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The Sweetness of Self-Compassion

three friends eating pancakesOne of the staples in my daughters’ diet happens to be maple syrup. I’m not really proud of that fact. Yet, we are an avid pancake family and reserve most Sunday mornings for a pancake feast. Both Sophie and Josie are experts at making them now.  I’m more proud of that fact.

Between Sundays, it’s often frozen waffles before school, hopefully with the addition of some fruit. As so I was staring at the Vermont maple syrup bottle this morning. We err on the side of pure maple syrup when we can, rather that the food-colored corn syrup of Aunt Jemima or Ms. Butterworth. It’s sugar maple season here in New England, which means a few trips to farmers markets for the real thing.

I realized that the difference in maple syrup, the real vs. the fake, is sort of like the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem. Kristen Neff, PhD, who I was able to meet recently at a workshop on mindfulness-based self-compassion skills, has written about the difference in these two self- concepts. This subject is very important to me as it relates to children, teenagers and parenting. We live in a culture that elevates the notion of self-esteem to the ultimate heights of personal wellness. Without self-esteem we are nobody.

In general self-esteem is a global evaluation of self worth. Am I a good person or a bad person? Am I worthy or love or not?

The problem is not whether you have self-esteem, according to Dr. Neff. It’s how you get it.  In our culture to have high self-esteem you have to be special and be above average. And really, it’s not ok to be average. Think about it. This can lead to kids building themselves up – often by putting others down. This typically happens through social comparison and power plays.  Of note is that there are just as many bullies with high self-esteem as with low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is also contingent on success. When we fail or don’t meet our ideal standards in our heads or in relation to what we perceive others to have, we become really hard on ourselves. This is particularly so for girls and women. The standards for being beautiful are so high and impossible to achieve that many girls learn to feel terrible about themselves. Girls’ self esteem begins to plummet around age 10 and 11, and there are very real effects from the inner self-critic that develops – including self-harm behaviors so common today (eating disorders and cutting to name the most egregious). This happens with boys too, on the sports field or school yard, having to prove their ability to be tough, powerful and loyal to the pack.

Self-compassion is not a way of judging oneself. To the contrary, self-compassion is a way of treating ourselves kindly. There is no judgment at all.

Neff has outlined three core components of self-compassion:

1) Treat yourself with kindness as you would treat a good friend.

We are harsher to ourselves that we’d ever be to a friend. Believe me, I hear these stories in my practice. Self-criticism is both damaging and isolating. It separates us from others; it leads to depression and anxiety.  Kindness to oneself is an antidote.

2) Embrace common humanity.

In general the concept of self-esteem is “how am I different (or better) from others?  Self-compassion asks a difference questions: How am I the same as others? Who am I connected to on this planet?  Reminding yourself that you are not alone in your feelings and experiences is comforting.

3) Being aware or mindful of our moment-to-moment states of mind.

Tune in to the chatter. Tune into the world right now.Notice what is happening. What is meaningful in the moment? What are we saying to ourselves? You might surprise yourself with what you discover. We don’t’ notice the pain we suffer when we aren’t tuned in. Most of our internal thoughts are negative. This is the brain’s negativity bias, a natural inclination to be altered to danger. BUt now the danger is inside our heads.

Why to we do it? Why are we so self-critical? 

In part we can’t help it because our brains are built to jabber away. But we also have this belief we need to be hard on ourselves in order feel motivated to do things, to reach our goals, to accomplish something. If we are too kind to ourselves or give ourselves a break, we often consider this to be self-indulgent. This it drilled into our minds from early childhood. “Think about others first!”

Self-criticism actually undermines our ability to succeed because it triggers the body’s physiological threat system. Ironically when we are hard on ourselves, according to Neff, “We are both the attacker and the attacked.” Our bodies are in a constant state of high stress, which can lead to depression, irritability, and fatigue.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, taps into the body’s self-soothing system. It  fosters nurturing. Instead of activating stress hormones, being kind and self-compassionate releases the feel good hormones, like oxytocin.

How to best motivate our children?  When children make a mistake or do something bad, jumping into reactive criticism is not helpful. That can breed shame and isolation or explosive behavior. Taking a compassionate approach is accepting that humans make mistakes; and your child can get a message of understanding and support to repair the mistake or overcome a failure. “We all make mistakes.I know it feels bad right now. Let’s think about his and how I can help you make it better.”

The research is now unequivocal that self-compassion is important in wellbeing. Self-compassion is related to positive states, like happiness, life satisfaction, making healthy choices, and feeling connected to others. (For the research go to Neff’s website: http://www.self-compassion.org.) In her estimation, when looking over a decade of study on the topic, Neff says that self-compassion offers the benefits of self-esteem without the pitfalls of self-evaluation, social comparison and self-criticism. Self-compassion gives a sense of being valuable and being human, flaws and all. It’s not about fake it until you make it. Cultivating self-compassion is about developing authenticity.

Really, it is like pure maple syrup: raw, imperfect, genuine yet delicious.  I think I’ll have to bring this up at our next pancake breakfast.


Take the quiz: How self-compassionate are you?

Listen In: Dr Kristen Neff’s Tedx Talk on the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem

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