By Jad Patrick
Self worth is the deep knowing that we are of value in the world, that we are loved and worthy of love, and that just by being ourselves that we matter. Oftentimes we do not always have a strong sense of self worth, and we can find that we criticise ourselves, compare ourselves to others we perceive as being better than us, more attractive than us, more successful than us etc. We can feel that because we might not be above average in some way that somehow that makes us unworthy.
Part of the problem has been our cultures excessive focus on self esteem, that is, the beliefs we have about ourselves often in comparison to others and in relationship to our achievements, goals, physical attributes, abilities and social success.
To boost self esteem we have been mistakenly taught to focus on what makes us uniquely gifted in comparison to others.
The downside of this is that in a world that we can compare ourselves on a global level now we are always going to be estimating our worth against a monumental amount of people!
Recent research has highlighted that this can lead to constantly feeling the need to impress others, and sometimes we may even do this by putting others down to lift ourselves up. This has also given rise to a huge increase in the trait of narcissism.
So what’s the alternative?
Self Compassion is a trait that has been identified that gives us the benefits of self esteem (greater confidence to achieve our goals, sense of self worth) without the downsides (narcissism and social comparison). It is also a trait that can be developed through the Mindful Self Compassion course I teach here at Merge.
Kristen Neff, a researcher on Self Compassion describes it as this:
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding towards oneself when encountering suffering, inadequacy or failure, rather than ignoring one’s pain or flagellating oneself with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced” (Neff, K.D. 2009).
(1) Mindfulness – being open and present with one’s own suffering, responding to it with an open mind, neither rejecting it nor over identifying with it,
(2) Common Humanity – recognising life has moments of suffering just as it does moments of joy, that as humans we are all imperfect in some ways, and that we are not alone in our suffering,
(3) Loving-Kindness – just as we would respond with kindness, encouragement, love, support and soothing physical touch to a loved one who is suffering, so too can we apply this to ourselves.
With this in mind I would like to comment on 5 Ways that Self Compassion can help your sense of self worth:
Self Compassion recognises that as humans we ALL have parts of ourselves that are flawed or imperfect in some way, this is common to everybody. Therefore we don’t need to over-identify with the parts of ourselves we have difficulty with, we can recognise its just part of the bigger picture of being a human. Often when we judge our flaws we can feel very isolated and cut off, and ashamed even. With a sense of common humanity, we recognise that just as our joy connects us with others, so too does our more difficult emotional experiences – we are not alone!
Often times when we suffer a failure of some sort, or a setback in our goals, we can personalise these experiences, engaging in self-criticism and blaming ourselves. In a sense, we punish ourselves for not being good enough. The downside of this is that research shows this self-punishment and criticism actually makes us LESS likely to try again. We are left feeling hopeless. Self Compassion recognises that it hurts to fail, but it’s not personal, everyone fails at things at some stage in their growth. Additionally, Self Compassion harnesses our inner, loving and kind voice that encourages us to keep going, that soothes us when we fall down, and that helps us to see the lesson learnt so we can try differently the next time. As we keep trying we learn new skills, grow as an individual and become more confident in our abilities moving forward boosting our self-worth.
It would be hard in life to face new and daunting challenges if we always had someone there criticising us, putting us down, and waiting for us to fail so that when we do they can blame us for what we did wrong. Yet many of us have this internal voice present often in times of life’s challenges. Self Compassion prepares us for these failures and offers to catch us when we fall, giving us the encouragement needed to keep going and persevering. This allows us to feel safe in trying new things and reaching beyond our comfort zones.
Because Self Compassion relates to our ability to recognise and respond to our own suffering (as we would to another) it also boosts our self worth by helping us to see when we are in danger and to respond to that appropriately. With self compassion we might see that someone in our lives is harming us in some way perhaps through abuse or neglect, and the Self Compassionate part of ourselves wants to protect us and encourages us to get to safety. Additionally the Self Compassionate part of ourselves will also recognise when our own habits or behaviours may be harmful e.g. excessive alcohol use, or even excessive self blame, and this part of ourselves will also want us to make a change, not because we aren’t good enough as we are, but because it wants what is best for us long term. We therefore apply unconditional positive regard to ourselves regardless of our situation, knowing that because we are worthy of kindness and love we are worthy of making a change.
Studies on Self Compassion have shown that when people score highly on self-compassion if they suffer a failure they are more likely to take responsibility for their situation and are less likely to blame others. This leads to people feeling safe enough to take their own initiative and to bounce back after failure, without dragging others down to boost their own self-esteem. This sense of personal agency and responsibility is empowering and leads to greater feelings of self-worth.
Self Compassion training has made a huge difference to my life and a tremendous difference to my sense of self-worth and happiness. Because of this, I love to help others discover their inner compassionate voices. I do this either one-on-one in counselling sessions at Merge, or through the evidence-based Mindful Self Compassion 8 Week Group program I will be offering again in Term 4 at Merge health. To find out more or to book a free 5 min chat with me about how self-compassion might help you in your life give the clinic a call on 9889 8008.
Neff, K. D. (2008). Self-compassion: Moving beyond the pitfalls of a separate self-concept. In H. A. Wayment & J. J. Bauer (Eds.), Decade of behavior. Transcending self-interest: Psychological explorations of the quiet ego (pp. 95-105). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.