Finding the Peace

Self-Compassion versus Self-Esteem

Back in the late 80’s we started hearing more and more about building self-esteem. We had a movement from then on that was about building self-esteem.  The goal was to promote stable mental health and help people feel better about themselves.  Self-esteem involves a global judgement about ourselves. It often means we have to “be better” than others to feel good about ourselves. Being average is unacceptable. That is a tough one because no matter how good we are at something, someone is always going to be better, look better or top what we just did. Comparing ourselves to another person is always a losing battle. In order to manage our self-esteem and feel better about ourselves, we have to inflate our own self-evaluation or put others down so we feel better about ourselves.  (Neff K. , 2010).  In fact, this whole movement of building self-esteem may have actually had a huge detrimental effect.

Low self-esteem correlates with poorer mental health as it has increased the likelihood of suicide attempts, as well as affecting the development of supportive social relationships.  Research also shows that trying to raise low self-esteem artificially has increased tendencies toward narcissism, antisocial behavior and avoiding challenging activities that may threaten one’s self-concept. (Hayes, 2014)  In fact, one of the consequences of the self-esteem movement over the last couple of decades is a narcissism epidemic. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, did the research studying the narcissism levels of over 15,000 U.S. college students between 1987 and 2006. During that 20-year time period, narcissism scores skyrocketed with 65% of the students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations. This paralleled self-esteem levels which rose by an even greater margin over the same period.  Added to this, self-esteem has been linked to aggression, prejudice and anger towards those who threaten someone’s sense of self-worth.  Maybe this is why we also have a bullying epidemic going on right now – kids build up their egos by beating up other kids. (Neff K. , 2011)

Self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem but doesn’t involve the self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness and self-enhancement as self-esteem. In other words, self-esteem involves assessing oneself positively and often this means there is a need to be special and above average. Self-compassion does not involve self-evaluation or comparison with others.  It merely is a kind way to relate to ourselves even in our moments of failures or times of feeling inadequate or imperfect.  (Neff K. , 2010)  Self-compassion also has the same benefits as self-esteem (less depression, greater happiness, etc.) without its downsides. Self-compassion is not contingent on physical attractiveness or success. Self-esteem had a strong association with narcissism while self-compassion had no association with narcissism.  Other studies have shown that, unlike self-esteem, self-compassion does not lead to blaming others in order to feel good about oneself.  (Neff K. , 2011)

We all experience times when we have thoughts that are not positive about ourselves. We can’t prevent young people from experiencing insecurity and low self-esteem as we know already we haven’t been able to eliminate those feelings and thoughts within ourselves. People experience feeling inadequate or imperfect at times. It is part of the human experience. There is no way to protect our young people from social rejections, personal failures and family problems. The only thing we can do is to help them have the tools to deal with life when these things happen. We can help them to respond to self-doubt with self-compassion.

Dr. Kirstin Neff defines self-compassion as consisting of using three key strategies during times of personal suffering and failure:

1.       Treating oneself kindly.

2.       Recognizing one’s struggles as part of the shared human experience.

3.       Holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness.

With these steps it isn’t the content of your thoughts that is important. It is how you respond to your thoughts that matter. You become mindful of the thought that came up.  If it is a negative thought about yourself, you notice this thought without getting attached to it (become mindful), understand that it is common to all humans and part of the our shared experience as humans, and then treat yourself kindly instead of beating yourself up.

It seems that this approach is working better than simply working on improving self-esteem.  In a longitudinal study that followed 2448 ninth graders for a year, it found that low self-esteem had little effect on mental health in those who had the highest level of self-compassion. Even if they had negative thoughts, those thoughts had little impact on their sense of well-being over time as compared to their peers who didn’t have self-compassion skills. (Hayes, 2014)  So instead of trying to raise the self-esteem of our children, maybe we should work on giving them the skills to handle life in general. In summary,  this means that we teach ourselves and our children that we don’t have to think well of ourselves all the time to be successfully functioning mentally healthy people. Instead we have compassion as we simply accept that we are one human being amongst our fellow human beings, that we all have the same human conditions of self-doubt, suffering, failing from time to time, but that we are all here to live life with meaning, purpose and compassion for ourselves and others.

Having self-compassion is learning to treat yourself with the compassion you would treat a friend.  First you have to recognize that you are suffering. With a friend, you notice that they are suffering.  You are aware of their pain. You have to do the same thing with yourself. You have thoughts that are causing you pain. This requires you to be mindful of the thoughts and aware that your thoughts are causing you suffering. The next step is to be nonjudgmental about those thoughts. Just notice the thoughts and let the thoughts come and go.

Then realize that you’re suffering. Be aware that your thoughts are making you feel bad. Turn toward your pain, be aware of it, and give yourself compassion. You have to realize that your failings, and your moments, are part of the human experience. You are not alone, but rather you are part of the human experience. This brings us into the fold of human beings – not isolating us. We are imperfect as humans and our lives are imperfect. This is normal. And finally, be kind and loving towards yourself when you are suffering.  Dr. Neff even suggests touching your face affectionately or saying names of endearment to yourself lovingly to be kind to yourself. You may smile as you think about it, or you may not even be close to smiling at the thought of being that loving to yourself. But this is a step in the right direction for yourself, preparing for resiliency in life. If you are looking for resources, we offer groups that teach these skills. For today, take one step towards being kind and compassionate towards yourself, just as you would for a good friend.

Works Cited

Hayes, S. C. (2014, December 17). Is self-compassion more important than self-esteem? Retrieved from
Neff, K. (2010). Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 5:1-12.

Neff, K. (2011, June 26). Why self-compassion is healthier than self-esteen. Retrieved from
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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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