What if everything your teachers and parents tried to instill about self-esteem actually made it more difficult to bounce back from failure?
Psychologist Kristin Neff believes just that.
According to Neff’s research, the “indiscriminate praise” showered on kids in the 1990s set them (us) up for disappointment. While the Sesame Street meant well, all that praise and self-esteem work centered our confidence around a comparison to others. As a result, many of us need to feel special and above average to feel a positive sense of self-worth.
It gets worse. “Self-esteem fails us when we need it most,” Neff writes. The times we struggle are precisely when our ability to see ourselves as above average is most diminished. Rather than focusing on self-esteem, she encourages people to develop their “self-compassion”.
While self-esteem centers on a comparison to others (“I’m the best. Gold star for me!”), self-compassion focuses on how we relate to ourselves. Neff’s definition of self-compassion is divided into three categories: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-esteem and Self-compassion in Action
I had a self-esteem fail in my own life recently after a conversation with a friend who wanted to hire me for a project. I completely bombed the meeting and walked away feeling destabilized by the experience.
Listening to my inner monologue, it was like I was channeling Meryl Streep’s character at the beginning of the Devil Wears Prada, berating myself with biting comments and a generally dismissive, judgmental tone. (For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, bon mots like, “Details of your incompetence do not interest me,” are representative of her managerial style.)
As I replayed each misstep, I thought of all of the other entrepreneurs who surely would have handled the situation better.
I then extrapolated out what this poor showing meant for all of my future client engagements and the longevity of my business as a whole. My self-esteem was crushed.
Here’s what self compassion would have looked like instead:
1. Self-kindness (vs. Self-judgment)
Author Mike Robbins says, “We get training on how to interact with others, but we don't get much training on how to interact with ourselves.” If you’ve ever written out your inner monologue when you’re most frustrated with yourself, odds are pretty good you’re saying things to yourself you’d never say to another person, let alone someone you cared about.
To apply self-kindness, speak to yourself the same way you’d talk to a beloved friend. Rather than jumping to Devil Wears Prada-style judgment, strive to be caring and understanding with yourself. Use a tone that’s comforting and soothing.
Self-compassion means seeing your flaws as normal. Neff writes, “Rather than relentlessly criticizing ourselves for being inadequate, self-compassion means accepting the fact that we are imperfect.”
Here’s a replay of my inner monologue after my meeting using the two different approaches:
Self-judgment: “What the hell were you doing? Maybe if you’d prepped at all you wouldn’t have word vomited for the entire second half of the meeting. Your friend has gotta be wondering why he ever considered you for this project at all.”
Self-kindness: “Yep, you could have handled that meeting better. You had expected a casual chat with a friend, not the more business-oriented conversation that transpired.
Could you have prepared more? Absolutely. You can’t undo it now, though, and that’s ok. Not every meeting is going to go perfectly. Write a thoughtful note and then try to move on.”
2. A Sense of Common Humanity (vs. a Sense of Isolation)
When we struggle or make a mistake, we often think, “There's something really wrong with me,” or judge ourselves as fundamentally flawed. Our failure or heartache becomes something we need to hide or push through. Instead, Neff encourages people to embrace these flaws as an indication of our humanity.
Literally every human has insecurities, screws up, and experiences failure (even the people that impress us most). Again, it’s super normal. Everything you’re feeling, others have felt before. The context may be unique, but the emotions are universal.
Here’s the replay:
Sense of isolation: “Oh, you screwed up big time and you should be seriously embarrassed. This potential client is (was?) your friend, which makes it even more mortifying that you handled the meeting so poorly.”
Sense of common humanity: ”Hey, guess what? Everyone makes mistakes. Think about your friend who bombed his job interview after several friends had recommended him for the role. He was mortified he’d even applied, he was so out of his league in the interview. But he didn’t combust from shame. He’s fine. He even ended up landing a gig overseeing interviews and hiring for that same organization years later.
Mistakes and failures are a totally normal (and – in fairness – kind of sucky) part of being a human.”
3. Mindfulness (vs. Over-identification)
In those moments when I’m upset, I tend to obsess on the most embarrassing, stressful or problematic aspects of the situation. Neff calls this “over-identification”, when we fixate on our current circumstances or flaws and can’t see beyond them.
Practicing mindfulness, on the other hand, allows us to approach these situations with valuable perspective of the moment in a larger context. It provides greater objectivity and perspective.
Mindfulness means I can watch the flow of my thoughts without following them with frenetic energy, stress, and urgency. To quote my yoga teacher Tracey Duncan, I can watch these thoughts float by like clouds in the sky.
Here’s the replay:
Over-identification: “Clearly, I will never work in this town again. Sure, I’ve been friends with this guy for years, but he’s going to go back to his boss annoyed he even suggested me and then word will spread that I’m no good.”
Mindfulness: “This conversation did not go well, and I notice I’m feeling a lot of distress about it. I’ve had a lot of fantastic client meetings in the past and rich conversations with this friend. I will have more great meetings and reconnect with this friend.
While my feelings in this moment are valid, they will change. How I feel in this moment is not how I will always feel forever.”
Next time your self-esteem is shaken, try this: give yourself 5 minutes to write down all of the stresses, worries and nasty thoughts that are coming up in your mind. Take 3 big breaths to reset. Then, reassess the situation using the three strategies of self-compassion: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.
It might not be easy at first, but like most things, the more you practice self-compassion, the easier it becomes.