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-EsteemAccording 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.