Self-compassion vs self-esteem: Which is healthier?

Jason Brien.

Self-esteem is quite complex as it is your overall opinion of yourself — the complete sum of how you feel about your abilities and limitations across a variety of situations and within a variety of familial, intimate and interpersonal relationships. Self-esteem therefore relies upon evaluations of oneself. High self-esteem relies on positive evaluations, low self-esteem relies on negative evaluations and healthy self-esteem relies on a balance between the two. In contrast, self-compassion is how we relate to ourselves. People feel self-compassion when they recognise that they are human beings and that they are no more special or unique than another. People feel self-compassion when they adopt a non-judgemental approach to themselves and they recognise that they too are simply enduring the human experience (positives and negatives) the same as everyone else.

Self-compassion therefore drives interconnectedness not separateness. Since self-compassion doesn’t rely upon external factors such as social comparisons or social influences, it is more stable than self-esteem as it will always be there for us. There is no need to rely upon the outside world in order to feel better about oneself. Many people often relate high self-esteem with narcissism. Self-compassion avoids this association. Self-compassion is not dependent upon evaluations of physical attractiveness or performances, skills or talents for example. It is not about who is better or worse than who. Self-compassion is simply a way of relating to others through shared experiences not comparisons.

Self-compassion has all of the mental health benefits of self-esteem without any of the down sides (extreme highs or lows - pathologies). Self-compassion is associated with increased life satisfaction, empathy, happiness, compassion and optimism and associated with reductions in depression, anxiety and negative affect. Self-compassion also does not require regulation in the same way that self-esteem does. Self-compassion is believed to be composed of three primary components; self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.

1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment: Self-judgement is about demeaning, belittling, and berating ourselves when we fail, suffer or feel inadequate. Self-kindness is the opposite. Self-kindness is about being loving, warm, caring and nurturing towards ourselves and, by extension, others. Self-kindness is about recognising and accepting our humanity. Recognising and accepting that we are humans who are prone to making mistakes and who are prone to failures, setbacks and suffering. Self-kindness is not about taking our angers out on the world or those around us. Self-kindness involves accepting (not denying) reality and all that encompasses it – the good and the bad.

2. Common humanity vs separateness:  When we feel disconnected from others (separated) we tend to view suffering more negatively and selfishly. Suffering becomes a “woe is me” mentality. It becomes perceived as “why am I (emphasis on I) the only person suffering? Or ”Why do always make mistakes”? When we feel connected to others, we eliminate the hyper-focus on the ‘I’. Instead, our mindsets shift to a “woe is us” mentality. Self-compassion leads to an enhanced understanding of shared experience and an understanding that we never truly go through anything, including life, alone.

3. Mindfulness vs mindless: As mentioned earlier, self-compassion does not require regulation in the same way that self-esteem does. Self-compassion allows all feelings and thoughts to be experienced and expressed equally without the need for suppression or rejection particularly the negative ones which is often the case. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which we observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them and without giving them undue attachment. We become emotionally reactive to feelings and thoughts when we become overly attached to them.

How can we develop or improve upon self-compassion?

Self-reflection: We can learn more about our relationship with ourselves if we engage in honest self-reflection. We need to be honest when examining whether we are currently in a healthy relationship with ourselves. An honest appraisal does not require judgement or condemnation. It is simply an acknowledgment that we could be treating ourselves better, kinder, more lovingly, etc.

Think and speak kindly to yourself: This involves changing the language you use to think and describe yourself. You may have made past mistakes yes, but you made ‘poor choices’ but that doesn’t make you ‘a bad person”. Likewise, you are not “crazy”, “psycho”, or “out of control” just because life is challenging, complex and hard to understand at times.

Forgive yourself: Self forgiveness is about accepting your humanity. It’s about forgiving yourself for past, present and future mistakes and forgiving yourself for any shortcomings. By forgiving yourself you provide yourself with unconditional love. You provide yourself with a love which is not contingent on performance or perfection.  

Develop a growth mindset: I have covered the difference between a fixed and growth mindset in a previous post/article. Basically, people with a growth mindset seek challenges. They remain hopeful and optimistic even in the face of adversity and see every experience in life as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Express gratitude: Gratitude is the quality of being thankful, appreciative, welcoming and grateful. Gratitude is a state of contentment and peace which allows us to enjoy life as it ‘is’ and not concerned with how it ‘should’ be.

Express gratitude: Gratitude is the quality of being thankful, appreciative, welcoming and grateful. Gratitude is a state of contentment and peace which allows us to enjoy life as it ‘is’ and not concerned with how it ‘should’ be.