For several decades now, psychologists, educators and the media have touted the benefits of high self-esteem. A recent search on Amazon.com showed that there are 17,931 books on the topic with more added each day.
And there’s good reason for this, having high self-esteem is related to many positive benefits such as reduced instances of depression and anxiety and greater optimism.
However, it may be that this faith in the power of our own self images is misplaced as much research also shows that people high in self-esteem are often defensive in the face of negative feedback, can be narcissistic and may not always take responsibility for their actions (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, Vohs).
You might call this “unhealthy” high self-esteem since not all people with high self-esteem have these negative traits.
However, over the past 10 years or so researchers uncovered another positive trait that has many of the benefits we seek from self-esteem but without the drawbacks: self-compassion.
Self-compassion is defined as “being kind toward oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness (mindfulness).” (Neff, Rude, Kirkpatrick)
People high in self-compassion react to negative feedback with more acceptance and with an orientation towards growth and the development of mastery. People low in self-compassion react in opposite ways: they reject negative feedback and often fail to learn from it.
People high in self-compassion tend to have less negative emotions when distressing events occur and take more responsibility for these events. As a result, they are also more willing to make needed changes.
I think you get the picture. High self-compassion is a very good thing.
So how can you get more of it? The study below gives one answer to that question. (Leary, Tate, Allen, Hancock)
In this study 115 college students ages 17-21 were put into three groups. One group was to write about a negative event that happened to them and then think about it in a self-compassionate way using three different prompts. A second group was to write about a negative event and answer prompts designed to raise self-esteem. A third group just wrote about a negative event to “get their feelings out.”
Researchers found that those who wrote about the event in the self-compassion condition were able to “acknowledge their role in negative events without feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions.” This was surprising as when people take responsibility for negative events they often have strong negative feelings.
In other experiments described in the same paper students high and low in self-compassion were given feedback on a video taped public speaking task. They were given negative feedback and positive feedback by two separate raters regardless of how they performed. And those high in self-compassion again experienced less negative emotions than those low in self-compassion.
What these experiments show is that you can actually become more self-compassionate with yourself with a simple exercise and gain all the benefits of greater objectivity, reduced negative feelings and a greater ability to learn from your mistakes.
Here’s how to do it:
First, think of a negative event in your life that still makes you feel bad. Then answer the following prompts each of which focuses on a component of self-compassion – (1) common humanity, (2) self-kindness, (3) mindfulness.
1. List ways in which other people experience similar events.
2. Write a paragraph expressing kindness, understanding and concern towards yourself the way you would for a friend going through the same type of experience.
3. Describe your feelings about the event in an objective and unemotional fashion.
I’ve already tried this exercise a few times and I am pretty impressed with how much better I feel about some past events.
Try this exercise yourself and describe your results below.