self-esteem

Why you should ditch self-esteem for self-compassion

close up of an african american baby hand in mother's handIn the field of education it’s common to assume that self-esteem and academic performance are closely linked, and that if you want to maximize students’ potential you need to boost their self-esteem.

Its also common to hear that bullies are people with low self-esteem, and that if you want them to be more respectful of others then their self-esteem needs to be boosted.

Most of this received wisdom has been shown to be highly questionable, or even untrue. It seems that people who do well academically have high self-esteem as a result—not the other way around.
And I’m sure almost every student can think of times they were convinced they were going to fail an exam but performed excellently, or were confident they were going to do well and instead did miserably. Where was the correlation between self-esteem and performance there?

Also, the term self-esteem covers a wide variety of behaviors, from an honest assessment of one’s strengths to outright narcissism and conceit. Bullies, in fact, frequently esteem themselves as being more important than others. They bully in order to remind themselves—and others—of their high status. Misguided attempts to “boost” their already high self-esteem merely leads to greater self-inflation.

Self-esteem is where our sense of well-being comes from thinking that we, as a whole, are worthy because of particular abilities or qualities we have. One definition is “a feeling of satisfaction that someone has in himself or herself and his or her own abilities.” Another is “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities.” We base our confidence and feeling good about ourselves on our ability to be good at things. We think well of ourselves because of the part of us we’re proud of. And so we may relate to ourselves with a certain degree of kindness when things are going well.

But what about when things aren’t going so well? Our self-esteem may crumble when our weaknesses are exposed, or when things in life aren’t going well. If we focus on self-esteem, then when we’re faced with challenges we’re less likely to be kind to ourselves. The very fact that we’re experiencing difficulties may be taken as a sign that we’re not competent and that we’re not worthy. We may blame ourselves for failing, or even just for suffering, and this makes us suffer even more. We may end up choosing to “protect” ourselves from an awareness of difficulties by pretending they don’t exist, or by blaming others or by focusing on their faults to distract ourselves from our own. We may chronically avoid challenges, because it’s possible to convince ourselves that we would have succeeded had we wanted to.

Self-compassion is very different from self-esteem. Self-compassion is simply relating to ourselves kindly, especially when things are tough. When we discover weaknesses in ourselves, we don’t need to deny them. We simply acknowledge the fact that we are imperfect, and offer a kind and compassionate response to ourselves. Rather than rejecting parts of ourselves, we accept ourselves.

Self-esteem means making judgements about parts of us being “bad” or unacceptable. Self-compassion simply recognizes that parts of us suffer, and offers support to any part of us that’s struggling. Self-esteem is divisive. Self-compassion integrates and heals.

There are always people who think that accepting and being kind to ourselves when we fail to meet our expectations is going to cause us to fail even more. They think that self-compassion will lead to reduced expectations and to letting ourselves off the hook. But this isn’t the case. People who score highly for self-compassion have greater emotional resilience. They know how to deal with failure and difficulties. They’re able to give themselves reassurance and support as they face challenges. And as a result, they’re less likely to give up when the going gets tough.

When we’re self-compassionate we recognize that some of our actions and habits are unhelpful and lead to ourselves and others suffering. And when we see such things in ourselves we don’t encourage them. In fact, we see that our long-term welfare is connected with overcoming such flaws. But we don’t beat ourselves us, since we recognize that doing so is just another unhelpful habit to be overcome.

Self-compassion gives us a good feeling about ourselves, because kindness and compassion lead to reduced inner conflict and to feelings of well-being. Compassion has also been shown to activate the brain’s “pleasure centers.” Self-compassion helps us to feel confident about ourselves because our default mode is to offer ourselves encouragement. Encouragement leads to confidence, as most of us know from experience.

In this way, self-compassion offers us the potential benefits of self-esteem (confidence, feeling good about ourselves) without its drawbacks (avoiding challenges, self-inflation, and self-blame).

Moreover, while high self-esteem can lead to us behaving unkindly to others (think of any narcissistic boss you’ve ever had) self-compassion naturally leads to our having compassion for others. When our default response is to offer kindness and support, this doesn’t stop at the supposed “boundaries” of our own being, but spills over into our relations with others. Self-compassionate individuals are compassionate towards others as well.

