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By Eric Barker
May 15, 2015
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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

It seems we all want to know how to improve self-esteem these days.

Life can be hard. And who is usually hardest on you? Yourself. There’s that negative voice in your head criticizing you. And sometimes you can’t shut it up.

So the answer is to boost your self-esteem, right? We’ve seen an explosion of this kind of thinking lately, that self-esteem is the answer to everything.

But it’s had some negative effects on the world too — like an epidemic of narcissism.

Via Self-Compassion:

Oh, and there’s one other teensy weensy little problem with trying to boost self-esteem to deal with that critical voice…

It doesn’t work.

Self-Esteem Ain’t The Answer

This focus on improving self-esteem got to the point where the State of California started a task force and gave it $250,000 a year to raise children’s self-esteem.

They expected this to boost grades and reduce bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

Guess what? It was a total failure in almost every category.

Via Self-Compassion:

What?!? Self-esteem is supposed to cure everything, right? Wrong.

Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of healthy behavior. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.

Via Self-Compassion:

(For the science-based secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

Uh-oh. The cure-all is a cure-nothing. So what do we do?

Researchers have found an answer to feeling much better about yourself — but it’s not improving self-esteem.

Forget Self-Esteem. Try Self-Compassion.

Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. Why?

Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.

Via Self-Compassion:

Self-compassion reduces anxiety. Self-esteem doesn’t.

Via Self-Compassion:

When you’re self-compassionate you feel less embarrassed when you screw up. Self-esteem doesn’t help here.

Via Self-Compassion:

Want to feel more self-worth? Guess who wins? Yup. Self-compassion.

Via Self-Compassion:

And guess who’s more likely to be narcissistic? Those with self-esteem, not self-compassion.

Via Self-Compassion:

Research also shows self-compassion even makes you less likely to procrastinate. It also boosts happiness and reduces stress.

Want a better love life? Self-compassion improves romantic relationships. Self-esteem doesn’t.

Via Self-Compassion:

(For more on shortcuts to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)

I could go on and on. But I’m sure you’re already saying, “Just tell me how to do it, Eric!” Fair enough.

Don’t Worry. It’s Not Hard.

There are a number of ways to boost self-compassion but I’m going to focus on one here because it’s epically simple:

I want you to talk to yourself. Nicely.

Next time that voice in your head starts saying critical things, reframe the thoughts into something positive and forgiving.

Via Self-Compassion:

Sound silly? Tell that to the Navy SEALs. Positive self-talk is one of the methods that showed the best results in helping them get through their incredibly difficult training.

Talking to yourself out loud can make you smarter, improve your memory, help you focus and even increase athletic performance.

Maybe you’re not buying it. Talking to yourself not doing it for you? Imagine someone who loves you saying the kind words instead. Research shows this delivers serious results.

Via Self-Compassion:

Say you blow your diet and eat a whole bag of cookies. Now that voice in your head is beating you up. How would your loving grandma address the issue? Probably with less criticism and more like this…

Via Self-Compassion:

You need to dispute the negative thoughts and reframe them into something positive. Every time that critical voice starts yammering, instead imagine Grandma giving supportive advice.

You forgive others all the time. You need to start forgiving yourself more often.

(For more on quieting that voice in your head, click here.)

Okay, let’s round it up and put it to use.

Sum Up

Next time that critical voice in your head starts going and you think you need a self-esteem boost, instead reach for some self-compassion:

  • Reframe whatever the voice says into something more positive.
  • If it helps you more, visualize a compassionate figure and have them say it to you.

Yes, it’s that simple.

When we focus on self-esteem, we often build ourselves up by comparing ourselves to others. In the end, this is a losing strategy. Even if we come out ahead, it still distances us from other people and that’s no path to happiness.

By remembering that everybody screws up you not only engage your compassion muscles but you also draw yourself closer to others. You’re not better or worse. We’re all imperfect. And that’s okay. And it unites everyone.

As researcher Kristin Neff explains in her book:

Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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