Imagine you’ve just finished a job interview. You really want this job. But, as you leave the room, the emotional storm begins. You start thinking of all the reasons why you won’t get chosen.
“I bet I looked nervous. I had to explain why I was let go from my last job. I’ve put on all this weight….”
You endure a barrage of negative thoughts for a while. If you can relate to this way of talking to yourself, you’re not alone.
Everyone struggles in life. We face financial problems, work problems, and relationship issues. Sometimes we worry about how we compare to others. Painful inadequacy wells up from time to time. But some of us handle the negative self-talk more easily than others.
Does having life challenges mean we must always feel badly about ourselves? Absolutely not.
Tough times don’t need to leave us feeling stuck or down on ourselves. Armed with the right tools, we can meet challenges to our self-esteem, and feel more secure in our relationships and ourselves, by building a healthy practice of self-compassion.
What Is Self-esteem?
Self-esteem is the way you think about yourself. It’s based on your internal sense of worth. Self-esteem is also commonly referred to as:
If you think poorly about yourself often, you may suffer from low self-esteem. Common signs of struggles with low self-esteem include:
- Saying negative things to yourself (berating yourself)
- Believing others are better than you
- Feeling unable to accept compliments from others
- Thinking your failures outweigh your accomplishments
- Having trouble asking for help
If you are struggling, you might experience sad, depressed, angry, and anxious emotions. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed more than you need to. If it’s hard for you to take criticism, you may struggle to take part fully in activities and interactions with people the way you want to.
You may even think to yourself you’re not good enough for a loving relationship.
None of this is true. No matter what thoughts or feelings you have now, they are not the whole story. That is because as a human being, you are wired to grow, heal and thrive with friendship, and you can start by being a good friend to yourself.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Researchers and psychologists have found a powerful tool to help ease struggles that challenge our self-esteem. It’s self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the thoughtful kindness you extend toward yourself as you would a valued friend. Having an inner resource of self-compassion involves:
- Acknowledging suffering
- Noticing and being responsive to suffering and emotional pain
- Offering kindness and understanding rather than judgment
- Realizing that suffering, imperfection, and struggle are a part of the collective human experience
Self-compassion turns our own friendship into a vital resource when we need it most — when we struggle, make mistakes, or experience failure. We do not need to be hard on ourselves or punish ourselves to improve. Contrary to common belief, punishment isn’t required to “make us better.” We actually help ourselves grow and become our best selves by honoring and accepting our imperfections even as we learn from mistakes and missteps.
Meditation leader and author Tara Brach calls this radical self-acceptance. Dr. Kristin Neff looks closely at the impact of self-compassion in her research and her book Self-Compassion. Research is finding that being kind to one’s self helps people suffer less when upset by emotional pain, see their good points in balance with their shortcomings, and respond to life’s challenges in productive ways.
Self-compassion combines self-kindness, awareness of inner experience, and a sense of our common humanity. This skill allows us to turn toward our own pain. We notice when we are suffering, and how this joins us with everyone else. We are not alone in the experience of suffering.
Self-compassion helps people feel less isolated; they understand people can’t always have the things they want. It reduces self-pity, and helps people face adversity with kindness and sympathy instead of becoming frustrated and stressed.
Learning to Use Self-Compassion
Becoming your own friend is a learnable skill. To practice self-compassion, think of yourself as you would a cherished friend or family member. Notice if you criticize yourself for overeating, skipping a gym session, or making a mistake at work. Would you rain venomous words on a loved one for committing one of these mistakes? You would not do that to a friend, and you don’t have to do that to yourself. Meditation can help you sympathize, instead of condemn the suffering inside.
Another self-compassion skill is to advocate for yourself. Allow yourself to ask others for what you want or need.
Practicing self-compassion shifts our thinking. It helps us see our strengths and shortcomings with more acceptance and a more balanced perspective.
How Can a Therapist Help?
Shifting out of old habits of mind takes time and practice.
Lifelong patterns can be hard to change by yourself. A professional counselor can introduce you to self-compassionate ways to view your inner experience.
You will discover new ways to respond to suffering and negative experiences you notice in yourself.
Having low self-esteem can make you feel isolated from others and make it harder to feel like a normal part of the human race. But by exploring self-compassion and working with a therapist, you can see that suffering is the very thing that makes you perfectly and completely human. We all fail, struggle, and feel pain in life. This can get you down, but it doesn’t have to keep you there. You can take good care of yourself, be there for yourself, and live life as fully and freely as you want to when you are ready.