Want to know how to be more confident?
There’s an easy answer: Don’t.
Yeah, it’s a trick question. But we’ve all been led to believe that self-confidence or self-esteem is the answer to everything. It’s not. In fact, research shows it’s the cause of a lot of problems.
We don’t need more self-esteem. We need more self-compassion.
Don’t believe me? I understand. That’s why I called an expert…
Kristin Neff is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Self-Compassion.
Her research will turn everything you thought about self-esteem upside down.
And she’s going to give you some answers on how to deal with the worst enemy you face on a daily basis; that person who is more harsh with you than anyone else and whose criticism never seems to end…
Yes, that person is you.
Let’s get to it…
So What’s Wrong With Self-Esteem?
A lot, actually. First and foremost, it’s contingent. It’s not always there for you.
If you don’t feel like a success, you feel like a loser. Ironic that self-esteem is only helpful when you don’t really need it, right? Here’s Kristin:
Self-esteem is contingent on success. We basically like ourselves and we judge ourselves positively when we succeed and when we do well. But the second we fail and make a mistake, our self-esteem goes out the window and we do not judge ourselves positively.
More than that, maintaining self-esteem all the time is impossible unless you’re delusional. Self-esteem, as it’s usually defined, is comparative. You’re doing better than someone else.
Guess what? Everyone can’t be above average (unless you’re really bad at math). Here’s Kristin:
The problem with self-esteem is it tends to be comparative in nature. Basically, if I have high self-esteem I have to feel special and above average. That basic need to be better than others is based on a logical impossibility. There’s no way everybody can be above average at the same time. We’re losing before we’re even out of the gate.
But you’ve read plenty of stuff on these here interwebz about raising self-esteem, right? And that must work. And that must be good. Right? Wrong.
California set up 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.
Reports on the efficacy of California’s self-esteem initiative, for instance, suggest that it was a total failure. Hardly any of the program’s hoped-for outcomes were achieved.
Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of success. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.
In one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors.
Actually, let me amend that. It is good at raising something: narcissism. So trying to increase self-esteem doesn’t help people succeed but it can turn them into jerks.
This emphasis on high self-esteem at all costs has also led to a worrying trend toward increasing narcissism. Twenge and colleagues examined the scores of more than fifteen thousand college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1987 and 2006. During the twenty-year period, scores went through the roof, with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
Alright, all this emphasis on confidence and self-esteem isn’t working. What does work?
Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. Here’s Kristin:
Self-compassion is not about a judgment or evaluation of self-worth; it’s not about deciding whether or not we’re a good or bad person; it’s just about treating oneself kindly. Treating oneself like one would treat a good friend, with warmth and care and understanding. When self-esteem deserts us, which is when we fail and we make a mistake, self-compassion steps in. Self-compassion recognizes that it’s natural and normal to fail and to make mistakes, and that we’re worthy of kindness even though we’ve done something we regret or didn’t perform as well as we wanted to.
Now some people are going to say forgiving yourself all the time will make you a slacker. You’ll lose your edge. It won’t give you the drive that self-confidence does. Wrong…
Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.
The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion appears to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernible downsides. The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem—self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened.
Want to feel more self-worth? Guess who wins? Yup. Self-compassion.
…self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.
When you’re self-compassionate you feel less embarrassed when you screw up. Self-esteem doesn’t help here.
Another study required people to imagine being in potentially embarrassing situations: being on a sports team and blowing a big game, for instance, or performing in a play and forgetting one’s lines. How would participants feel if something like this happened to them? Self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally. Instead, they said they would take things in their stride, thinking thoughts like “Everybody goofs up now and then” and “In the long run, this doesn’t really matter.” Having high self-esteem, however, made little difference. Those with both high and low self-esteem were equally likely to have thoughts like “I’m such a loser” or “I wish I could die.” Once again, high self-esteem tends to come up empty-handed when the chips are down.
Want a better love life? Self-compassion improves romantic relationships. Self-esteem doesn’t.
The results of our study indicated that self-compassionate people did in fact have happier and more satisfying romantic relationships than those who lacked self-compassion. This is largely because self-compassionate participants were described by their partners as being more accepting and nonjudgmental than those who lacked self-compassion… High self-esteem, it should be noted, did not appear to do a whole hell of a lot for couples. Self-esteem was not associated with happier, healthier relationships, and people with high self-esteem weren’t described by their partners as being any more accepting, caring, or supportive in their relationships than those who lacked self-esteem.
Think self-compassion will make you weak?
