Self Compassion More Powerful than Self-Esteem

Self Compassion More Powerful than Self-Esteem

“People who are compassionate toward their failings and imperfections experience greater well-being that those who repeatedly judge themselves. The feelings of security and net worth provided by self-compassion are also highly stable, kicking in precisely when self-esteem falls down.”

This is the intriguing premise – and promise – of Kristin Neff’s book on Self-Compassion, based on 15 years of research at the University of Texas-Austin, and her own deep practice as the compassionate – and self-compassionate – mother of an autistic child.

Neff suggest three major practices to counter the relentless self-criticism and accompanying shame-blame of others so endemic in our competitive and comparative culture:

Self-kindness – a gentle understanding of the all too inevitable pain of being human, and then pro-active care and comfort;

Recognition of our common humanity – compassion – to “feel with” is by definition relational. We feel how our suffering connects us with others rather than alienating or isolating us;

Mindfulness: to see clearly what’s happening in the moment and accept it without judgment. Facing up to reality – I hurt and I feel care and concern – so we can respond in compassionate and therefore effective ways.

Neff sees self-compassion, and the well-being it can lead to, as our birthright. Her book is full of deeply moving personal stories, clearly understandable research, and pragmatic tools and exercises. May these reflections on self-compassion be useful to you and yours.


Even though we learn to love ourselves and be kind to ourselves from other people loving us and being kind to us, (Neff anchors distortions in this pattern in the conditioning those of us familiar with attachment theory and the need to be safe within our tribe will recognize instantly) we do need to be able to resource ourselves with self-acceptance and self-compassion many times a day, all our lives long. When we can trust ourselves that we can face whatever pain or confusion is afflicting us in the moment with our own practice of self-compassion, we have far more courage and resilience to face the inevitable challenges of being human, no matter how difficult.

Neff is deft at describing the differences between self-esteem (based on qualities or performance) and self-compassion (based on intrinsic worth and love), saying that both self-esteem and self-compassion help people feel happier and thus avoid anxiety and depression, but when the chips are down (and the props of self-esteem fall away) self-compassion is a steadier support in helping us re-right ourselves.


Neff makes the point, both gently and bluntly, that self-criticism, while socially sanctioned and taught early on, is not at all helpful. We are human because of our frailties, not in spite of them, and accepting our frailties is an apprenticeship that yields deep wisdom. With kindness, we not only soften our hearts, connect with others, and deepen our desire to alleviate suffering, we have infinite opportunities to grow, explore, learn and transform our lives and our planet. Inner wellsprings of kindness become a refuge from negative and positive self-judgment. Wanting health and well-being is a deeply innate biological as well as psychological or spiritual yearning. Self-compassion helps us move beyond fear and negativity and opens the door to other positive emotions, optimism, resilience, health and well-being.

Recognition of common humanity

When we are unkind to ourselves, even while kind to others, we draws artificial boundaries and distinctions between ourselves and others that only serve to fuel feelings of separation and isolation. When we stop comparing ourselves to others, either more or less than, and understand the deep truth of “we” rather than “me,” we can take our personal pain less personally and open our hearts to the inherent inter-connectedness that makes all pain and suffering bearable. Quoting British novelist Jerome K. Jerome, “It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.”


The whole shebang of self-criticism, self-judgment, self-loathing, keeps us from seeing our situation in the moment clearly. If we’re afraid of the feelings of shame or self-loathing that would follow fessing up to the truth, it’s difficult to take responsibility for our actions and choosing our next responses wisely. Neff says, “We can’t heal what we can’t feel.” Mindfulness and compassion allow us to embrace rather than erase whatever it is we need to bring understanding to. We can focus on the pain, rather than spinning stories of shame-blame about the causes of the pain; compassion “holds” the pain until it can dissolve and/or we see our way through. We can move from judgment to discernment and from blame to responsibility. It also allows us to pierce the illusion of perfectionism. We see that reality never matches the ideal. We can accept what is as what is, the first step in being able to change it or change our relationship to it.

