Self-Compassion versus Self-Esteem: Which Is More Reliable?

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Often people identify low self-esteem as a problem in their lives, but in my experience self-compassion is actually more important for overall happiness and resilience.  

We all would like to feel proud of ourselves, but we are also guaranteed to make mistakes and regret our actions and performance from time to time.  Cultivating patience and compassion with oneself as an imperfect, still-learning human is essential to staying centered when we disappoint ourselves.

What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is important. Everyone wants to be proud of their effort and accomplishments. This is particularly important for younger people who have not yet built a proud track record of persistent effort.

It’s important to remember that the reliable basis of self-esteem is effort – persistently trying to be a better person – not recognition by others. Younger people often need to be coached to recognize this difference because we all start by looking to the outside for our validation.

Kids who work at improving in sports, the arts or academics come to recognize the connection between effort and skill and this naturally creates self-respect for their persistent effort. This is true for adults as well.  

A person who has not labored to become good at different things will have no realistic basis for self-esteem. Deliberately trying to be a better person in concrete ways remains key to a person’s mental health and resilience throughout their lives.

What about Self-Compassion?

While self-esteem helps you make the effort to grow, self-compassion will help you through the times when you are frustrated with yourself or when the loss and grief of life gets you down.  It’s valuable to have high standards and goals for your performance and optimism about the future. However, this naturally leads to times when you’re unable to achieve your goals and are disappointed in yourself.  

And times when you feel let down by life. These are times to practice softening your heart to yourself, recalling the longer view, and reaching for your patience. It can be vey helpful to develop and write down self-compassionate scripts to use when your are feeling frustrated.

A Script for Compassionate Self Talk

To practice self-compassion, follow the pattern of 1. Acknowledge, 2. Validate and 3. Coach.

1. “Yeah, I get that we’re feeling frustrated and impatient with messing up again.  We’ve tried to get this right and part of me is scared I’ll never get it and am terminally messed up.”

2. “Remembering our context, it makes complete sense that I’m feeling this way and that part of me is feeling so discouraged. How human and predictable! It’s completely normal feel this way when trying to do something new and difficult.”

3. “Let’s take a little break to breathe and relax. Let’s recall some of our past successes and the work it took to achieve those. Let’s remember why this is important and imagine the sense of accomplishment we’ll feel when we are more skillful at this!”

Developing the mental habits of Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion takes time and persistent effort. This is effort that should be prioritized because the sooner you have these skills, the sooner your whole life improves. Do not delay!

Most people benefit from the guidance and support of a trained therapist or coach to help keep them on track.  I encourage you to give yourself the gift of trained guidance and reach out today!

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