When Life Spirals Out of Control: Self-compassion as an Alternative to the Relentless Pursuit of Self-esteem

At the heart of our competitive Western culture is a constant quest for positive self-judgment to boost our self-esteem in pursuit of happiness and success. This heightened self-esteem is often a function of how special we feel, how different from others, or how much we think we stand out from the crowd – just being " above average" is an insult.

By its very nature, self-esteem is fragile and is associated with a relatively unstable sense of self-worth. Our sense of self-worth ebbs and flows in response to our circumstances, to our latest successes and failures.

Whenever we fail to meet our high expectations or feel that we are not winning at the game of life, we react by beating ourselves up with harsh self-criticism: "I shouldn't have failed", as if everyone else was living a dream life, without problems. This way of thinking generates a lot of unnecessary suffering, because we feel cut off from the rest of the world.

Continuously indulging our need to boost our self-esteem is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. It's an emotional roller coaster ride that often ends in insecurity, anxiety, depression, and isolation.

Did Anthony Bourdain lack self-compassion?

I was devastated when I learned of the passing of celebrity chef, author, and globetrotting TV host Anthony Bourdain, who was famous and wealthy, but so depressed that he hung himself in a hotel room in France in June 2018 while working on a new episode of Parts Unknown.

How could someone gifted with such deep empathy for others, one that connects people across cultures and continents, one that moves us from the particular to the universal, fail to show compassion for himself and feel so isolated from the world that he ended his life prematurely?

Bourdain’s transient lifestyle has probably amplified his feelings of isolation. In his own words, “I change location every two weeks, I am not a cook, nor a journalist.” “For fifteen years, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends one week at a time.”

Practice self-compassion instead of self-esteem

Over the past decade, Kristin Neff and colleagues conducted research showing that self-compassion is a key determinant of well-being and life satisfaction. Note that self-compassion and self-esteem often go hand in hand. Someone practicing self-compassion is more likely to have higher self-esteem than someone who is constantly self-critical.

Self-compassion is an antidote to depression, negativity, and feelings of isolation. It helps to replace negative thought patterns, derived from critical self-judgment, with more constructive alternatives and adopt a more hopeful, optimistic approach to life.

When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion and call upon our inner sources of kindness, we are better able to discern truth from falsehood and feel more connected to others, less isolated and alienated by our suffering, and therefore more alive.

The role of self-compassion in building resilience

Self-compassion radically alters how we relate to difficulty and failure.

Self-compassion allows us to appreciate, without judgment, that our imperfections, sensitivities, thoughts, and behaviors are all part of being human. By realizing the shared nature of our human condition, we can appreciate the broader context of our experiences and adopt a more objective view. "Yes, it's very difficult what I'm going through right now, but it's normal and natural for human beings to struggle sometimes, I'm not alone..." This mindset opens the door to growth from experience.

The practice of self-compassion allows us to develop a resilient mindset by transforming negative thought patterns into positive ones. When we focus on the positive, we tend to perceive a stressful situation more as a challenge than as a threat. Unlike a threat, a challenge is a stress that we generally feel more resourceful to deal with.

Misgivings about the idea of self-compassion

Research disproves many of the common myths about self-compassion that keep us trapped in incessant self-criticism. The greatest barrier is the assumption that self-compassion equals self-indulgence and results in complacency. Yet, studies clearly show that self-compassion is a much more powerful source of personal motivation than self-punishment.

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”— Kristin Neff

Final Thoughts

Many of us have become seasoned professionals at self-criticism. Breaking a lifetime of self-critical habits takes work. Typically, we want to jump straight into problem solving rather than acknowledging our suffering.

Research indicates that, compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, a more accurate self-image, more caring relationship behaviors, as well as less reactive anger.

Compassion is contagious, and if a leader develops the ability to be self-compassionate, the benefits trickle down into the organization.

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