Cutting-Edge Research: What Is Self-Compassion & Why Is It Important?

I've recently posted 3 blog posts on self-esteem. There were: 

This blog post is a continuation on that topic, in a way, but, focuses on self-compassion instead of self-esteem, instead. Below I'll tell you what self-compassion is and why it matters!
 
In fact, in the coming decades, the topic of self-compassion might become just as important as that of self-esteem!

But let's recap some of the earlier blog post first:

In the first blog post, I defined self-esteem this way:

Self-esteem is how you judge your own self-worth.

You cannot value yourself outside the context of other people though, so in reality, self-esteem is how you value yourself compared to other people.

I also developed an account that self-esteem is (or, at least, should) be built by successful interaction with the world. In this blog post I'll deepen that conception a bit.

Also, different types of self-esteem can be distinguished, such as:

  • "Self-liking" and "self-competence" self-esteem. 

    Self-liking signifies how much you like yourself. Self-competence, however, denotes how competent you see yourself in certain activities.Self-liking and self-competence are not the same. 

    I can like myself really well, for instance, but I can also assess that I'm really incompetent in certain activities, such as repairing a car.

    My inability to repair a car does not entail that I don't like myself, however - that difference is simple.
  • "Defensive" versus "secure" self-esteem.

    In the former situation, you've got high self-esteem but you're actively defending that self-esteem towards others when it's challenged. The "secure" self-esteem entails that you worry less about what others think of you, even when challenged.

    The defensive variation is one of the reasons why self-esteem has received a bad rap in the last few decades.

    To me, defensive "self-esteem" is not true self-esteem because there's still a deep underlying insecurity expressed within this variation.

    With defensive self-esteem, you'll also have a higher desire to be famous, and less forgiving towards others, and more prone to take vengeance. If you're less secure in your self-esteem, you're also more prone to be socially anxious, self-conscious, aggressive, and to avoid social situations.

    The defensive variation of self-esteem basically entails overcompensation for your own instability and insecurity.
  • "Implicit" or "explicit" self-esteem.

    The first entails that you have high(er) self-esteem on a subconscious level, while the second instance means that you're mostly expressing the behavior externally without necessarily having (or believing you have) high self-esteem on a deeper level.

    If you score high on explicit self-esteem and low on its implicit variation, you might fill out a questionnaire as if being a very high self-esteem person, but when challenged by a colleague, your first impulse will be behavior that's associated with low(er) self-esteem.

    Explicit self-esteem is thus more imitative and forged. Scoring high on explicit and low on implicit self-esteem is also related to "defensive" self-esteem again - which was still insecure.

 

Ideally, you'll want both high implicit and explicit self-esteem,  secure self-esteem, and have tons of self-liking and self-competence (but only if you're really competent!)

Self-esteem is not just a psychological thing though: it can affect your health tremendously, in both positive and negative ways. Again, my second blog post on this topic considers all the benefits of high self-esteem and disadvantages of low self-esteem (and vice versa!).

The third blog post discusses strategies to improve your self-esteem, such as maintaining a daily happiness journal, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and mindfulness. You'll get access to 10 strategies to boost self-esteem in total, in fact!

In this blog post, moreover, I consider why self-esteem alone is not enough and why self-compassion is an important variable in psychological health. 

I really hope I got you curious!

Let's dig deeper into self-compassion!

Let's first look at the limits of self-esteem:

 

The Essential Question: Pursue High Self-Esteem Or Self-Compassion Instead?

You might be thinking: "so let's build my self-esteem up as high as humanly possible."

Not so quick...

There's no scientific consensus that more self-esteem is always better. In fact, higher levels of self-esteem may be associated with a greater ability of human beings to deceive themselves.[8]

Why?

High self-esteem is a protection mechanism against excessive anxiety and fear, helping you cope with the many events that can wrong in life. More self-esteem simply equals thinking more highly of yourself, which is emotionally soothing. 

The pursuit of greater self-esteem may also be costly.[9] 

Why?

Well, excessive self-esteem can be associated with narcissism.[157-163; 230]

Narcissism entails that someone attributes an excessively and disproportional high value to themselves.

There's no black and white distinction where you go transition from a person with high self-esteem to a narcissist. In fact, narcissism and high self-esteem are not necessarily the same thing.

You can have high self-esteem without being a narcissist, for instance.

Interestingly enough, narcissists are consciously aware that they value themselves more highly than other people do. Narcissists also know that their initially powerful impression often fades with time.

