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Sep 08
Scene and Heard
Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion?

The beauty of the inner world's nightvision.

by Iektje van Bolhuis

As a student of the dharma and psychology, I get very excited to find that many recent research findings are remarkably consistent with dharma teachings. Recently, I published the following blog on my work website about research findings on self-compassion. This is a term coined by psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, a faculty member at the University of Texas in Austin. Self-compassion is very similar to the Buddhist concept of maitri.

In our culture there is a lot of concern for self-esteem. As parents and teachers we are always trying to foster children’s self-esteem, and many of my clients come to me asking for help to improve their self-esteem. But is self-esteem really all it is cracked up to be?

Psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin coined the term self-compassion. Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as kindness and acceptance towards yourself, especially when you experience hard times or failure. Self-compassion is based on a sense of shared humanity. Because you are a human being, you deserve kindness and compassion, like anyone else. Dr. Neff has done a lot of research on self-esteem and self-compassion and has found that self-compassion may actually be a healthier way of relating to yourself than self-esteem. Here are some of the things she found.

The problem with self-esteem

Self-esteem is “feeling good about yourself” and believing that you are competent in areas that are considered important by your society. Low self-esteem is often associated with feeling bad about yourself, and mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Although high self-esteem can lead to a person being optimistic and having positive feelings about him- or herself, having high self-esteem is not always a positive thing.

Dr. Neff identified several problems with self-esteem. First, self-esteem is almost always based on comparing yourself to others in the way you are measuring up. Therefore, self-esteem has a competitive element to it and is dependent on you believing that you are “better than” others or “above average.” Because self-esteem is dependent on comparison, it is also unstable.

Not everybody can be above average in all areas, and because we are all human, we all make mistakes and experience failure at times. When we have these experiences this can hurt our self-esteem. Sometimes, in order to preserve our self-esteem, we may distort or filter information or feedback that is negative, and place too much emphasis on information that supports our self-esteem, leading to an unrealistic view of ourselves. Too much self-esteem can also lead to narcissism and a sense of entitlement and even a lack of regard for others.


In her years of research on self-esteem and self-compassion, Dr. Neff found that self-compassion is a healthier way of relating to oneself, and actually leads to greater wellbeing and better mental health than self-esteem does. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on comparing yourself to others. Instead, self-compassion is partly based on recognizing what we all have in common as human beings. Therefore, if you experience failure or a setback, you can recognize that all people make mistakes and go through experiences like this at times. This feeling of shared humanity can help you cope with the painful experience without feeling bad about yourself as a person.

Self-compassion is also kindness and concern for yourself. Often people are much harder on themselves than they are on other people – we are often our own harshest critics. When you cultivate self-compassion you can learn to extend to yourself the same kindness and concern that you would extend to others as well. Finally, having self-compassion helps you to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in an honest, and non-judgmental way, much like mindfulness. Mindfulness is a topic that we at the ApaCenter have written about extensively, and research suggests that mindfulness has many benefits for people’s health and wellbeing.

Dr. Neff discovered with her research that people who have more self-compassion are also more resilient, experience less stress, and experience greater wellbeing than people with less self-compassion. She also learned that self-compassion can increase with training and practice, and that when people’s self-compassion increases their resilience and wellbeing increases as well. For more information please check Dr. Neff’s website. It is a great resource with articles, videos, and exercises that can help you increase your self-compassion. The counselors at the ApaCenter can also work with you to help you increase your self-compassion.

To read more of my articles, please visit the ApaCenter Blog.

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5 responses to “ Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion? ”
  1. I think there is an unfortunate conflation of self-esteem and grandiosity here. Adopting a superior posture with respect to others is, in my experience, always a compensation for shame. It may look superficially like self-esteem, but it is not genuine. Genuine feelings of competence and worth depend on self-acceptance, self-kindness, self-compassion — and on certain other things as well, such as self-responsibility.

    The reason this is important is that if you wish to reduce grandiosity (and the oppressive tendencies that go along with it), you must help people grow in genuine self-esteem. I do believe many people have a superficial understanding of self-esteem, but sacrificing the concept of self-esteem to grandiosity, in my view, is not ultimately helpful.

  2. I don’t have research to back this up, but from personal experience I can say that self compassion tends to lead towards to compassion towards others in a way that simple self-esteem would not.

    Self compassion to me is about understanding we are all human and we all share the difficulties and mistakes that come with living in an unpredictable world. With self compassion we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness because of these universal difficulties that we all manage as best we can.

    From this perspective, its natural to then extend this compassion to others. The source of compassion and kindness for myself is at the same time the source of kindness and compassion for others. We are all struggling in the same overall situation. From here I feel love for myself and others, despite our shared failings.

    Self esteem, with its competitive and comparative sources separates us from others. It does not feed into a universal sense of kindness like self compassion does. This is an important distinction to make. Self compassion is good for everyone.

  3. The whole quote should read “fierce kindness is the strong determination to change thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that, in the long run, are not in your best interest, but doing so out of kindness rather than criticism or guilt.”
    Thank you, Sasha Loring

  4. You also may be interested in a book I authored, published recently entitled “Eating with Fierce Kindness: A Mindful and Compassionate Guide to Losing Weight.” Many psychotherapists report they are finding it valuable not only for weight loss but also for people with anxiety and depression. Fierce kindness is “the strong determination to change thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that, in the long run, are not in your best interest.”

  5. Iektje

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

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