The Need for Self-Compassion (Revised)

Self-Esteem vs Self-Compassion

The idea of self-esteem gained prominence in the 80’s. It encompassed a great need to get children to feel good about themselves because depression was rampant among them. Self-esteem (feeling good about oneself due to the possession of superior qualities) was the key to resolving their emotional difficulties. Their parents thought: “They could be happy if they could just feel good about themselves.” But, there was a catch: Feeling good was intertwined with labeling, which, whether positive or negative, consistently leads to destructive beliefs. (e.g. If I’m beautiful, then I always have to receive attention. If I’m smart, I always have to succeed.)

Telling kids that they were smart, attractive, funny, special, and could do anything they wanted to with their lives (essentially fostering positive thinking and their inner-illusory worlds), became common. The message was: You could feel good about yourself if you possess these particular qualities. And, they misguidedly believed that their children would never catch on, clearly believing that they were far less intelligent than they were. (Talk about irony.)

Manufactured Positivity

Then, their manufactured world of positivity became a nightmare. The kids began to see through the parental and cultural veils. They no longer believed that all of them were beautiful and smart, perfect exactly as they were. They realized that each quality existed in comparison to others and that each of them couldn’t possess all of them, all of the time. Specialness is only special when compared to something inferior.

Subsequently, the self-esteem movement came crashing down, with some parents re-directing their praise toward achievements rather than inheritance, teaching their children that they could feel good about themselves if they were high achievers, which was possible through dedicated and sustained effort. Eventually, competition resumed and low self-worth predominated once again. For when there’s success, there’s failure, and when there’s failure, there’s self-loathing, at least when failure is linked to self worth through self-labeling. (e.g. I am a failure because I have failed.)

Self-Esteem and Positive Thinking

The concept of self-esteem is toxic due to its existence being based on, and maintained through, factors outside of one’s full control, whether they be achievement based or inherent qualities such as beauty or intellect. Reality’s bursting of the self-esteem bubble precipitated the movement’s downfall. (As an aside, positively thinking about the world is unsustainable, too.)

Because of its all-encompassing nature, self-esteem falls apart when one’s intrinsic qualities don’t compare well to those of others or when one fails. If I believe that I’m beautiful, how will I feel when I meet someone more attractive? If I’m smart, how did I fail that exam?

Just as positively thinking about the world falls apart when the veil is lifted and the world is seen as it really is, self-esteem erodes when one is seen as she truly is: a human being. Although hurtful at first, the truth, ironically, has the power to liberate us, to free us from the oppression of labels and exuberant expectations (of ourselves and of the world around us), and to afford us the gift of being ourselves.

Extreme Expectations

One of the most difficult aspects of my work is dealing with patients who set high bars for themselves, their actions, and their achievements, those who expect the impossible, while denying the actual: their circumstances. Beauty, intellect, and success are qualities desired by many but only achieved by a few. (And not consistently so, as candid celebrity photos can attest.) They’re traits that can even be, and often are, denied when possessed. So, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t, “How do I attain this or that standard to feel good about myself? But, “How can I love myself despite it?” Although antithetical to our ingrained value of obsessive personal progress, antithesis is what’s needed. As, only antithesis could save us.

Despite the difficulty involved, there is a way out, and the light-bearer’s name is self-compassion. For to love oneself is to accept oneself, and to accept oneself is to accept one’s inalterable flaws, in addition to one’s strengths. I often note that trying to attain excellence is healthy, but that expecting it is not. And why should we expect it?

A Better Way to Mental Health

Most of us will be really good at a few activities and really bad at most others. That is how life is. Yet, we stubbornly hold onto expectations that make little sense in light of the reality we live in. Life is a sea-saw of comparison. Sometimes, we’re above, and at others, we’re below. And if we look hard enough, someone better at something can always be found. But, our essence remains still. And our essence is our tenacity.

Striving, trying, being, doing, progressing, developing: these are all wonderful and life-affirming actions. They make us who we are, helping us reach awe-inspiring heights. In contrast, the lust for, and expectation of, perfection can only engender self-loathing and distrust: the antitheses of growth. To love oneself is to love one’s flaws, and to love oneself is to also love one’s potential, while acknowledging its unattainability. In essence, loving is wishing, wishing to be your best version, while accepting that you’ll always be human and knowing that that will always be okay.

10 Comments

  1. I think it may be easier to see yourself through the eyes of others…the people who love you anyway. I realize it’s not universal but if you’re lucky enough to have those that truly care you can ask yourself what would x think. Others are often more gentle with us than we are ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m definitely one of the results of the self-esteem movement, messed up to hell and unable (currently) to pull myself out of it. People didn’t seem to realize the negative impact of telling somebody they were so smart all the time…they neglected to tell them they’d have to work to keep it up. When you grow up being told you’re smart and all, you think it comes naturally. I had to take a crash course in learning how to study and better myself in junior high because things weren’t easy for me anymore (yeah, who’d have thought they’d start putting letters in math problems, for crying out loud?), yet my parents couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t figure it out.

    I got through elementary school barely working hard–it was too easy. Then I felt stupid and learned how to give up because I “wasn’t smart anymore.” My laziness is still reflexive and I have to remind myself–like I did today, regarding music practice–that it is going to take some work and it won’t be instantaneous, but you can’t give up. When you keep trying, you get better and better. I tutor kids quite a bit and they’ll give up or not even try because they want somebody to read it to them. They’re waiting for the answer instead of thinking it out and working it over (and they don’t like me sometimes because I can outwait their impatience–hee hee). But they eventually give it a shot and move on to the next step, and it gets easier for them. I just have to make sure they keep on going, otherwise they’ll willingly slip back into non-thinking mode (ugh).

    Thanks for posting it–I needed to read that today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply! I had the same issue; I assumed I would just understand everything, and when I couldn’t, I’d get anxious and procrastinate. I’m not even sure laziness exists; all of it seems related to fear.

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  3. I am in my 60’s and was very much raised with the opposite. I was an expensive mistake, who was always measured against an impossible standard and “tough love” was hugely popular in the house. I have struggled with depression all my life and the negative narrative never stops, however, I have never expected much and gage my worth on what I could do for others and as a result, in a roundabout way I have known joy.
    I told my kids, we are not poor so long as we can contribute something. I feel bad that I could not offer them more growing up and guilty about the many mistakes I made as a parent. They are however decent human beings. I can’t say why except that I just tried to be honest and explained, “I don’t know what I’m doing. You might have to figure this out for yourself.” Now I have grandkids. I want to tell them every day that they are amazing because that’s how I see them. I know they will get bumped and bruised inside and out in this life because there are so many things that can go wrong, and so many hurt and hurtful people in the world, BUT, they ARE really brilliant, LIKE terrifically wonderful, as in full of wonder.
    There is gold and fools gold. The same is true for the attention we give our children.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes! I’m working towards self-acceptance. I always feel that we should accept ourselves the way we are even as we work to “improve” ourselves. The “improvement” should be a thing you do because you enjoy doing it, not because you need to become something. You explained it so well! Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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