Self-compassion vs. self-esteem (and me in therapy)

Self Compassion Jack Kornfield

I went to a wedding this past weekend in North Carolina. It was a great, majestic, soaring wedding — in a way, aren’t they all? — and by and large, I had a very good time. It was with probably my central crew of friends at this stage in my life (although I don’t live geographically near any of them at present), although the actual bride (my connection) and groom (met him when I got in Friday) I probably know less well. (The bride is good friends with my friends from living in New York City, although she left New York City before I started hanging out with this group. That’s all a long way of saying that this woman’s wedding was probably the fourth time I ever hung out with her.)

Like I said, I had a good time — although Friday night I was a little bit depressed. People were coming in at different times and schedules were hard to coordinate initially, and sometimes when that happens, I start thinking about other aspects of my life where things are hard to click (like work, by and large). When that happens, I can go to a semi-dark place (or depressive place) about how I feel about myself and what I’ve accomplished and how I relate back to other people. I think about this stuff a lot. On the way to the airport yesterday, I was talking with my wife about maybe seeing a cognitive psychologist as the holidays approach — and into 2015. I’m not sure I will, although it’s something I have been thinking about. I suppose an initial visit or couple of visits couldn’t necessarily hurt.

See, my problems with therapy experiences in the past have been that they often seem too based on the past. For example, I don’t come from a perfect family. (News flash: no one does.) I’ve spent so much time in therapy talking about things that happened when I was 5, or 6, or 12. I understand those things, you know? I’m 33 now (and 34 in a couple of weeks). I want to know more about how to take the embedded experiences from when I was 6, move forward or around them, and optimize my life now. I feel like therapy (at least for me) has too much to do with re-analyzing the past. I’ve done that, and I think I understand how it’s created some limitations in me. Now I want to think about things differently.

I had some time at work today, so I was Googling around this concept and found a Lifehacker article from Christmas Eve 2012. It’s basically just a summary of a Harvard Business Review article from the same time period — which is sometimes I feel like half of what I do on this blog — but it makes an interesting point about the idea of “self-compassion” vs. “self-esteem.”

“Self-esteem” is a conventionally-discussed topic — it tends to be thought of as “How you feel about yourself.”

“Self-compassion,” though, is a little different. That means you can look at your mistakes and shortcomings and have some kindness around them — i.e. you don’t beat yourself up all the time.

We tend to have more books, videos, thought leadership, hiring models, and pop psychology concepts related to “self-esteem.” “Self-compassion” is a bit more nuanced, although there is academic research — like this one from Cal-Berkeley — that speaks to its importance.

Here’s where I struggle with all this, though: self-esteem I do think is important, and I don’t necessarily think I have it. I’m happy in my relationship and with my friends (although they are often are), but I don’t feel particularly good about myself. I think I could look better and be more valuable at work, and I think I could keep in touch with friends better and know more about manners and current events and I even think that, while I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and learning from it, no one is probably still reading this post — so maybe I’m kind of a failure at this all too. (September was a good month for traffic here, but October hasn’t been great so far.)

So self-esteem I feel I lack … but self-compassion I feel I have, broadly.

What I mean by that is — and that’s reflected in the name of this blog — I tend to attach a lot of context back to things. So if I fail at something, or I do something poorly, I can think to myself, “Well, there are these other factors.” I try to be kind to myself and remind myself that life is a marathon and not a sprint in terms of success, real relationships, connectivity, personal development, fitness, and all that.

But where I get confused is … where’s the line? If you’re always compassionate with self, wouldn’t that hold you back from real achievement because you’re almost propping up every defeat you have with a rationale and some kindness? That part confuses me.

Here’s the first comment on the Lifehacker article:

A while back, someone told me that it’s just as immoral to be mean to yourself as it is to be mean to others. That sort of took my head clean off, because I never thought of it that way. If I had a friend/co-worker/employee that made a mistake, I’d be the first to talk them off the ledge and help them get past it (if they were beating themselves up over it, that is). However, if I made a mistake: No punishment was too harsh for me. With age, therapy, and some other stuff I reckon, I’m a lot better at being a bit kinder to myself…

I agree with that, broadly. I think we should be kind to ourselves — and to be immoral to yourself is bad. You have one body and one mind, give or take. Treat it well, right?Self Compassion Germer

I’m just concerned about motivation, though — even though most self-compassion studies are tied to motivation, I feel that gap is incomplete. If you’re always being compassionate to yourself, can you move ahead? Or do you need to give yourself a bigger kick in the ass sometimes and outline where your self-doubt lies?

I feel like this has always been my problem: I can contextualize a negative situation and say, “Well, it’s not a race …” and/or “I shouldn’t be so hard on myself…”, but then I look at my life and think: Well, I’m 34, I don’t seem that relevant to the people I work with, I have a blog very few people seem to read, half the time I’m scared of others, I’m still overweight, I have a hard time committing to projects, etc. 

So I’m good at keeping things in context and having compassion aimed at self, but then … yet … I feel like I haven’t accomplished that much and maybe I need to be harder on myself.

Has anyone else encountered this line in thinking about their lives and, if so, what have you done with the schism?

Ted Bauer