Self-esteem, whether in children or adults, is a major target of the self-help movement. Self-esteem in our culture is closely connected to winning, showing ourselves as stronger, smarter, faster, harder working or more talented than others. That’s one reason researcher Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind says self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Check out her interview and article, “Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem.” Neff says when we compare ourselves to others, as in, “I got the highest grade on the test,” or “My dress was the prettiest at the party,” or “My piano teacher says I play this piece with more feeling than her other students,” it’s “a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash.” The crash comes when we do not get the highest grade on the next test, wear a dress that is not the prettiest, or never hear a positive comment from the piano teacher again.
The argument for self-compassion as a better guide for living goes like this: We accept the flaws in others as part of being human, but we don’t look at our own flaws or, when we do consider our flaws we want to rid ourselves of them, be perfect instead of human. Self-compassion means ending the comparisons, accepting that someone else can do it better and feeling fine about it. According to Neff, “Millions of people need to take pharmaceuticals every day just to cope with daily life. Insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgment, to beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t winning in the game of life.”
Her answer is “to stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.”
Neff says, “Self-esteem is all about being special and above average. But self-compassion is about shared humanity—it’s all about being average.” Having worked in a school system with high achieving parents who pushed kids to become the best, I don’t believe this message would go very far. And I’m not sure most of us are able to appreciate it until we’ve reached the point in our lives where coming in first no longer matters.