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Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion

We’re constantly bombarded with images of edited and ostentatious ‘perfection’ as seemingly flawless relationships and bodies litter our social media feeds and public transport advertisement boards every day.   When we compare ourselves to others, we can often wonder whether we are good enough. Sure, we’re told that there is always going to be someone smarter, prettier and more successful than us, but how do we accept this? Majority of the time, this is met with “just be more confident”, or, “you should build up your self-esteem”.  However, these responses don’t magically melt away feelings of inadequacy. Boosting ourselves up is a little more complicated than being told “don’t feel that way”. In recent years, a fierce debate has been sparked as to whether spruiking our self-esteem is as helpful as previously thought and if it’s creating more damage than we think.  This has led to a movement suggesting self-compassion as the new healthier approach to dealing with prolonged feelings of self-dissatisfaction.  
 
Firstly, what is self-esteem? It refers to the way we think and feel about ourselves, and can be shaped by internal and external factors. Internal factors are those that come from within, such as self-talk and what you believe your abilities to be. External factors are those that come from your environment, such as the people you interact with daily. It’s important to note that external factors aren’t solely responsible for building self-esteem - no one else can prove your self-worth. Sure, friends can help boost it but that is only temporary. A person with low self-esteem tends to be extremely critical of themselves, judges themselves to be inferior and tends to ignore their positive attributes.  We all occasionally have doubts, however, feeling low about yourself for long periods of time can leave you feeling unmotivated and fretful. While self-esteem isn’t categorised as a mental health condition, it can certainly appear alongside one such as anxiety and depression.
 
Dealing with negative feelings is important. When people believe they are valuable and important, they take good care of themselves. Good decisions are made and you feel worthwhile and needed. Building a positive sense of self is something that takes time and small steps are key. This brings us back to the debate where a wave of psychology scholars believe self-compassion is a better path. Whilst there is nothing wrong with being confident, a key argument to building self-esteem is that it relies upon undermining others and comparing our achievements to those around us. This is when the waters become choppy, that to increase self-esteem you have to make yourself feel above-average and puff ourselves up. Constant comparison and aiming to reach a high level of self-regard can also lead to narcissism. Confidence feels good, but there’s a fine line before cognitive bias creeps in and one begins overestimating their abilities. This is where raising self-esteem can cause problems if it’s not based on reality.
 
So, why is self-compassion the new movement to address feelings of inadequacy and combat overconfidence?   Dr. Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and is a key driver in promoting self-compassion as an alternative response to self-esteem. A key reason for the shift is that self-compassion means treating yourself with the same love and kindness you would a dear friend or loved one. By admitting we have flaws, this keeps us grounded and assists over-exaggerating our faults and strengths. Self-compassion aims to include all the benefits of confidence without the risk of delusion - it’s much easier to receive feedback when you accept that you don’t quite know everything. Additionally, Dr. Neff noted that those who are more self-compassionate tend to accept their own imperfections and are therefore less likely to ruminate on negative thoughts.  
 
It can be difficult to grow and better ourselves if we don’t acknowledge our weaknesses. We might feel temporarily better when we ignore our imperfections but this leads to a loop of inertia. Self-compassion isn’t only about removing judgement from yourself and others but also self-comfort when things don’t always work out. It’s about defining your worth through a more grounded way, seeing your triumphs and weaknesses with   resilience. Self-compassion doesn’t demand that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as better than others. After all, it’s tiresome trying to be superhuman all the time.  
 
Here are some ways you can practice self-compassion:
 
1. Be kinder to yourself – being hard on yourself is like having your own personal bully in your head and who wants that? We all make mistakes, but it’s how we deal with them afterwards that determines how long we feel down about them. Rather than scolding yourself when things go wrong, ask yourself what you can learn from the experience and what can be done differently next time. It’s also okay to tell yourself that you did your best under the circumstances.
2. Be your own best friend - It’s said that the most important relationship you have in life is the one you have with yourself.  Plus, the way you treat yourself is reflected in your relationships with others so look out for yourself like you would a loved one - work on being more supportive and honest.
3. Express gratitude – rather than dwelling upon what is missing in life, there is an opportunity to appreciate what we have in this very moment. This helps us to be gentler with ourselves and move towards a view of appreciation rather than comparison.  
 
Written by Athina – ADAVIC Volunteer
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