As the Buddha said, “Looking after oneself, one looks after others; looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

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Why does the Government want to teach mindfulness in schools?

Judith Woods, The Telegraph: Mindfulness. If you’re not yet au fait with the concept, it might be a good idea to familiarise yourself with it now, because you’ll be hearing a lot more about it; from business leaders, academics, politicians and – of course – educationalists.

As Schools Minister David Laws this week told MPs: “We are very interested in promoting this [idea] and we certainly think that it is an area that merits consideration based on the evidence we’ve seen to date.
“My colleague [education minister] Liz …

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Is self-compassion more important than self-esteem?

wildmind meditation newsSteven C. Hayes, Ph.D., The Huffington Post: Is it important to love yourself?

It seems that depends on how you do it.

Few concepts in popular psychology have gotten more attention over the last few decades than self-esteem and its importance in life success and long-term mental health. Of course, much of this discussion has focused on young people, and how families, parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors can provide the proper psychological environment to help them grow into functional, mature, mentally stable adults.

Research shows that low self-esteem correlates with poorer mental health …

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Grow inner strengths

Hanson_thI’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act-both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.

How?

Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?

In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.
hardwiring
This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it. (Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

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Know you’re a good person

For many of us, perhaps the hardest thing of all is to believe that “I am a good person.” We can climb mountains, work hard, acquire many skills, act ethically – but truly feel that one is good deep down? Nah!

We end up not feeling like a good person in a number of ways. For example, I once knew a little girl who’d been displaced by her baby brother and fended off and scolded by her mother who was worn down and busy caring for an infant. This girl was angry at her brother and parents, plus lost and disheartened and feeling cast out and unloved. She’d been watching cartoons in which the soldiers of an evil queen attacked innocent villagers, and one day she said sadly, “Mommy, I feel like a bad soldier.”

Later in life – whether in school or adulthood – shamings, moral indictments, religious chastising, and other criticisms come in many shapes and sizes. Feeling morally compromised – the essence of not believing you’re a good person – is fed by related though different experiences of worthlessness, inadequacy, and unlovableness: as my ranch-born father would say, “feeling like you’re the runt of the litter.”

I’ve also known people – including myself – who have done bad things, or said them or thought them. Things like hitting an animal, risking the lives of their children while driving buzzed, being mean to a vulnerable person, stealing from a store, feeling contemptuous, or cheating on a partner. These don’t need to be felony offenses to make one feel guilty or ashamed.

In effect, to simplify, it’s as if the psyche has three parts to it: one part says, “you’re not good”; another part says, “you’re good”; and a third part – the one we identify with – listens. The problem is that the critical, dismissive, shaming voice is usually much louder than the protecting, encouraging, valuing one.

Sure, there is a place for healthy remorse. But shining through our lapses of integrity, no matter how great, is an underlying and pervading goodness. Yes it may be obscured; I am not letting myself or others – from panhandlers to CEOs and Presidents – off the moral hook. But deep down, all intentions are positive, even if they are expressed problematic ways. When we are not disturbed by pain or loss or fear, the human brain defaults to a basic equilibrium of calm, contentment, and caring. And in ways that feel mysterious, even numinous, you can sense profound benevolence at your core.

Really, the truth, the fact, is that you are a good person. (Me, too.)

When you feel deep down like a bad soldier – or simply not like a good person – you’re more likely to act this way, to be casually snippy, self-indulgent, selfish, or hurtful. On the other hand, when you feel your own natural goodness, you are more likely to act in good ways. Knowing your own goodness, you’re more able to recognize it in others. Seeing the good in yourself and others, you’re more likely to do what you can to build the good in the world we share together.

How can we recognize our own goodness?

I’ve learned five good ways to feel like a good person – and there are probably more!

1. Take in the good of feeling cared about – When you have a chance to feel seen, listened to, appreciated, liked, valued, or loved: take a dozen seconds or more to savor this experience, letting it fill your mind and body, sinking into it as it sinks into you.