There's a catch though:

Remember I talked about different types of self-esteem? One distinction that could be made was between "explicit" self-esteem and "implicit" self-esteem.

The first "explicit" type signified that's mostly expressed upon conscious reflection and behaviorally  - in your actions--the second "implicit" kind of self-esteem entailed that you don't just act as if you have high self-esteem, but you're also (subconsciously) convinced that you've got high value.

Narcissists score lower on the implicit self-esteem, although that point is scientifically controversial. Narcissists' self-esteem is certainly more defensive and they thus score lower on secure self-esteem.

Remember it's precisely the secure self-esteem you're after, if you really want the full health benefits - the defensive type of self-esteem has side-effects.

The flip-side is that you can thus be a narcissist and have (secure) self-esteem.

Different types of narcissism do exist, such as narcissistic grandiosity or narcissistic vulnerability.

Vulnerable narcissism is linked even stronger to having lower self-esteem. People with vulnerable narcissism often have a victim mentality in which they want validation for their bad circumstances.

Nevertheless, the interactions of vulnerable narcissists still all revolve around them, just as is the case with grandiose narcissists.

To further elaborate: grandiose narcissism and high self-esteem are not the same things.[164-167; 331; 412]

Narcissistic people are more prone to be cruel, entitled, and have illusions of grandiosity, while people with high (secure) self-esteem are more likely to derive self-worth from equal social relationships.

Narcissism is frequently related to feelings of shame and not living up to one's standards. Narcissists continually need validation from outside themselves.

If you've got high self-esteem, on the contrary, you're more prone to cooperate with others, be open to (rational) feedback, and perceive all human beings as being equally worthy of value.

But let's nonetheless return to the shocking statement that even self-esteem may not all be what it is wound up to be.[168; 169; 240; 300]

Why?

It's precisely stable self-esteem is not promoted in our society.

What's promoted instead is a fake or illusory self-esteem that depends on your achievements or material possessions. Society in developed countries systematically distorts what it means to have high self-esteem.

If you're a man living in the US, for example, you may think that you should only have self-esteem once you reach a 7-figure income, have a sports car, look like Adonis, and have a playboy model as your wife.

As a woman, you're only "entitled" to self-esteem if you have over 100,000 Instagram followers, a great career, and have a buttock like Kim Kardashian.

The danger of self-esteem is people start to assume they can only have it once they reach certain goals in life.

That's a big mistake...

self compassion improves your daily self talk
True self-esteem: helping others does not 
bring you down.

  

Additionally, both low and the defensive type of high self-esteem are associated with increased aggression.[319-327]

If you have low self-esteem, you're more prone to be non-accepting towards negative emotions, have problems regulating these emotions, engage in greater expressions of hostility, and you'll more frequently attribute problems as originating outside your responsibility.

People who score high in self-esteem and high in narcissism, however, are even more aggressive. 

Keep in mind that for narcissists, (verbal) aggression is often a response to an ego that's being threatened. 

Antidote?

Having good social support may reduce your propensity for aggression (in men) - a social life wins once again. 

Women don't need aggression, and generally have other methods of getting "back at you", such as causing reputation damage...

There's more trouble though:

The explicit type of high self-esteem may also emphasize certain biases in you.[328-330; 332-334; 358]

You'll be more prone to favor people in your group, for example, than people who do not belong to your social community. 

Self-esteem that's too high in relation to your capabilities even lowers your overall performance - increasing your satisfaction at a job but not affecting how well you're doing career-wise, for example.

Higher self-esteem also makes you rate your own intelligence higher than it really is.[114; 340-343] Importantly, self-esteem is sometimes also seen as the end result of good academic performance, not its cause.

Why?

Again, self-esteem simply makes you persist longer without giving up. But: higher self-esteem is not always necessarily better.

Let's further explore the social biases created by higher self-esteem.[240; 348-354]

With higher self-esteem you'll rate your popularity, your social skills, and quality of your friendships higher--but these results tend not to be confirmed by others such as your friends.

High self-esteem can be deceptive in leadership positions - you'll not do your job any better.

Becoming more assertive, however, is one counterexample wherein you do have enormous benefits from having higher self-esteem.

With lower self-esteem, on the contrary, you're also more prone to be jealous, have less social support, and lower quality social relations with others. You'll also read more into problems and create (unnecessary) distance from others.

Tough choice right?

You're damned either way...

So what's the solution?

This:

Self-esteem needs to take a less central place if you want to improve your health, and needs to replaced by self-compassion.[195-197; 229; 242]

Self-compassion might be a superior way of looking at yourself compared to most types of self-esteem (except the secure kind).

