Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kristin Neff - Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem

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Over at The Greater Good site (an offering of UC Berkeley), Dr. Kristin Neff offers an important and insightful article on why self-compassion is more important than self-esteem. For the past 20 or 30 years, educators and psychologists have been touting and pushing self-esteem programs for our children. It has been an epic failure.

Here is Neff's article, partly a promotion for her new book (Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind), and below this, I have some additional thoughts that take this idea in a different direction - about locus of control.

Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem

By Kristin Neff | May 27, 2011

Researcher Kristin Neff reveals the benefits of going easy on yourself: less anxiety, less conflict, and more peace of mind.

In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves?

I remember once, as a freshman in college, after spending hours getting ready for a big party, I complained to my boyfriend that my hair, makeup, and outfit were woefully inadequate. He tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, you look fine.”

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Fine? Oh great, I always wanted to look fine . . .”

The desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that by definition it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. Although there are some ways in which we excel, there is always someone smarter, prettier, more successful. How do we cope with this?

Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. But this strategy comes at a price—it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.

How can we grow if we can’t acknowledge our own weaknesses? We might temporarily feel better about ourselves by ignoring our flaws, or by believing our issues and difficulties are somebody else’s fault, but in the long run we only harm ourselves by getting stuck in endless cycles of stagnation and conflict.

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realize that—however much we’d like to—we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average.

The result is often devastating. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves when we finally admit some flaw or shortcoming: “I’m not good enough. I’m worthless.”

And of course, the goalposts for what counts as “good enough” seem always to remain out of reach. No matter how well we do, someone else always seems to be doing it better. The result of this line of thinking is sobering: Millions of people need to take pharmaceuticals every day just to cope with daily life. Insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgment, to beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t winning in the game of life.

Another way

So what’s the answer? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as “good” or “bad” and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.

When I first came across the idea of “self-compassion,” it changed my life almost immediately. It was during my last year in the human development doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, as I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I was going through a really difficult time following the breakup of my first marriage, and I was full of shame and self-loathing. I thought signing up for meditation classes at a local Buddhist center might help. As part of my exploration, I read Sharon Salzberg’s classic book Lovingkindness and was never the same again.

I had known that Buddhists talk a lot about the importance of compassion, but I had never considered that having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others. From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people.

I remember talking to my new fiancé, Rupert, who joined me for the weekly Buddhist group meetings, and shaking my head in amazement. “You mean you’re actually allowed to be nice to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you mess up or are going through a really hard time? I don’t know . . . if I’m too self-compassionate, won’t I just be lazy and selfish?” It took me a while to get my head around it.

But I slowly came to realize that self-criticism—despite being socially sanctioned—was not at all helpful, and in fact only made things worse. I wasn’t making myself a better person by beating myself up all the time. Instead, I was causing myself to feel inadequate and insecure, then taking out my frustration on the people closest to me. More than that, I wasn’t owning up to many things because I was so afraid of the self-hate that would follow if I admitted the truth.

After getting my Ph.D., I did two years of postdoctoral training with a leading self-esteem researcher. I quickly learned that although thousands of articles had been written on the importance of self-esteem, researchers were now starting to point out all the traps that people can fall into when they try to get and keep a sense of high self-esteem: narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, discrimination, and so on.

I realized that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem. Why? Because it offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. In other words, self-compassion provides the same benefits as high self-esteem without its drawbacks.

Although no one had yet defined self-compassion from an academic perspective—let alone done any research on it—I knew that this would be my life’s work.

Over the past decade, research that my colleagues and I have conducted shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. More so than self-esteem, the nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.

The science of self-compassion

So what is self-compassion? What does it mean exactly?

Kristin Neff's new book, Self-Compassion (William Morrow, 2011). Kristin Neff's new book, Self-Compassion (William Morrow, 2011).

As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.

This means that unlike self-esteem, the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are. Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.

Read the whole post.

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One of the things Dr. Neff mentions in this article is that those people with high self-esteem also rate high for narcissism. If you have known someone is who a narcissist or who has narcissistic traits, then you'll know that much of their identity is based on how others see them. It is in this way that self-esteem efforts have failed two or three generations of kids.

This need for external validation is one element of what is called an external locus of control. Another aspect, also common to narcissists and those with high self-esteem is that when things don't turn out in their favor, it wasn't their fault - someone or something else is to blame. When things go right, it was all them, no one else helped, there were no external factors involved.

[You can discover your own locus of control with this brief self-test.]

Julian Rotter (1954) developed locus of control theory, seeing it essentially as a binary - internal vs. external. In contrast to Rotter's unidimensional model, Hannah Levenson (1973) created a model with three independent dimensions: Internality, Chance, and Powerful Others. Levenson believed a person could experience each of the three dimensions independently and at the same time.

We have raised a couple of generations of kids with high self-esteem, and with an external locus of control, at least in terms of their own self worth. Clearly, this is a broad generalization, and like all such claims it is not universal, but I do believe it is prevalent.

Men and Shame

As regular readers no doubt know, I am speaking as part of The Ultimate Men's Summit this week (register at the link, it's FREE - my session is Thursday at 3:30 PDT) and the topic Owen Marcus and I have been given is "From Boy to Man -- What It Takes To Finally Grow Up."

My answer to this question is complicated. In essence, however, I will be speaking about building an internal locus of control.

When I talk to therapists who work with men, one of the primary issues they mention nearly every time is shame - many men, especially younger men, live with a sometimes debilitating sense of shame.

It's important to distinguish between guilt (when I feel bad because what I have said or done is in opposition to what I or others believe is right) and shame (when I feel bad because who I am feels invalidated or unworthy). Guilt can be instructive and constructive - shame is always destructive.

Yet, for many of us, we grew up seeking that external validation that we are smart, good athletes, attractive, manly, loveable, and so on. These are "self-esteem building" things we seek in others, but they are all external and do not come from within us, so if they are removed, we experience shame.

Here is an example of the difference I saw on a another site recently:
  • Teaching external locus of control to children: "I am so proud of you!"
  • Teaching internal locus of control to children: "You must be so proud of yourself!"
It's subtle, but it makes a huge difference over the course of a childhood.

So one of the big areas of work I see for young men (and for young women too) is finding an internal sense of self - an internal locus of control. And one of the realms that needs to be addressed in this work is the shame that has accumulated over the years for all those times we have not been enough - not smart enough, not strong enough, not man enough.

A book like Neff's can be very useful in this work, as can The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotion by Christopher K. Germer, a book that has helped me enormously.

How we choose to do this work is up to us - we might hire a coach, or join a men's group, or go to a Mankind Project initiation weekend, or get into group or individual therapy. But it's work many of us need to do.

If we don't do it, we will remain adolescent boys in the bodies of men - we will seek validation from our partner, our jobs, our kids, and a whole lot of other places, when we should be finding it within ourselves. If we don't, we will hit retirement with no job to go to and no kids to raise, and we will be lost and (often enough) depressed.

Working with Shame

Another tangent on this is that when we hold our shame in shadow (beneath or outside of our awareness), we tend to act from that place when it gets triggered. For some of us that means addictions (drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, sex) or hypermasculinity (risk taking, homophobia, misogyny) or any number of other ways to numb the shame.

So instead of keeping it buried, we might want to befriend it, see what it has to teach us, and show it (and ourselves) some compassion. It only feels like the enemy because it is the "other" - the unknown within us. But we need not live that way.


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