While we may not consciously sabotage ourselves in everyday life, it is easy to allow small, controllable neglectful behaviors to pile up and chip away at our quality of life. Consciously or unconsciously, we don't always show ourselves the kindness we deserve and indeed need, and thus a gap is formed between our current states of wellness and the wellness we could possess but may be withholding from ourselves.
The term we are accustomed to hearing in relation to self-deprecating or self-inflating behavior is "self-esteem": pride in oneself and confidence in one's abilities."Esteem" is to regard with respect, to a prize, or as a noun, favorable regard. To have high self-esteem is to hold oneself in high regard, to deem oneself valuable. So when we strive to bridge the gap between current and potential states of wellness by improving our self-esteem, our job becomes to hold ourselves in high regard, to outline a certain way we should be and strive to meet the mark that has been set for us by ourselves, by others, or by some combination of both.
However, the quest for heightened self-esteem is a minefield riddled with potential troubles. Low self-esteem during adolescence correlates with poor mental health, future suicide attempts, and withdrawal from the construction of healthy, supportive social networks. Attempts to raise self-esteem can, worst case scenario, lead to narcissism, social withdrawal, and/or fixation upon those outlines that have been set for us as seemingly concrete borderlines into which we must fit ourselves.
A quest for higher self-esteem is not necessarily a quest constructive quest to make peace with the self, but a quest for a version of oneself that is worthy of regard. And these negative outcomes reveal that the idea is really quite a rigid and intolerant one that puts us in a position of automatic disappointment when we fail to fill the space that has been designed, or in a position of defensiveness when we painstakingly tailor ourselves to fit within this narrow and unforgiving space.
Cue the burgeoning and increasingly recognized alternative: self-compassion. Self-compassion was operationally defined by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. among others just over a decade ago, and it is truly the same as compassion for others: awareness of suffering and a wish to relieve it. To be compassionate is to be sympathetic and humane. When we try to bridge inevitable gaps of wellness by increasing self-compassion, our goal becomes to show ourselves the same kindness we extend to others. Where self-esteem may lead us to be intolerant of shortcomings, self-compassion allows us to understand that while we may have characteristics and situations that challenge us, we are truly enough.
Three key aspects of self-compassion are 1) treating oneself kindly, 2) recognizing that we and our experiences are not isolated, that our struggles are shared by others, and 3) minding oneself and one's thoughts and feelings. Compassion is accommodating and embracing. It is not about the walls we encounter with negative thoughts, the possible defensive or defeated actions we might take in response; it allows for us to engage with ourselves and with our challenges in healthy, meaningful, and forgiving ways.
It is so easy to set goals for ourselves that are unattainable and then to feel as though we have failed. And that is not to say that goal-setting and standards are not worthwhile and helpful motivators, but when we hold ourselves to rigid standards we threaten to debilitate ourselves. For some reason, it's difficult to accept that perhaps we deserve the same kindness we afford others.
Maybe I am phrasing this information as a revelation when it is really quite simple. But maybe its simplicity is the point. Things can be difficult, but perhaps the reason compassion is a useful tool is that it doesn't have to be complicated. Take yourself for who you are, not without thought, but with the care and understanding, you would afford one you love. As hard as it is to offer that to ourselves, such care is deserved and needed and possible.