From as far back as we can remember, we’re taught having high self-esteem is one of the keys to life success. But what we aren’t taught is that having self-compassion is equally as—and sometimes even more—important than self-esteem.

“Self-esteem is a judgment of self-worth,” says Kristin Neff, Associate Professor Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. “It’s like a judgment that ‘I’m a good person’ or ‘I’m a bad person’ or ‘I’m somewhere in between’. And it really focuses on kind of the worst of the self,” she says.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, isn’t a judgment of worth. “It’s a matter of treating yourself with kindness, care, and support, the way you would treat a good friend.

So even when you feel you’ve done something badly or you aren’t feeling so good about yourself, you’re accepting and kind to yourself,” Dr. Neff says. It’s more of an emotional attitude toward yourself.

A Deeper Look At Self-Compassion

Kindness is one of the main features of self-compassion, but it also includes mindfulness, Dr. Neff says. “We recognize we have strengths and weaknesses and we’re able to be with them with a little more equanimity, a little more perspective, and balance,” she says. “And, more importantly, it’s a sense of common humanity. There’s an inherent connectedness in self-compassion.”

Self-compassion is about recognizing that everyone’s imperfect and everyone struggles in life. It’s part of the human experience and what differentiates self-compassion from self-pity, Dr. Neff says.

And, it helps differentiate self-compassion from self-esteem. Self-esteem is very much about, “am I special and above average?” and “how do I stand out compared to others.” Whereas, self-compassion is more about, “this life is difficult for everyone. Everyone’s  imperfect, but I’m recognizing my connectedness to others in my imperfection,” Dr. Neff says.

Self-Compassion And Mental Health

The long-term effects of self-compassion on daily life include a decrease in depression, increased happiness, increased life satisfaction, and better physical health.

“There’s a mind-body connection,” Dr. Neff says. “When you relate to yourself in a kind, connected, mindful stance, it reduces your cortisol levels and increases your heart rate variability. Physiologically it puts you in a healthier state, which translates into better physical health, so people are more motivated to practice self-compassion,” she says.

Healthy Self-Esteem V. Unhealthy Self-Esteem

People with high self-compassion also have high self-esteem, so in essence, self-compassion is kind of a healthy source of self-esteem, Dr. Neff says. But there are different kinds of self-esteem and different ways people can feel worthy.

An unhealthy source of self-esteem is when someone feels better than others or sees themselves as perfect. It’s a narcissistic way of distorting reality.

Self-esteem can also be unhealthy when it’s contingent on success, “when we only feel good about ourselves when we succeed, when we look the way we want to look, or when we get that promotion we want. And, it can be contingent on other people’s approval. Because of that, self-worth is linked to self-esteem,” Dr. Neff says.

“Healthy self-esteem is unconditional; it’s a solid sense of value and worth. It’s not dependent on success, it’s feeling worthy because you’re a flawed human being and know that everyone else is doing the best they can.” Dr. Neff says.

“Self-compassion gives you a stable self-worth, whereas self-esteem goes up and down depending on how your day is going. Your sense of self gets rocked every time you have a little setback.”

In a study Dr. Neff conducted comparing how self-esteem and self-compassion predicted stability of self-worth over eight months, she found that it was the level of self-compassion that predicted how stable people’s self-worth was, not how high their self-esteem was.

The Benefits Of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion seems to have better outcomes in terms of how people cope with failure, Dr. Neff says. “Self-compassionate people take more responsibility for their actions. They don’t excuse behavior. It actually promotes apologizing and taking responsibility,” she says.

Self-compassion is also concerned with the alleviation suffering. And that’s why self-compassionate people are less self-indulgent.

“They take better care of their bodies, they eat better, they exercise, they go to the doctor—so they aren’t self-indulgent in terms of physical pleasures,” Dr. Neff says.

They also take more responsibility for their mistakes. “When you do make a mistake and you feel emotionally safe to take responsibility, it leads to more action to actually improve things.”

How To Cultivate More Self-Compassion

By utilizing a few simple exercises, you can help yourself to become more self-compassionate. It just takes a little practice.

  • Talk to yourself as you would a friend. A very simple way to be self-compassionate is to say, ‘what would I say to a good friend who was going through the same difficult situation?’ “That gives you the template for how to relate to yourself,” Dr. Neff says. It’s about using the skill that we’ve developed and honed well for others and turning it inward.
  • Practice mindful meditation. Mindful meditation increases self-compassion. “One of the benefits from being less resistant to our suffering and having more awareness is that it increases self-compassion,” Dr. Neff says. Mindfulness is the first step to self-compassion. You can’t have self-compassion without mindfulness. So, you have to be willing to turn toward the discomfort you have about yourself and relate to it with acceptance,” Dr. Neff says. “When you do that, it’s the first step toward being kind to yourself and to have the perspective needed to recognize this is part of being human.” Put your hand on your heart and say, ‘I’m so sorry you’re suffering, what can I do to help?’
  • Write a loving letter to yourself. Writing a compassionate letter to yourself from the perspective of a kind, loving friend. Focus on what you might be struggling with about yourself but have compassion, caring, and kindness. Give yourself advice you think this friend would give. “Even small amounts of self-compassion can make an important difference,” Dr. Neff says.
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Last Updated: Jun 1, 2020