What is self-compassion? What does it mean exactly?
As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.
This means that unlike self-esteem, the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are. Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.
Sure, you skeptics may be saying to yourself, but what does the research show?
The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernable downsides.
The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened.
In one study my colleagues and I conducted, for instance, undergraduate students were asked to fill out measures of self-compassion and self-esteem. Next came the hard part. They were asked to participate in a mock job interview to “test their interviewing skills.”
A lot of undergrads are nervous about the interviewing process, especially given that they will soon be applying for jobs in real life. As part of the experiment, students were asked to write an answer to that dreaded but inevitable interview question, “Please describe your greatest weakness.” Afterward they were asked to report how anxious they were feeling.
Participants’ self-compassion levels, but not their self-esteem levels, predicted how much anxiety they felt. In other words, self-compassionate students reported feeling less self-conscious and nervous than those who lacked self-compassion, presumably because they felt okay admitting and talking about their weak points.
Students with high self-esteem, by contrast, were no less anxious than those with low self-esteem, having been thrown off balance by the challenge of discussing their failings. And interestingly, self-compassionate people used fewer first-person singular pronouns such as “I” when writing about their weaknesses, instead using more third-person plural pronouns such as “we.” They also made references to friends, family, and other humans more often. This suggests that the sense of interconnectedness inherent to self-compassion plays an important role in its ability to buffer against anxiety.
Another study required people to imagine being in potentially embarrassing situations: being on a sports team and blowing a big game, for instance, or performing in a play and forgetting one’s lines. How would participants feel if something like this happened to them?
Self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally. Instead, they said they would take things in stride, thinking thoughts like “Everybody goofs up now and then” and “In the long run, this doesn’t really matter.” Having high self-esteem, however, made little difference. Those with both high and low self-esteem were equally likely to have thoughts like, “I’m such a loser” or “I wish I could die.” Once again, high self-esteem tends to come up empty-handed when the chips are down.
In a different study, participants were asked to make a videotape that would introduce and describe themselves. They were then told that someone would watch their tape and give them feedback in terms of how warm, friendly, intelligent, likable, and mature they appeared (the feedback was bogus, of course).
Half the participants received positive feedback, the other half neutral feedback. Self-compassionate people were relatively unflustered regardless of whether the feedback was positive or neutral, and they were willing to say the feedback was based on their own personality either way. People with high levels of self-esteem, however, tended to get upset when they received neutral feedback (what, I’m just average?). They were also more likely to deny that the neutral feedback was due to their own personality (surely it’s because the person who watched the tape was an idiot!).
This suggests that self-compassionate people are better able to accept who they are regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others. Self-esteem, on the other hand, only thrives when the reviews are good and may lead to evasive and counterproductive tactics when there’s a possibility of facing unpleasant truths about oneself.
Recently, my colleague Roos Vonk and I investigated the benefits of self-compassion versus self-esteem with more than three thousand people from various walks of life, the largest study to examine this issue so far.
First, we examined the stability of positive feelings these people experienced toward themselves self over time. Did these feelings tend to go up and down like a yo-yo or were they relatively constant? We hypothesized that self-esteem would be associated with relatively unstable feelings of self-worth, since self-esteem tends to be diminished whenever things don’t turn out as well as desired. On the other hand, because compassion can be extended to oneself in both good times and bad, we expected the feelings of self-worth to remain steadier over time among self-compassionate people.
To test this idea, we had participants report on how they were feeling toward themselves at the time—for instance, “I feel inferior to others at this moment” or “I feel good about myself”—doing so 12 different times over a period of eight months.
Next, we calculated the degree to which overall levels of self-compassion or self-esteem predicted stability in self-worth over this period. As expected, self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on outside factors like social approval, success in competitions, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on reaching certain goals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.
We also found that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion was associated with less social comparison and less need to retaliate for perceived personal slights. It was also linked to less “need for cognitive closure,” which is psych-speak for the need to be right without question. People who invest their self-worth in feeling superior and infallible tend to get angry and defensive when their status is threatened. People who compassionately accept their imperfection, however, no longer need to engage in such unhealthy behaviors to protect their egos.
In fact, a striking finding of the study was that people with high self-esteem were much more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem. In contrast, self-compassion was completely unassociated with narcissism, meaning that people who are high in self-compassion are no more likely to be narcissistic than people low in self-compassion.
An island of calm
Taken together, this research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.
It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.
many thanks to article author Krisin Neff courtesy of the Center for Science of the Greater Good
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., is an associate professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin.