In this 19 minute Ted Talk, Kristin Neff identifies how self esteem can fail and why self compassion is a better option for positive mental health and well-being.
First let’s dispel the myth, self compassion is neither self pity nor self indulgence. When dealing with life’s difficulties its simply the best solution when compared with the toxic alternatives of self judgment and self criticism.
Self esteem is our personal judgment of whether we are a good person or a bad person and is often considered the global indicator of positive mental health, yet it has some dangerous pitfalls.
Self esteem fails us because we set the bar too high. In modern society average simply isn’t good enough and we strive to meet the impossibly high standards of a critical media that perpetuates the fantasy of perfection. These standards might be to do with body image, achievement, or simply staying on a rickety wagon. When we fail, as we inevitably must, our self esteem comes crashing down and the recriminations begin.
A society in which we need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves is a society which is ripe to narcissism and bullying.
The Human Condition
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go
William Blake – Auguries of Innocence
The human condition is imperfect and prone to failure. We recognise this and accept failure and imperfections in others, yet we seem unable to accept it in ourselves.
When we become painfully aware of the divergence of our expectations from our reality we get to choose between self compassion or self judgment and criticism. All too often self judgment and criticism are the unconscious default mode which trigger our natural stress response.
Our stress response floods our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisone to prepare us for fight and flight. While this was vital for the survival of our ancestors it is overkill for our modern day disappointments.
Most of us have quite a vicious inner critic and continual lashings from its tongue are more paralyzing than motivating. If our inner critic is continually triggering the stress response we are slowly poisoning our bodies.
Kristin Neff advocates self compassion as a healthier alternative response to the disappointments of the Human Condition and identifies three core components.
Self compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly. Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.
Self Kindness v Self Judgment
We believe we need our inner critic to motivate ourselves. We do not believe we are deserving of kindness and we associate self compassion as indulgent, self pitying and a sign of weakness. We verbally abuse ourselves and as a consequence keep firing our natural stress response.
The alternative is to accept we are human, that we are not perfect, and that we will fail, usually quite often. Why not celebrate our successes, acknowledge that to strive is to fail, and understand that self compassion is far healthier and far more motivating than harsh self criticism.
If we can accept this we can cultivate a desire to alleviate our own suffering instead of intensifying it.
Kristin highlights the natural instinct in animals to soothe and comfort their young. In contrast to stress, this releases oxytoxins and opiates into our blood stream which make us feel safe and which is good for our well-being.
The simple act of placing our hand on our heart at a stressful moment can induce comfort and relieve stress.
Common Humanity v Isolation
When things go wrong we experience a sense of failure, a sense that this shouldn’t have happened, we suffer and feel we are somehow different. This manifests as a sense of exclusion and isolation which for social animals like ourselves is threatening and provokes anxiety.
Paradoxically, it’s our imperfections and our constant ability to fail that connects us as humans.
Kristin relates that the biggest insight gained from participants on her workshops is this realization of common humanity, that what unites us is failure, imperfection and suffering.
Failure is the human experience, this is how things are supposed to be. Life is imperfect.
Mindfulness v Over Identification
When things go wrong we have automatic coping mechanisms to suppress the painful experiences associated with failure. We often escape into activities and behaviour that distract us and block out the pain.
Our constant niggling self criticism blends the problem into our perception of our abilities and soon we begin to identify ourselves as the problem.
In contrast, Mindfulness introduces a ‘sacred’ pause which allows us to react with self compassion and kindness instead of self judgment and criticism.
Instead of avoiding, suppressing, or seeking a quick fix we allow ourselves to ‘be’ with our suffering. By acknowledging and experiencing our pain we get to hear its message, we may gain insights into its cause and find healthier ways of accepting, dealing and living with it.
By creating a mindful gap we can break the link between us and the problem and see it for what it is, just stuff that is happening to us.
The trick is to catch ourselves in the act of self mugging.
Next time try a little self kindness and care instead. You might just create the conditions for natural healing and recovery to begin.