It was the 1970s and adults were looking for a way to raise confident, go-getter children, ones who would celebrate the person they were to become.
And so parents and teachers started showering them with praise, creating a pop movement of self-esteem that played up their worth. Up those youngsters grew, with grand aspirations of becoming celebrities, astronauts — anything they wanted to be.
And then out came the beating sticks.
Children of the self-esteem movement — their identities shaped by I Am Special songs and “Princess” t-shirts — have become entitled, confused and self-critical youth and adults, raised to believe they can do anything and frustrated, sometimes devastated, when they can’t, experts say. The phenomenon seems at odds with the very definition of self-esteem: feeling good about yourself.
Now, decades since the praise began, psychologists and researchers say they’ve found a way to ease the mental self-battery that has become prominent in North American culture.
A new wave of research on self-compassion — the ability to treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend or a loved one — has been creeping into the mainstream, aiming to rescue people from the depths of narcissism and unreasonable standards they will never meet.
Borrowing principles from Buddhism and mindfulness, the practice demands people be kinder to themselves instead of sizing themselves up against others and beating themselves down.
Kristin Neff, a professor of human development…
and culture at the University of Texas, is considered a pioneer in self-compassion research. She published her first paper on the subject in 2003, and, since then, there have been more than 100 academic journal papers on self-compassion by a range of psychologists and neuroscientists.
Prof. Neff publishes her first book on the topic this month, entitled Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. In December, American psychotherapist Jean Fain released The Self-Compassion Diet, a book that applies the practice to weight loss.
But as a growing number of books advocating self-compassion roll off the presses, some academic observers are skeptical of the approach, questioning whether it will breed complacency and self-indulgence or if it’s just another self-help gimmick.
It certainly smells that way to Stewart Justman, author of the 2005 pop psychology critique Fool’s Gold. The director of the Liberal Studies program at the University of Montana said it smacks of some of the classic self-help strategies, applying the word “self” to many virtuous words such as compassion, loyalty and honesty.
“At some point, obviously, a price is paid for these redefinitions,” he said in an email interview. “I wonder if ‘self-compassion’ constitutes a remedy for the excesses of the self-esteem movement or is really more of the same.”
Narcissism expert W. Keith Campbell regarded the concept of self-compassion with suspicion when he encountered it a few years ago.
“It sounds like self-help hooey and it sounds wimpy,” said the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2009. “I think sometimes people hear a word like self-compassion and they think ‘Oh, it’s just like making excuses.’”
Regardless, Prof. Campbell, who teaches social psychology at the University of Georgia, says the approach could have some remedying effects on a generation of narcissists.
“I’ve seen the data and it’s a way of being very resilient and strong in the face of negative feedback,” he explained. “It’s not just giving yourself a hug.”
Negative feedback is something people with unrealistically high expectations of themselves struggle to accept, adds Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
He co-authored a study, published in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found self-compassion to be more important than self-esteem in dealing with negative events. The benefits usually attributed to high self-esteem may even be due to self-compassion, the researchers say.
“This shows us it’s far more important to be kind to yourself than it is to have high self-esteem,” he says.
“High self-esteem is no good unless it’s accompanied by self-compassion.”
Studies have shown narcissism can have serious impacts on mental health, contributing to depression and suicide if the supply of adoration, adulation and attention depletes.
Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can lead to the many of the same things if taken to the extreme.
Self-compassion, its proponents say, can guard against these things, at least in part. Studies from the University of Texas at Austin have found those high in self-compassion have lower rates of depression and mental health problems.
Studies on senior citizens and HIV patients conducted at Duke University in North Carolina have found those with higher levels of self-compassion are far more likely to ask for help.
“Our research shows most people are much harder on themselves than they are on other people,” said Prof. Neff. “What we find is people who are low in self-compassion are really compassionate to others and hard on themselves.”
But Christian Jordan, a self-esteem researcher and professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says there is a danger people will mistake the “go easy on yourself” mantra of self-compassion for an excuse to be lazy.
“I think there’s a real risk, given the superficial similarities the self-esteem movement has taught people, of bringing them into that mentality when it could be interpreted as being ‘You should always value yourself no matter what and not take an objective view,’” he said.
It could also backfire if someone with too much self-esteem or off-the-charts levels of self-regard adopts the concept, offered Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who co-authored the 2010 book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.
“There’s always the law of unintended consequences, and there’s a long history in psychology of people getting very excited about various fads without thinking about what the consequences might be,” he said. “Plenty of people who do have low self-esteem, I’m all for raising their self-esteem, that’s good and fine. But some people don’t have that problem.”
The notion that it will lead to self-indulgence is something researchers like Dr. Neff have heard time and again.
“Whenever you talk about self-compassion now, it’s almost the first thing out of my mouth: ‘It’s not self-indulgence’,” she said. It actually demands a lot of tough love, she said, using the analogy of a mother’s reaction when her child comes home with a failing grade on schoolwork.
“If she criticizes him and says “You’re so stupid and will never amount to anything,” that’s not going to motivate him — he’s going to be depressed and take basketball instead,” she said.
“But does she say ‘That’s OK, little John, you got an F, we love you anyway’? That’s not healthy either.” A compassionate mother would tell her son an F is unacceptable, but will help him figure out a way to improve the situation and not dwell on the failure.
Sounds like common sense. Then why don’t people apply the same approach to themselves, many researchers have asked.
The head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby published a paper last year which found that fear of compassion towards oneself was tied directly with a person’s fear of receiving compassion from other people.
The next stage of research on Dr. Neff’s horizon is figuring out why people tend not to take compliments very well.
Self-criticism is a tricky habit to shake. It’s why Dr. Neff stresses that self-compassion is a practice, an exercise that doesn’t, and won’t, come easily to most people. But she hopes that one day, instead of children in pre-school singing “I am special” in a continuous loop, they will employ some aspects of self-compassion.
For Prof. Campbell, whose own young daughter still takes home school assignments that emphasize her specialness, the change in tack could not come too soon.
“My only hope is that if this work gets out, people will start questioning uniqueness and they’ll start questioning self-esteem and maybe take some of the forces that push for those things out of our schools,” he said.
“But in terms of everyone in the country turning toward self-compassion, that’s a harder sell.”