A while back I posted a video presentation by Dr. Kristin Neff on The Science of Self-Compassion. I am a fan of her work, so I thought I'd post this interview from Noetic Now, conducted by Dr. Cassandra Vieten, who is also quite cool (saw her at the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference here in Tucson in 2010).
The Noetic Now people are strict about quoting their articles, so here is one especially important section of which I think a LOT more people (especially in education) should be aware.
Self-esteem is judging yourself positively—“This is me; I am good.” Self-compassion has nothing to do with judgment or evaluation. It’s a way of relating to yourself kindly and with concern, in an interconnected way.
Vieten: What's the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem?Read the whole interview.
Neff: I can talk for a long time about this one. One of the reasons I got interested in studying self-compassion is because it changed my life personally when I started learning about it in my Buddhist meditation group. As luck would have it, I did a postdoc with Susan Harter, one of the country’s leading researchers on self-esteem. I learned that psychology has fallen out of love with self-esteem. Certainly if you don't have it, you’ll be depressed and anxious, which is not a good thing, but the big question is how do you get it? There’s an epidemic of narcissism in our culture. All the emphasis on self-esteem over the last twenty years or so has led to the highest levels of narcissism ever recorded, especially among college students—and this is a problem. People who are prejudiced, for example, have very high self-esteem; that’s how they get their self-esteem—“I’m better than you.” Bullies often have high self-esteem, which they get in the same way.
There’s something called the better-than-average affect, which refers to how everyone needs to feel special or above average just to feel okay about themselves. For example, let’s say I meet up with you, Cassie, and say, “Oh wow, your outfit looks really average today,” you’d be horrified, right? You’d be insulted. If someone calls us average, it feels like a blow to our egos. What that shows is that we all have to feel better than average in order to feel okay about ourselves. How do we do that? We subtly put other people down, and we subtly puff ourselves up. We subtly find ways to feel we’re better than others to maintain our self-esteem. Self-esteem is actually problematic, and the research is now very clear on that.
Self-esteem is judging yourself positively—“This is me; I am good.” Self-compassion has nothing to do with judgment or evaluation. It’s a way of relating to yourself kindly and with concern, in an interconnected way. Self-compassion isn’t about good or bad—in fact, when you fail, that’s exactly when self-compassion is needed. That’s one important difference: self-esteem is a kind of judgment, while self-compassion is a way of relating.
I think the research is encouraging because it shows that self-compassion does all the good things self-esteem does. In other words, if you have high levels of self-compassion, or self-esteem, you won’t be depressed or anxious, and it’s unlikely to get so bad that you would fall into a psychological abyss and think about suicide. But self-compassion doesn’t include the problems self-esteem brings. Self-compassion is not at all associated with narcissism. It’s associated with interconnectedness as opposed to feelings of isolation. People who are self-compassionate don’t feel better than other people. Self-compassion also manifests better in relationships than self-esteem does. If you think about the fights we have, they’re often about our egos, right? And they’re often with the people we love. I could go on and on, so to sum it up, I would say self-compassion has the benefits of self-esteem without self-esteem’s drawbacks.
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