Why?

Self-compassion is fundamentally unconditional, and hence, not dependent on circumstances. Instead, self-compassion assumes more of a third-person awareness of yourself that tells you to treat yourself kindly in all circumstances, even difficult ones.

In other words, you're always still worthy of love despite your shortcomings or failures. In a sense, self-compassion is thus the opposite of negative self-talk.

Fortunately, by becoming more compassionate towards yourself you'll also become compassionate towards others.

Self-compassion thus avoids a problem of most types of high self-esteem: you increase self-esteem at the cost of your valuation of others--self-compassion, on the contrary, helps everyone.

 

Why Self-Compassion Matters

Self-compassion additionally aids in many health dimensions. Self-compassion:

  • may lower the intensity of eating disorders and protect against body image concerns and help you deal more adequately with obesity.[198-205; 222]
  • improves your psychological well-being in both younger and older people.[197; 206-210] 
  • makes rejection less painful for you, lowers stress levels, helps you deal with setbacks, and increases your resilience.[195; 211-215; 225; 229; 241]
  • makes you stick to your exercise routine for the right reasons.[232]
  • helps you better manage yourself if you have a disease, or lower your stress and depression levels if your significant others are diseased.[216; 227; 231]
  • protect you against substance abuse.[217]
  • lowers risk for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and burnout - because you're less cold towards yourself.[218-220; 295]
  • may help you deal better with (chronic) pain.[221]
  • guards against perfectionism.[223]
  • helps you learn and control yourself.[233-236]

Sounds great right?

If you're thinking: "give me ten tips to improve my self-compassion" then I'll have to disappoint you. 

Unfortunately, there's not that much research on improving self-compassion.

 

(Advanced explanation: problematically, most of the studies on self-compassion are still associative and cross-sectional studies, making it very hard to posit valid cause and effect relationships.

What's fascinating is that many self-compassion authors claim that the pursuit of self-compassion can replace that of self-esteem--I do not agree. I assume that studies will eventually demonstrate that very high self-compassion levels are equally as destructive as very low self-compassion levels.

Why?

Because you'll become too nice to yourself and never take action when you should. Some will make the counterargument that I don't understand self-compassion, because taking assertive action can also be compassionate. I've not taken a final position on this subject (nor on any subject.))

 

For improving self-compassion, mindfulness meditation enters the picture once again.[236; 237] 

One reason for that effect is probably because you wind up less in possibly destructive states of mind, such as fear, rumination, or anxiety. You'll also be able to let these states of mind go, further increasing the chances that you'll act in the real best interest of yourself. 

What is called "heart rate variability training", secondly, can also directly increase your self-compassion levels. That's an interesting finding. 

(The Biostrap EVO is perfect for measuring your HRV levels over time as well!)

Assuming a growth mindset, happiness journaling, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and forgiving yourself for past mistakes have also been suggested as means to improve self-compassion.

Sadly enough, I can currently only recommend these therapies based upon anecdotal evidence as of right now.

I'll be closely watching the research that's coming out in the area of self-compassion in the coming years and updating this blog post in turn.

Now that you've probably read my entire series on self-esteem as well as my take on self-compassion, let's dig deeper into the limits of self-esteem once again:

 

 

Self Esteem Has To be Earned? 

While self-compassion should be limitless, there's a golden mean to most types of self-esteem.

I hereby assume that self-esteem is created as a reflection of how successfully your actions are carried out within the world.

For that reason, most types of self-esteem must be earnedsuch as those relating to your competence in certain actions. Self-esteem should thus track your general ability in a given skill.

In terms of secure self-esteem, however, I do assume that a more limitless approach is better. Everyone deserves that security in life.

But let's further explore why both low and high self-esteem can be both right in given instances.

If I'm a very bad driver, for example, I should not have enormous self-esteem in my ability to drive a car - that's extremely destructive.

If I'm a bad student, I should not have extremely high self-esteem levels - again, that self-esteem is undeserved and detrimental.

Why?

Let's say I do indeed have very high self-esteem levels while I'm writing a paper on an academic subject. What will the final outcome of that paper be?

A bloody disaster... 

Let me give you another reason:

Children develop what is called a "theory of mind" at a very early age. That theory of mind entails that children learn that the world does not revolve just around them, but that other humans in their consciousness have thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions of their own.

A theory of mind is integral for developing an adequate account of consciousness of yourself and others.

Why?

Without attributing thoughts and emotions to other human beings, you can never be successful (in the world).

