. We learned to cherish, forgive and accept our selves in my self esteem class.
    re: “Indeed, counter to common wisdom, bullies tend to have high self-esteem.” High self esteem is not healthy self esteem. It’s the opposite of low self esteem and both are not healthy at all. Wouldn’t you think that ‘common wisdom’ could see this?
    There is healthy self esteem (I like and appreciate myself) or there is unhealthy self esteem (I’m the worst or I’m the greatest). It is surprising to me how easily semantics can be used to corrupt any teaching or system that starts off so well as self esteem.
    re: “Self-esteem has become so tarnished in recent years that some psychologists have attempted to define “true self-esteem” or “optimal self-esteem” as a healthy alternative to general self-esteem.”
    And very soon these and “self-kindness” labels will be distorted and corrupted by those who fear or resent any label or concept.
    As for me, I’s sticking with “good self esteem” as an obviously healthy process.
    Jim

  • Jim, I love your comment. Very well said. The same could be said of stress, regret, anger, pessimism, and a lot of other psychological traits that sometimes seem like they are targeted for complete eradication when in fact they are important components of a flourishing life. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Holly says:

    Hello there Steve….

    First of all, I found your article very interesting. One question though, why did you only decide to compare self esteem with self kindness and not something else. I do have to say that I love the three components to self kindness. Thank you for sharing your article.

    Holly

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Hi Holly, I would like to write about other topics and compare them to self-esteem and self-kindness. For instance, self-efficacy would be interesting to explore. This time I decided to focus on self-kindness because it was a short article. Maybe a future article can address more. I’m glad you liked the article.

  • Chirs Xie says:

    That is quite true. People shoud be self-kind to themselves.

  • Nathan EFT says:

    I love this article. I have been practicing self kindness for over 9 years now, and over the past year with the help of EFT, it has been even more powerful! I am a salesman, and before meeting with a client, I do a round or two of EFT and self kindness, and no matter the outcome, I enjoy the experience every time! Thanks for writing this!

  • Ann Ritter says:

    Hi, Steve, thank you for your article. I agree wholeheartedly with viewing ourselves through the prism of self-kindness vs. self-esteem. What Amanda says re using mindfulness vs. emotional regulation as the 3rd component of SK resonates with me. ER reminds me that self-regulation is #24 on my list of character strengths, and I’m sure I’m in good company. The term ER evokes all kinds of measuring, “shoulds,” and feelings of failure which my self-esteem has to battle against. “Mindfulness” is a peaceful, neutral term and goes along with the premise of self-kindness. What’s so difficult about teaching your clients the concept of “mindfulness?”
    Thanks, your article is a paradigm shift for me.
    Ann

  • Fiona Boyd says:

    Hi Steve, you are absolutely correct. I’m not a psychologist, but rather a business person and observer of self and human kind in action and totally agree about self-esteem. Indeed your point about high self-esteem and bullies correlates with my own experience. Maybe the whole issue about self-esteem, high and low is that you’re putting your attention on something that doesn’t matter. How you feel about something is sort of irrelevant because mainly it’s gone by the time you have a feeling about it. Instead this notion of being kind to oneself, I totally get and it opens the door to being kind to others when they falter, or even when they’re revealing a new way and we’re not quite ready for it. Thanks, I really like this.

  • frank says:

    Thanks Steve for an inspiring article!

    Yes, it seems more and more people are seeing that developing the self is not beneficial, it just pushes people to become more and more alienated from society and makes harder to live happy lives. Resiliency is a key, and loving kindness towards all.

    Peace and metta,

    frank

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Kristen Neff’s new book on self-compassion is now out. I was happy to see a recommendation from Brene Brown on the back cover– another researcher and author I respect and have written about on PPND.

  • Mat Rawsthorne says:

    Great article. How does the self acceptance of failure relate to carol Dweck’s ‘growth’ mindset?

  • Steve Safigan says:

    Hey Mat, interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is that if I tell myself I did my best when I fail, it may help me to keep from slipping into self-pity. Self-kindness is not self-pity, but it may be hard to keep from conflating self-kindness and self-pity in the moment. Also, if I try my hardest and fail anyway, self-kindness can act as a safety net for the growth mindset. So I see the two mindsets as mutually supporting.

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