Going easy on yourself: Self-criticism, self-esteem, and self-compassion

Most of us are professional self-critics. A sad fact is that we are generally more likely to be compassionate towards others than ourselves. Why is this self beat-up such a common practice? There are several possibilities. In her book 'Self-Compassion', Kristen Neff suggests that self-criticism exists to try and keep personal standards high, keep us safe, help us feel better than average, and help ensure we are accepted by others. She raises the point that self-criticism can be especially brutal because there is no external referee to keep the nastiness in-check.

Positive psychology scholars such as Martin Seligman reckon that psychological research has been dominated by the 'negative'. This is because our brains are geared towards focusing more on threat-related information in order to keep us safe. For instance, in your caveman days you would have paid more attention to the predator rustling in nearby bushes rather than that cloud shaped remarkably like a fish. In this way, self-criticism can be seen as an attempt to keep us 'safe' by promoting behaviours that, for instance, attract acceptance from the social group we operate in.

Self-esteem involves a person's evaluation of his or her overall worth and so links well with self-criticism. For many years, self-esteem has been one of the more prominent topics in psychology for both researchers and members of the general public. While some see this as the key to improved well-being and overall happiness, there are several potential issues with self-esteem. Some of these include:

  • There has been an increase in research that shows self-esteem does not necessarily lead to the benefits popularly believed to exist.
  • There is evidence that self-esteem is a consequence, rather than the cause of things such as higher academic achievement, positive mood and low anxiety.
  • Boosting self-esteem often relies on positive evaluations by others. These evaluations are things we cannot control and are subject to the various thinking biases we all experience.
  • Positive evaluations tend to only provide us with a short hit of increased well-being. This can be followed by a crash that results in negative feelings like worthlessness, anxiety and so on. If these evaluations were effective, we would need very few of them to achieve a sustained lift in our self-esteem.
  • Judging ourselves involves making comparisons with others. The problem here is that you can always find someone doing 'better' than you. This means the comparisons you make are dependent on who you are comparing yourself against. In other words, its a subjective exercise that often leads to feelings of disappointment or worse.
  • People who are high in self-esteem can exhibit some not-so-desirable qualities such as narcissism and discriminatory attitudes.
  • Related to the last point, a focus on self-esteem can result in de-emphasising or devaluating things we are not so good at. This may mean we turn away from valuable learning and skill-development experiences.

An alternative to the self-esteem route is 'self-compassion'. This concept has raised the interest of Psychologists and researchers over recent years and has links with Eastern-influenced approaches such as mindfulness. Bringing in Kristen Neff again, she describes self-compassion as comprising, not only self-directed kindness, but also an awareness of the suffering of others (we're all in this together) and recognising self-criticism in a non-judgemental way (mindfulness). Neff argues that self-compassion has the benefits of positive self-esteem without having to be perfectionist or compare ourselves to others. There is a growing body of research that suggests self-compassion can give us various psychological benefits as well as induce changes in the brain. An introduction to the science of compassion can be found here

I think there is a place for both self-compassion and self-esteem (despite some of the issues described in this article) development in helping you achieve a more positive view of yourself. An important focus is thinking about what you are actually saying to yourself via your 'self-critic'. There are many inaccurate and distorted thoughts in the heads of self-critical people. Identifying these thoughts and changing them can be a useful way to make life a bit easier for yourself. A focus on this, rather than other issues such as comparisons with others and thinking about what you are 'good' and 'bad' at is the way to go in my opinion.

There are also various publications and resources devoted to increasing your ability to be self-compassionate and less critical. For more information, take a look at:

The Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education- http://www.stanford.edu/group/ccare/cgi-bin/wordpress/

The Compassionate Mind Foundation- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/index.html

Also try Kirsten Neff's book and website on self-compassion and Melanie Fennell's book on improving self-esteem.

All the best.

Jason.

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