What's my point?

Decades of brainwashing in developed societies have created the destructive illusion that more self-esteem is always better--it's not.[230] Excessive self-esteem can lead to entitlement and misery - two states of mind that are over-represented in modern societies.

Having entitlement - through excessive self-esteem - means that you're no longer acting out that theory of mind in any proper fashion. The end result of that entitlement is less compassion and fewer win-win outcomes in social situations.

On another note:

Remember the self-deception I just talked about earlier?

If you've got very high self-esteem, you're more prone express what is called the "Dunning-Kruger" effect - a belief in false superiority.[238; 239] 

Translated to the theory of mind I talked about earlier, that false superiority makes you esteem yourself higher than others even though there's no logical basis to do so in the first place.

Society's conception of self-esteem is thus very dangerous.

An example of a result of that development?

Self-esteem levels, as well as narcissism, have been rising in college students.[309; 314; 410] 

So why does that dynamic occur?

Well, since the 1970s and 1980s, many self-help programs have emphasized the importance of self-esteem. The assumption of many of such programs was that most people had low self-esteem issues.

The assumption was that society would progress by fixing those issues.

That program of building the self-esteem levels of the general population may not be warranted.

Why?

Again, in part, because self-esteem programs exacerbate all kinds of biases that are positive towards yourself but negative towards other. Through such biases, you'll start to value yourself as better than you truly are.[310-313]  

Example:

College students, for instance, have seen decreases in their performance in the last few decades but have had increases in their self-esteem. Interestingly enough, the less contextual implicit self-esteem is going down instead of up.

Big mistake...

Why?

Reality will put your too high self-esteem eventually in check. If you've got self-esteem that's too low you'll also get in trouble.

Example?

Sure...

Let's say I have to give a presentation and I'm feeling somewhat anxious for that big moment.

I've done very well giving presentations in the past, but my anxiety is holding me back from performing at my best that day.

I decide to drink a few glasses of wine 2 hours before the final presentation and end up doing pretty well, in part, because my anxiety is dramatically lowered.

Due to the alcohol, my self-esteem temporarily assumes the levels I needed to perform optimally in that situation. Of course, you can question whether dealing with my anxiety issues through drinking is a good coping strategy - but in this specific case, the drinking did the job.

(Please keep in mind that drinking is never a long-term solution.)

Now imagine this:

Instead of drinking two glasses of wine, I'm becoming very confident and decide to finish the full bottle. An hour later, I'm expecting to give a mind-blowing presentation while my self-esteem is off the charts.

I even start to think that everyone likes me and I'm smiling from ear to ear.

The sad part of the story is that I completely blow the presentation. Making matters worse, I get reprimanded for smelling like alcohol.

Moral of the story?

Only the right level and kind of self-esteem moves you toward the best possible outcomes in life.

To be sure, I'm not saying that if you're a janitor (or a broke blogger like me) that you should have low self-esteem. 

Not at all...

Even as a janitor or broke blogger you can learn to properly predict how other people respond to your actions, and change your behavior accordingly.

Qua competence, you need self-esteem should match your ability to interact with the world. Qua secure self-esteem, you need unconditional love.

Let's look at which situations very high self-esteem in terms of competence is indeed warranted:

If you've done thousands or presentations in front of different audiences, then you deserve to have very high self-esteem levels in that situation.

Your self-esteem in presenting is high because you've earned it. You've earned that self-esteem because you're actually really good - you're not just thinking you're good.

In summary: it's always best to have high stable self-esteem levels regardless of your circumstances. But your self-esteem regarding certain actions, abilities, and habits should track your capability.

 

Finishing Thoughts: The Limits To Self-Esteem And Rise Of Self-Compassion!

i hope you loved my series on self-esteem and self-compassion. Unfortunately, there's not much research on how to improve the latter- right now.

Nevertheless, the suggestion to use mindfulness to increase your self-compassion is very helpful because mindfulness practice is absolutely free.

Also, there's a ton of common sense involved as well, I think. If you're very harsh on yourself, often engage in negative self-talk, negative labels, and black and white thinking, you're probably not very self-compassionate.

Of course, these are also signs of low self-esteem, if they exist structurally. So, in a way, self-compassion and self-esteem are two sides of the same coin, although, different.

The ultimate lesson? Don't be too harsh on yourself! Take good care of yourself because you deserve the best, just like anyone else does! 

The more self-compassionate you are, the happier you'll be and the better your life will become. Oh yeah, don't forget to read my blog post about happiness either!

 

 

This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com. 

 

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