Feeling low? Try some self COMPASSION over self esteem
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Having done years of work on my own personal development, and teaching, writing and speaking about it for almost as many, it always interests me when I get one of those moments when things I thought were fixed are not actually on as strong foundations as I’d believed.
I have a very dear friend writing the foreword for my next book, and he included an anecdote about our first meeting. That is something I hold as extremely important (in many ways life-changing) personally, but something I immediately thought that my editor wouldn’t like because after all – I’m not important, who’d want to know anything personal about me unrelated to my credentials. I told my husband and he said, "Well, let your editor decide that – when I read a foreword it’s often because I want to know about the writer."
The paragraph remains intact.
Over the last few years I have thought I’d been able to get a handle on my feelings of low self-esteem and imposter syndrome. To be fair, on the whole I probably have as I’m no longer seeking validation, and I apologise for myself a lot less. So this surprised me – first that my friend would include it, next that my editor would keep it - and that I doubted both. And then it made me feel nice.
This wasn’t a feeling of “Oh, I must be amazing then” it wasn’t an ego boost. It was a feeling of warmth, of acceptance – it was positivity, but in a gentler way than applause or achievement.
I urge you to read the piece in full, but in summary she states that:
- Research indicates similar benefits through self-compassion as with self-esteem (eg. greater happiness, better management of depression) and it is better correlated with feelings of self-worth
- Self-compassion is a way we relate to ourselves, rather than based on comparison with others or what we achieve – so it is more stable when things don’t go well for us
- Self-compassion focuses on our worth as humans, not when we are “special” or “recognised” or “above average" in skills or talent.
So, rather than focusing on building self-esteem this week, I would like to challenge you instead to nurture your self compassion:
1. Reassure yourself through self-compassion rather than self-esteem statements
When something doesn’t go your way, or if you have said or done something you regret try:
I’m proud of xxx elements because I worked hard on them/I contributed creatively/I pushed my boundaries
I did xxx better than everyone else
I’m sad that I lost my temper, but I realise what triggered me and I can watch for that sort of comment in future
I’m sad I lost my temper – but x provoked me
There is a very subtle difference, but self-compassion focuses on you and your response – it is quite empowering; self-esteem focuses on praise and maybe even acceptance, but in the context of comparison with others (even unconsciously).
If you are someone who has ever been told "You don't need to convince me", as you keep telling people (often who can already see it) what you've done, then you might benefit from a bit of self-compassion reframing and CFT/CFI (see below)
2. Try some “Compassion Focused Therapy” (CFT) (or “interventions” if you prefer)
Another friend introduced me to this – and this places a more scientific approach on the “Yin Yang” theory of self-compassion. Compassion Focused interventions ask you to reflect on your response to threat – are you better supported through “Soothing” actions or “Driving” ones?
Soothing (like the “Yin” approach) includes relaxation, going for a walk, meditation, massage…
Drive (like the “Yang” approach”) is more active – it might be accomplishment or socialising or trying something new.
Drive may be a little more “esteem” based, but that’s why I say “accomplishment” rather than “achievement” – you only need to be a bit better than you were the time before!
Do what works for you, when it works for you. Do it for you, don't feel you need approval nor praise for it - the self-compassionate person cares for themself and is then able to care for - or simply relate to - others without seeking validation.
3. Make your inner-critic work for you
I’m not saying you have to always “be nice” to yourself – sometimes we do need a bit of discipline. Just be kind. (Saying it straight can also be a kindness.) One piece of chocolate when on a weight loss plan may be an “OK, never mind, start again now”…but when it’s a habit a little more authority may be in order. So try this:
- Identify the purpose of your inner critic (is it to help you achieve, is it to keep you focused, is it for you to break toxic habits?)
- Reflect on how it does its job
- Reflect on how well that works – or doesn’t work
- Give it some training – as you would any employee who needs support – but remember to do so in a motivating, supportive, but clearly defined manner. Remember – we are all a work in progress
4. Recognise and be proud of any informal self-compassion
As a coach and wellbeing trainer, I often give very clear activities or exercises to try out. Recently I issued a challenge that you could try your own adaptations. What I found out was that most of you are doing a lot of informal self-compassion work but either you didn’t realise it, felt guilty about it, or saw it initially as a “chore”.
- Tea breaks (and toilet breaks) help you reset your concentration, it’s ok to change the scenery and come back to where you left off, refreshed
- Doing a “mindless” task after a “heavy concentration” one is ok – even if you have many of the latter to do – like the wine taster who cleanses their palate after each sip, if you alter your focus, you are more likely to attach the new task with more clarity than moving straight on to it.
- DIY can be very therapeautic – especially when you see the finished product… Similarly so can exercise and sports – all of these actions that energise us are simple working our “Drive” system. Turn what might be an "I need to put up those shelves" or "I ought to run" into an opportunity to change the sceneary.
5. Reframe the times you felt unloved
There is never any excuse for abuse, but if you can begin to see the "sins of the parent" if you felt unloved as them doing their best with whatever they had - and had themselves learned, hopefully you will be able to let go of resentment (you do not need to forgive), and channel that sadness into positive action outside if its control.
...and remember when it comes to informal self compassion
- Use what works for you – just because other people suggest something doesn’t mean it’ll be as successful for you as it was for them…it’s ok to try it and then never do it again.
- Don't judge harshly - and that's aimed at judging both yourself and others. Compassion is unrelated to what others do, and all about acceptance and working with what you do! (And it is always OK to be you - "work in progress", remember.)
...and know that anything you do that makes you feel positive, healthy and good about yourself will in turn help you bring the same sparkle to what you do and who you meet.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt