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Why self-compassion is healthier than self-esteem

This article looks at why self-compassion is healthier than self-esteem. Although the two may seem similar, they are different in many ways. Over the past ten years or so, there have been literally thousands of books and articles written promoting self-esteem – how to get it, how to increase it and then how to hold onto it! Research indicates that the continual focus on self-esteem,  has serious downsides. Our culture has become so competitive we need to feel special and above average to just to feel OK about ourselves 

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth and how much we like ourselves. Low self-esteem is problematic and can lead to depression and lack of motivation, but trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.  In modern Western culture, we tend to base self-esteem on how much we stand out or are special compared to others.  The danger is that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in self-absorbed behavior and constantly comparing ourselves to others.  It may be dependent on our latest success or failure and we run the risk of distorting our personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. In her book The Narcissism Epidemic  Jean Twenge examined the narcissism levels of over 15,000 U.S. college students between 1987 and 2006.  65 percent of modern-day students scored higher in narcissism than previous generations. Not coincidentally, students’ average self-esteem levels rose by an even greater margin over the same period. 

Why self-compassion is healthier

Self-compassion has been shown to be associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-clarity, more caring relationship behaviour, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. (“OK I messed up there, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a total failure.”) People feel self-compassion because they are human beings, not because they are special and above average. It emphasises interconnection rather than separateness. This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. It also offers more emotional stability than self-esteem because it is always there for you – when you’re on top of the world and when you fall flat on your face. It is less dependent on things like physical appearance or successful performance. 

Self-esteem and parenting

It seems that we need to be careful how we praise our children – wrongfully thinking we are building up their self-esteem. Brad Bushman and Eddie Brummelman in a longitudinal study that found overpraised children showed narcissistic traits six months to a year later. Another researcher Pat MacDonald says that “[With] parents seeing their children as extensions of themselves – they want to be mates, the boundaries aren’t set – the child gets very confused: ‘You’re great, you’re terrific.’ Maybe we’re not, maybe we need to know we’re just ordinary.”   She traces the new style of parenting back to new social media: “You see mums relating to the non-human other, the smartphone, not the baby. The child is not getting a sense of self.” 

Narcissism and social media

“There’s a good accumulation of evidence that narcissists have more friends on Facebook,” Jean Twenge says. “We can’t make the case definitively that social media causes narcissism, although it does certainly call for a certain type of attention-seeking. If you look at Twitter, and the quest for followers, that has a narcissistic ring to it.”

Useful websites  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer     Paul Gilbert UK 

Guided meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert


Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Self-CompassionHow self-compassionate are you?Self-Compassion ToolsTools of Self-Compassion