Soldiers with self-compassion are far less likely to develop PTSD. In fact, how self-compassionate they are is a better predictor of avoiding PTSD than how much combat they faced. Here’s Kristin:
A lot of people assume that self-compassion means being weak and wimpy when, in fact, one study found that those veterans who had higher levels of self-compassion were much less likely to develop PTSD. Being an inner ally as opposed to inner enemy helps them. In fact, their level of self-compassion is a more powerful predictor of whether or not they develop PTSD symptoms than the level of combat exposure they faced.
And unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not contingent. You can always forgive yourself.
And it’s not comparative. You don’t have to be number one to have it. Nobody has to lose so you can win. Here’s Kristin:
That’s the most important difference: it’s not contingent, it’s not comparative. You can have self-compassion even when you’ve failed miserably. It doesn’t depend on being better than other people. It just depends on being an imperfect human being which is great, because it is pretty easy to be an imperfect human being. Everyone can do it.
Kristin’s research has shown something that you’ll probably intuitively agree with: you’re often far harder on yourself than others. Why is that?
Part of it comes down to neuroscience. Your brain is wired to care for friends in need. But that same system doesn’t kick in when we beat ourselves up. Here’s Kristin:
When a friend fails, you don’t feel threatened. You can easily access a part of your physiology: the care-giving system. As mammals we all have part of ourselves that is devoted to care-giving for a friend in need. But when I’m threatened my natural response is fight, flight or feed. Now, of course, that system developed in order to protect our bodily self, but the problem is that when we fail, our self-concept gets threatened and our body reacts exactly the same way. When we feel threatened we can’t access the care-giving system. Our most immediate and strongest reaction is this fight or flight response. We fight the problem — which is ourselves. We attack ourselves, we judge ourselves, or we feel really isolated. In a way, I think that’s the reason it’s so much easier to be kind to others than ourselves, because we aren’t threatened by others’ problems. We are being hard on ourselves and we’re tapping into the reptilian brain as opposed to the more mature care-giving area. We know the amygdala gets triggered when we feel rejected or threatened or we fail.
In her research, Kristin found something that surprised her: being compassionate toward others and being self-compassionate aren’t linked. Shocking? Think about it for a second…
How often are you very nice to friends but very hard on yourself? Pretty often. Here’s Kristin:
I assumed that people who were higher in self-compassion would also be higher in compassion for others. Among undergraduates, at least, there’s zero correlation. At first I was surprised but then you start thinking about it and it makes sense because people are naturally a lot more compassionate to other people than they are to themselves.
And when you are mean to others it frequently gets corrected quickly — people fight back. But when you beat yourself up, whose job is it to defend you?
Exactly. The only voice in your head is yours.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)
So self-compassion wins. Which leads us to the obvious question: how do you do it? It’s easier than you think…
The Golden Rule…In Reverse
The Golden Rule says you should treat others as you wish to be treated.
Let’s reverse that for second: treat yourself the kind way you often treat others.
Want to be more self-compassionate? It’s easy. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend who was having problems. Here’s Kristin:
One easy way to be self-compassionate is just ask yourself, “What if I had a very close friend who was experiencing the exact same thing that I am experiencing now?” The idea is you use that same quality of warmth, support, encouragement, tenderness, understanding with yourself that you more typically show to other people.
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.
Practitioners first instruct patients to generate an image of a safe place to help counter any fears that may arise. They are then instructed to create an ideal image of a caring and compassionate figure… The training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame.
You forgive others all the time. You need to start forgiving yourself more often.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
We’ve learned a lot from Kristin. Time to round it up and find out how to get over the biggest problem people have with being more self-compassionate…
Here’s what we learned from Kristin:
- Building self-esteem doesn’t work. Unless you’re trying to be a narcissist. If you are… uh, congratulations?
- Self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem without the downsides. If you don’t believe me, go read the stuff above that you skipped.
- Talk to yourself kindly, the way you would a friend in need. Yes, it’s that simple.
Did I make this clear? (If not, I compassionately forgive myself.)
Seriously, it’s not easy but don’t give up. In fact, at first, being self-compassionate can be hard. Why?
You need to admit you screwed up. Being self-compassionate means you can’t be in denial or rationalize. And that hurts at first. Ironically, becoming self-compassionate requires self-compassion.
But it’s not a paradox. It’s like a muscle. Exercise it and it will grow. Here’s Kristin:
The practice itself has to be approached in a self-compassionate manner. It’s a slow process. It can feel like you’re doing it wrong somehow. In fact it’s very important to know this is part of the natural healing process.
Stop beating yourself up. Admit you made a mistake. And then treat yourself kindly like you would a friend who screwed up.
As Kristin 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.