Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion


I’ve had it all wrong for a long time now.  I’ve thought somehow if I could just do self-help perfectly, I’d be well on my way to confidence and a sense of personal freedom.  If I could just will myself into the knowledge and experience of self-love and acceptance, we’d be good.

After all, I’ve used perfectionism to my advantage all these years, why stop now?  Why not just transfer that zipped up effort to my desperate longing to truly know and love myself?  If I could just sit in front of the mirror each and every day and say nice things about myself, or take hundreds of bubble baths, or perhaps read the right self-help books…or blogs, I’d be healed.  Or better yet, I could try and recall all those limiting beliefs I played over in my head, write them down, cross them out, and slap some lipstick on them.  You know the drill:

“I’m just too much to handle.  No one will love me just as I am.” 

Er…I mean:

“I’m the greatest thing since sliced (gluten-free) bread and have every reason to deserve love now.”

Sounds like an SNL sketch waiting to happen to me.  It also sounds reactionary and surface-level, not genuine and compassionate.  Quite honestly, this should be a relief for you and I.  We are not meant to be fixed; we are meant to be understood.

We cannot will ourselves into loving relationship with ourselves or anyone else for that matter because we are human beings, not human doings.  We are messy, complex, and perfectly imperfect.  Our souls call us to something deeper, bigger than mere performance.  

Enhancing our sense of value and worth solely from this angle is like pumping a poor chicken chock full of toxic hormones to go further at your local Kroger.  It may seem satisfying and full of culinary possibility in the minute, yet it probably has long-term health concerns.

Self-esteem is based on the way we view ourselves to the degree with which we like ourselves.  This sounds pretty important and inherently benign, right?  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with seeing ourselves in a good light, however, what happens when circumstances change and we fail to get that promotion, call back, date, or worse, push people away out of fear of rejection? 

The temporary illusion of self-esteem takes a hard and fast nosedive into a muddy puddle of shame.

Typically, if we depend on circumstances to prop up our self-worth, there’a steep, hard and unexpected fall coming just around the corner.  

Another shortcoming of self-esteem lies in the fact that it can feel self-indulgent and divisive in an effort to “one-up” those around us.  Looking back at our limiting belief turn-around, notice the correction. If I replace my limiting belief with a pep talk that tells me “I’m the greatest thing around,” I’m puffing up my ego (which operates from a place of fear instead of belonging) and pitting myself against the world in an effort to prove myself, not lovingly accept myself.  

So, what’s the solution?  If I can’t rely solely on self-esteem, what am I supposed to do?

Three years ago, I picked up a book called Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff.  It has changed the way I relate to myself and others on every level.  It has also called me into this beautifully caring dialog with myself as opposed to the harsh, striving one that had been so loud and exhausting for decades.

What I’ve learned is that self-compassion looks vastly different than self-esteem.  It is not circumstantial; it is relational.  Self-compassion is based on the awareness that the human condition is frail at best, less than perfect all day long, and totally capable of resilience.  This new way forward is all about mindfully and compassionately relating to ourselves when we fall short or miss the mark just like we would a dear friend.

Self-compassion is cultivated like any relationship.  It fills in all the holes self-esteem leaves gaping.  By this I mean, when we don’t measure up or fail to live up to our expectation, self-esteem dips, inviting two extremes: negative self-talk or puffed up ego, (even…gasp…narcissism).

This is not the case with self-compassion.  It comes flooding in when our insecurities, flaws, and shortcomings stare us back in the mirror.  

Perhaps one of my favorite things about self-compassion is it binds us together in the reality of our human experience.  It doesn’t divide, puff up, or need to isolate.  It breeds vulnerability because we aren’t all out to prove our worth and successes; there is no need to when we embrace ourselves through the lens of “imperfect—still enough.”

Self-compassion says, “I see you are hurting. I understand where you are coming from, and I am here with you in the midst of it all. I’m not going anywhere.”  

Her voice is the strong and steady anchor in the midst of the storm.  

Her voice doesn’t wait on sunshine or rainbows to speak.  

Her voice gets louder and more frequent when we slow down to feel our feelings and touch our pain.  

Therein lies the beauty: It is only through our pain we ever experience deep and lasting joy.  

Love & Gratitude,