Many people desire to feel confident and good about themselves, which often involves improving self-esteem, or an internal assessment of one’s worth. Building confidence can be a key component in achieving overall health, happiness, and fulfillment. Kristin Neff, PhD, defines self-esteem as “an evaluation of worthiness.”
Psychologists are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of the common approach of boosting self-esteem as a means of building confidence. While improving self-esteem can certainly lead to more confidence, it can also have negative consequences.
According to Christopher Germer, PhD, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, self-esteem is often based on external validation, such as receiving compliments or likes on social media. This can make self-esteem fragile, as negative experiences like comparison, criticism, or feelings of isolation can easily undermine it.
If you’re struggling with a task, such as training for a marathon, and feeling upset with yourself, it might be tempting to try to push yourself harder in order to feel more adequate. However, this approach can ultimately be counterproductive.
When you criticize yourself, it can lead to self-doubt, which can make it harder to take risks and learn new things. It can also lead to fear of failure and a tendency to give up rather than trying again. In the long run, this approach is not effective.
An alternative approach to building confidence and a positive sense of self is self-compassion, which involves showing kindness and concern for yourself when you’re struggling, failing, or noticing something you don’t like about yourself.
Self-compassion is about acknowledging that you are human and deserving of care, rather than trying to meet certain expectations. By being compassionate towards yourself during difficult times, you can develop the resilience to persevere and make positive changes in your life.
“The common belief that self-compassion is a passive or unproductive trait is incorrect. In fact, it is quite the opposite.”
Self-compassion can be a powerful motivator because it helps you focus on your own well-being and desire to avoid suffering. This kind of motivation can lead to greater self-confidence because it allows you to approach challenges with a clear mind and a plan for overcoming them.
Instead of becoming overwhelmed by feelings of failure, self-compassion allows you to take a more measured and thoughtful approach, which can build your confidence and belief in your own abilities over time.
According to self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion provides a stable sense of self-competence, rather than just a temporary boost in confidence.
Contrary to popular belief, self-compassion is not a passive or unproductive quality. In fact, it has two sides that work together to help you care for yourself and make positive changes in your life. The tender side of self-compassion recognizes that everyone has flaws, but that does not diminish your worth as a person.
The fierce side of self-compassion acknowledges that you may not always behave in ways that are healthy or beneficial to you, but it also motivates you to take active steps to change those behaviors. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion allows you to both accept yourself and work towards self-improvement, making it a powerful tool for personal growth and well-being.
It can be challenging to be kind and compassionate towards ourselves, especially when we are used to being harsh and critical. We often find it easier to be understanding and forgiving towards others, while holding ourselves to impossibly high standards.
However, the good news is that self-compassion is a skill that can be developed and strengthened over time. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion is like a muscle that can be built up through practice. With effort and dedication, it is possible to learn how to be more understanding and compassionate towards ourselves, and to cultivate a sense of self-worth and well-being.
Exercise suggestions for self-compassion:
By practicing these three methods of self-compassion, you can gain a deeper understanding of this important quality and learn how to cultivate it in your life. The benefits of self-compassion include greater motivation, a better mood, and an overall sense of well-being that can last for years to come. By taking the time to care for yourself with kindness and understanding, you can create a more positive and fulfilling life for yourself.
- Identify your needs and desires.
According to Dr. Christopher Germer, self-compassion involves asking ourselves what we need to move forward in a positive way when we are facing challenges or setbacks.
For example, if you missed a deadline and are feeling self-critical, self-compassion might involve taking the time to identify what resources or strategies you need to address the problem and prevent it from happening again in the future.
This kind of inquiry, which is part of the fierce side of self-compassion, helps us find solutions and make positive changes, ultimately leading to increased self-confidence as we learn and grow.
- Place a hand on your chest as a physical gesture of self-compassion.
According to Dr. Christopher Germer, self-touch can be a simple and effective way to promote self-compassion. When you touch your heart or your cheek, it can help lower your cortisol levels and activate your vagus nerve, which is associated with the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system.
You may already be doing this naturally – for example, when you receive bad news, you may instinctively put your hand on your heart. This simple self-care practice can be a powerful way to soothe and comfort yourself in moments of stress or difficulty.
- Determine when you are unable to be self-compassionate towards yourself.
To cultivate self-compassion, it can be helpful to pay attention to moments when you tend to lack self-kindness or understanding. For example, you might notice that you get anxious or self-critical when you receive an email from a certain coworker, or that you engage in negative self-talk after a disagreement with your partner.
By identifying these patterns and making a conscious effort to be more compassionate towards yourself in these moments, you can work towards the positive changes you desire in your life. This advice comes from Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, the author of the forthcoming book “Real Self-Care.”
Here are some ways to practice positive self-talk:
The way you talk to yourself can have a big impact on your ability to cultivate self-compassion. However, simply telling yourself “everything’s great!” is not the most effective way to develop a more positive inner dialogue. Instead, try these tips to change your tune:
- Practice mindfulness: Pay attention to your thoughts and try not to get caught up in negative or self-critical ones.
- Reframe negative thoughts: When you catch yourself thinking negatively, try to reframe the thought in a more positive or balanced way. For example, instead of thinking “I’m a failure,” try “I made a mistake, but I can learn from it and do better next time.”
- Seek out supportive and compassionate people: Surrounding yourself with people who are understanding and kind can help you feel more supported and compassionate towards yourself.
- Use self-compassionate phrases: Try repeating phrases to yourself like “I am worthy of love and care,” or “I am doing the best I can.” These phrases can help you cultivate a more compassionate inner dialogue.
Pay attention to negative thoughts and feelings
One way to practice self-compassion is to try a meditation developed by Dr. Kristin Neff. To begin, focus on the mistakes or flaws that have been causing you stress or discomfort. Notice where these emotions tend to manifest in your body – for example, you might feel a tightness in your jaw or tension in your shoulders.
Allow yourself to feel these feelings without trying to resist or reject them. This can help you connect with the suffering that is caused by your own self-criticism or the belief that you need to be perfect. By acknowledging and accepting these difficult emotions, you can practice self-compassion and learn to care for yourself with kindness and understanding.
Express a desire or hope
Dr. Christopher Germer suggests using wishes instead of positive self-statements when practicing self-compassion. Wishes, such as “may I accept every part of me,” can be more effective because they feel like a supportive and compassionate presence rather than just the negative chatter in our own minds.
Wishes also encourage growth and self-improvement, rather than just focusing on the present moment. Using wishes can be a powerful way to cultivate self-compassion and promote a sense of well-being.
Substitute the word “should” with a more helpful and empowering word or phrase
It is common to engage in self-criticism by using words like “should” to blame ourselves for mistakes or shortcomings. However, this kind of language is not very self-compassionate, according to Dr. Pooja Lakshmin. Instead, try replacing your “shoulds” with phrases that foster curiosity and self-inquiry.
For example, you might ask yourself “could I have chosen to do X instead?” or “I wonder what held me back most this week?” These questions can be kinder and more productive than shoulding, and can help you cultivate a more compassionate and understanding approach towards yourself.