This month we’ll continue our talk on the topic of self-compassion, and explore some of the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion. Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively. Self-compassion, by contrast, refers to how we relate to ourselves when we’re hurting – with kindness and understanding (see the previous blog post for a full discussion on components of self-compassion). While the two might seem similar at first, there are crucial differences between them to understand.
Self-compassion is a way we relate to ourselves. It emphasizes common humanity, and includes the expectation that we will inevitably make mistakes, betray our values at times, and occasionally disappoint ourselves and people around us. In other words, when we are self-compassionate, we let go of the expectation of perfection. When we bring self-compassion to painful and disappointing moments, we are free to let go of the question “what is wrong with me?”, and focus instead on soothing ourselves while learning from our mistakes. In this way, self-compassion actually builds resilience.
By contrast, self-esteem is more focused on how we are “doing” – instead of emphasizing common humanity, it emphasizes personal performance. High self-esteem leads to feeling really good, because we perceive ourselves to be “knocking it out of the park”. The preconditions for self-esteem are many – first of all, we have to perform well, or look really good, or in some kind of way possess some really wonderful quality. Of course, while our performance is strong and our sense of possessing whatever that wonderful quality is, is high, we feel great! But….when our performance slips, or that wonderful quality wanes, self-esteem tends to wane with it. In this way, self-esteem can truly be a fair-weather friend. It’s there when things are going great, and abandons us when we most need support.
Second, self-esteem can encourage social comparison, as opposed to common humanity. By judging ourselves as “better than”, self-esteem increases. The trouble with this reliance on social comparison are clear. Social comparison isn’t so good for relationships, and doesn’t allow us to truly celebrate and enjoy another’s success. And – it falls apart! There will always be someone smarter, stronger, harder-working (add any other quality or possession here). Finally, because high self-esteem feels great while it lasts, people have a tendency to seek it out. Unfortunately, this can lead to tendencies like devaluing people around us, over-preparing for tasks, perfectionism, and avoidance of risks that could threaten self-esteem.
When you find yourself just feeling great about yourself, by all means, enjoy the moment! Savior the feeling and let it sink in. But – thanks to self-compassion, we don’t need to rely on that feeling, or try to create more of it, or equate it with self-worth. By cultivating self-compassion, we build a resilience and resource that is there for us when self-esteem simply cannot be. Mindfulness practitioners endorse higher levels of self-compassion than non-meditators – yet another way that mindfulness increases wellbeing and stress resilience.