Self-esteem can leave you when you need it most, so try building more self-compassion into your daily experiences.
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” — Buddha
If you had to choose between feeling good about yourself or forgiving yourself and accepting yourself completely, exactly as you are, which would you choose? Would you rather feel good about yourself or have compassion for yourself? Would your answer change if you felt you had just accomplished a significant feat or made a major mistake?
Put another way, who do you appreciate more: the friend who always judges you both positively and negatively or the friend who loves you no matter how you might be at any given moment? If our goal here is to build our egos, then the first kind of friend arguably is more useful. Sometimes those kinds of friends are seen as valuable accountability partners, and there is certainly a case to be made for that kind of relationship, especially if it provides honest and helpful feedback. But if our goal is to tap into something larger and less fragile than an individual ego, then it appears likely that the non-judgmental, compassionate relationship is more likely to serve our highest good.
In this issue we will explore the difference between making feeling good the ultimate goal versus living from a place of self-compassion as a means for encouraging and enhancing “flow” — those moments when time seems to stand still and we find ourselves completely in the moment that is unfolding, fearless, free-spirited and fully alive.
The Two Faces of Self-Esteem
For years, our culture has encouraged the development of self-esteem, both in our lives and in the lives of the children we’ve raised. And that’s been the case for some very good reasons. Studies have shown that higher self-esteem correlates with lower depression and anxiety, among other beneficial effects. These positive connections make complete sense intuitively. We would expect to have fewer negative emotions if we feel better about ourselves. As a result, high self-esteem has become one of the key markers of mental health and well-being within the psychology community for many years.
But the pursuit of self-esteem in and of itself has come at a cost. If we equate “winning” at life with self-esteem and that is what makes us feel good, can we realistically expect to be winning all the time? And how can we all expect to be winning with none of us losing?
For many people, self-esteem is derived from the self-perception of being special, of being “more than” or “better than” others. Across our society, we seem to have adopted the concept that specialness is the ticket to happiness and self-
esteem. Just look at our cultural myths. How many movies have you seen where someone either was or behaved like a superhero? Not only is this expectation not realistic for us in our day-to-day lives, it also can lead to narcissism when taken to an extreme.
Another challenge of self-esteem is that it can be conditional. In our professional and private lives, we have seen many examples of people who had plenty of self-
esteem when they felt that they were succeeding in some respect, only to face the dark side of that coin when circumstances later changed. It’s easy to feel good about yourself when things are going well, but it’s when things are most challenging that we need the tools to help us cope with the circumstances. If self-esteem is critical to our well-being while also dependent on some state of success or being a “winner,” then it is guaranteed to leave us when we need it most.
“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you — with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.” — Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, believes that self-compassion provides a healthier alternative to self-esteem. She describes self-compassion as comprised of three main components:
- Treating oneself with kindness (as opposed to harsh self-judgment).
- Focusing on our common humanity. (“How am I the same as others?” instead of “How am I better than others?”)
- Mindfulness, or accepting whatever is in the present moment.
Dr. Neff’s research confirmed that self-compassion is strongly related to lower levels of anxiety, depression, stress and perfectionism and to higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, as well as to taking greater self-responsibility and creating a greater sense of connectedness with others.
In one study, she found that returning military veterans with higher rates of self-compassion were less likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder independent of the amount of trauma they were exposed to. In other words, their level of self-compassion was more important in determining their well-being than the level of trauma that they suffered. While most people probably would not expect this kind of finding, it certainly places the seeds of optimism and hopefulness in our own hands, which is a very precious gift.
“Self-care is not selfish or self-indulgent. We cannot nurture others from a dry well. We need to take care of our own needs first, so that we can give from our surplus, our abundance. When we nurture others from a place of fullness, we feel renewed instead of taken advantage of.” — Jennifer Louden
Dr. Neff’s research has shown that the primary reason people do not choose self-compassion is they believe that doing so would be self-indulgent or deny them the necessary motivation to keep striving to improve. The problem with that concept is it conflicts with our biochemistry. By being self-critical, we release adrenaline and cortisol and engage in the fight-or-flight response, which translates into high levels of stress. By contrast, when we are compassionate with ourselves and each other, we reduce our cortisol levels and instead release higher levels of oxytocin and other “feel good” hormones.
What You Can Do
And since we’re in the pursuit of “flow” here, we believe there is little to be gained from living in a fight-or-flight state unless you are truly in danger. Regularly simulating a state of grave danger for ourselves, which is the body’s natural reaction to constant self-criticism, will prevent a flow state from ever being experienced since one of the hallmarks of flow is a deep and abiding sense of peacefulness and well-being, even in the midst of very stressful or complex circumstances.
“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you live now.” — Alan Cohen
So, we encourage you to try this simple exercise as a means to building more self-compassion into your daily experiences. At the beginning and end of each day, and at least once during the course of the day, quietly pause and reflect for a few minutes on the following kinds of statements:
- I am not how I am by accident.
- I am part of something that has its own meaning and significance.
- No one is any more or less precious than I am.
- No matter what may be happening, it will always pass.
As much as we would like to feel good about ourselves all the time, we believe that being for yourself that kind of friend who loves you no matter what’s going down will ultimately lead you to your own greener pastures.
Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is immediate past president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services.