2. Recognize goodness in your acts of thought word and deed – These include positive intentions, putting the brakes on anger, restraining addictive impulses, extending compassion and helpfulness to others, grit and determination, lovingness, courage, generosity, patience, and a willingness to see and even name the truth whatever it is.

You are recognizing facts; create sanctuary in your mind for this recognition, holding at bay other voices, other forces, that would invade and plunder this sanctuary for their own agenda (such as the internalization of people you’ve known who made themselves feel big by making you feel small).

3. Sense the goodness at the core of your being – This is a fundamental honesty and benevolence. It’s there inside everyone, no matter how obscured. It can feel intimate, impersonal, perhaps sacred. A force, a current, a wellspring in your heart.

4. See the goodness in others – Recognizing their goodness will help you feel your own. Observe everyday small acts of fairness, kindness, and honorable effort in others. Sense the deeper layers behind the eyes, the inner longings to be decent and loving, to contribute, to help rather than harm.

5. Give over to goodness – Increasingly let “the better angels of your nature” be the animating force of your life. In tricky situations or relationships, ask yourself, “Being a good person, what’s appropriate here?” As you act from this goodness, let the knowing that you are a good person sink in ever more deeply.

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How ‘self-compassion’ trumps ‘self-esteem’

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.

Title: Self-Compassion
Author: Kristin Neff
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0061733512
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle.

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…

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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.”

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Meditation benefits people with brain injuries

wildmind meditation news

Vik Kirsch, Guelph Mercury: People with acquired brain injuries, typically from car crashes, strokes and falls, experience improvements coping with life’s challenges through a specific type of meditation, a new study at the St. Joseph’s Health Centre suggests.

“It was an amazing thing to be part of,” clinical resource worker Paula Rogers said Wednesday, as she and community support services director Audrey Devitt and senior research associate Janine Maitland outlined the two-year study’s results to staff.

In interviews afterward, the three noted patients with brain injuries, though no two are alike, face a variety of challenges from brain damage. In addition to physical ailments, they may be overwhelmed by day-to-day living, struggle with their emotions, suffer memory damage and must cope with a loss of who they are as they go through personality changes.

Researchers developed a 10-week program of what they termed “mindfulness meditation.” It taught participant volunteers how to gain insight into their daily lives as they live “in the moment” through mental coping exercises. Mental faculties, as a result, are sharpened.

This leads in part to stress reduction, relaxation, self-awareness, problem-solving and self-monitoring that elevates the quality of life.

Devitt said participants became happier, calmer and more content with their lives because of the course, though which they saw gradual improvement. They gained better insight into themselves and became more confident. People who had been frustrated with their limitations tended to gain “a general sense of individual acceptance,” Devitt noted.

For the study, 47 adult survivors of injuries participated, with proponents now intending to publish their results and take further steps. “We hope in future to offer this as an outreach program,” Devitt said.

The $12,000 cost of the study came primarily from the centre’s foundation and endowment funds.

To date, Maitland said, there’s little research in the scientific literature on acquired brain injuries available, so it’s an open field ripe for further study. “There’s very little done.” That means any new insight is valuable.

As to specific physical results, Maitland said participants reported a reduction in ongoing pain from brain injuries after learning the new meditation techniques.

Among psychological benefits, participants of the St. Joe’s study reported a significant improvement in mood (less depression) and a reduction in stress, Maitland said. While there was no apparent boost in sense of attention among individuals, self-esteem improved in women, though not men.

For both sexes, a sense of well-being grew stronger.

“Mindfulness (meditating) does have value,” she concluded.

The course required some “homework,” as participants practised techniques, which Rogers said took effort for some to get used to. But this became easier over time, she added.

With practise, some found they didn’t require as much pain medication. “That was a positive sign for us,” Rogers said.

They reported having more energy, better sleep, having an easier time breathing and more general relaxation. They were also better able to control their tempers, anxiety and resentment levels toward others. That led to improved relations, Rogers reported.

St. Joe’s operates the region’s only adult day program teaching brain injury survivors life skills and coping strategies. ABI patients this month moved into a new addition on site for them, part of a larger, $19-million expansion of the Westmount Road long-term, chronic and complex continuing care facility.

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