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Tom Moon, M.F.T. Self Compassion: More Important than Self-Esteem?

Self Compassion: More Important than Self-Esteem?

There’s a long-overdue new trend in psychology: exploring positive states of mind as opposed to the traditional focus on pathology. This year researchers at Duke and Wake Forest Universities reported the results of five studies on the rarely studied trait of self-compassion, or the ability to treat oneself with kindness when things go badly.

They described self-compassion as having three components: 1. “self-kindness,” being gentle and understanding toward oneself rather than self-critical; 2. “common humanity,” or seeing one’s negative experiences as a normal part of the human condition; and 3. “mindful acceptance” or responding with mindful equanimity rather than over-identifying with painful thoughts and feelings. The research measured participants’ reactions to remembering actual negative experiences, imagining negative events, receiving critical feedback from someone else, comparing their self-evaluations of doing a task and someone else doing the same task, and measuring reactions of participants who were prompted to have a self-compassionate attitude. In three of the experiments, they also compared reactions of people with differing levels of self-compassion to people with differing levels of self-esteem.

Here’s what they found:

The studies suggest that “self-compassion seems to be more important than self-esteem, and is in fact responsible for some of the positive effects of self-esteem,” lead researcher Dr. Mark Leary reported. That may be because this trait “helps people not to add a layer of self-recrimination on top of whatever bad things happen to them. If people learn only to feel better about themselves but continue to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes, they will be unable to cope nondefensively with their difficulties.”

Why are these findings important? The American emphasis on competition and individualism has created a culture in which most of us are highly self-critical and unforgiving toward ourselves. Most of us carry an “inner critic” in our minds which can be our own worst enemy because it acts as a tormentor which continuously attacks, punishes, and drains us of energy. My experience as a therapist has convinced me that the attacks of the inner critic cause or contribute to, many problems, including anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, and addictions and compulsions.

Gay people may well be especially vulnerable to acquiring the habit of harsh self-criticism because so many of us have grown up with a conviction of our own “basic badness” – a sense that in some vaguely understood way we’re out of step and not who we’re supposed to be. I often notice that, for gay people, the inner critic speaks in the language of internalized homophobia. Even for those of us who have long ago come to terms with our sexual orientation, for instance, the voice often tells us that we’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because we’re less valuable than others. For gay men it’s not uncommon for the critic to fault them for lacking “manly” qualities such as courage, decisiveness, and boldness: “wimp” and “coward” are all-too-common terms of self-denigration.

Can we learn to be less self-judging and more compassionate toward ourselves? There is growing evidence that we can. Another recent trend in psychology is the introduction into psychotherapy of Eastern, particularly Buddhist, practices for developing such qualities as calmness, equanimity, kindness – and compassion. Increasing numbers of clinicians are discovering that many of these practices, when separated from the religious context in which they arose, turn out to be psychologically sophisticated techniques for helping people develop more positive emotional lives. It appears that the harsh inner critic is just a set of mental habits, and that effective methods exist for retraining the mind in new habits.

Anyone interested in learning more about these practices might profit from reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Ph.D. The author is both a clinical psychologist and a well-known teacher of mindfulness meditation. Her book offers valuable tools for what she calls “awakening from the trance of unworthiness,” and for developing more compassionate attitudes toward oneself and others. Her work, and that of many others, demonstrates that we have a new, positive psychology which doesn’t just focus on overcoming problems, but which can actually help to create more open-hearted and joyful lives.


Author: Tom Moon