Mindfulness, as meta-awareness – I’m angry; I’m aware that I’m angry; I’m aware that I’m aware – allows us to observe the worries of the past and the fears of the future rather than being hijacked by them, and to know that, in the present moment, we are not those worries or those fears. We can respond with compassion – re-booting the system – rather than remaining caught in reactivity.

Self-compassion leads to emotional resilience.

Because of the brain’s built-in negativity bias, essential for survival, we can ruminate on negative feelings and thoughts which can lead to anxiety and depression. Self compassion brings a “cozy blanket to those negative feelings, rather than a rawhide whip.” When we’re not as frightened by difficult life circumstances, when we have a sense of connection and belonging, negative thoughts arise less frequently and are less enduring. We’re more able to roll with the punches. Part of what contributes to this emotional resilience is that when we practice self-compassion, and remember moments of being loved and loving, we activate the release of the “calm and connect” hormone oxytocin, which down-regulates our stress levels and helps us calm down again.

Neff is clear, as all researchers about positive emotions are, that self-compassion is never about erasing negative emotions, it’s about embracing them. (Her metaphor of the combination of the sweetness and bitterness of dark chocolate works for me.) The self-compassion mantra she developed for herself:

This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.

This mantra or prayer incorporates all three elements of self-compassion – mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. With self-compassion, we don’t have to pretend anything is other than it is. The mindfulness and compassion know that the pain is true; the simultaneous care and concern is true, too. When self-compassion skillfully “holds” the negative, it also opens us up to positive possibilities. (Barbara Frederickson’s “broaden and build” theory of positivity featured in the July 2012 e-newsletter) Self-compassion leads to more optimism and more trust that we can actually deal with our problems, opening the door further to more curiosity, flourishing and contentment with life.

Self-compassion practice is now being incorporated into all kinds of therapeutic modalities, including treatment for PTSD. Neff cites the progression of self-compassion in therapy as outlined by her colleague Christopher Germer (see Resources below):

– a sometimes angry reaction from the critical self that doesn’t trust this “soft” approach in the least;
– falling in love with self-compassion as the cure-all (bypass) to all negative experiences;
– true acceptance, moving from cure to care.

Neff also presents research that shows that self-compassion, besides being a great protector against anxiety or depression, is actually a great motivator, far more potent than self-criticism, which is amygdala-fear based and actually undermines our performance. Self-compassion motivates us on the basis of oxytocin, love, connection, and self-efficacy (learning rather than performing). Self-compassion creates a mind state that allows us to discern and care about what will truly make us the most happy. With intrinsic motivation, a self-compassionate person can still have high standards (research shows they do) but not be so hard on one’s self when falling short of those standards.

Neff applies self-compassion practice to preventing burn-out among caregivers, to creating more ease in parenting and intimate relationships, to forgiveness when necessary. In all of these realms, Neff suggests that self-appreciation for the goodness in our lives is the other side of the coin of self-compassion for the difficulties in our lives. Self-appreciation celebrates our strengths; self-compassion accepts our weaknesses. Together, they allow us to relax, allow life to be as it is and keep our hearts open, to ourselves, and to others.


[from Neff’s book, Self-Compassion; many of these have appeared here in previous postings]

This kind of compulsive concern with “I, me, and mine” isn’t the same as loving ourselves….Loving ourselves points us to capacities of resilience, compassion, and understanding within that are simply part of being alive.
– Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness

* * * * *

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you being to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.
– Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are

* * * * *

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then love your suffering, Do not resist it; do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.
– Hermann Hesse

* * * * *

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, than I can change.
– Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

* * * * *

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

* * * * *

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love


Neff is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on self-compassion. She and her husband Rupert Isaacson wove into their marriage vows: “Most of all, I promise to help you have compassion for yourself, so that you can thrive and be happy.” Throughout Self-Compassion, Neff weaves the stories of practicing self-compassion in her first bad marriage, in her second good marriage, and discovering and dealing with her beloved son Rowan’s autism. I encourage you to read for yourself her stories, p. 247-248 “I remember the first time [I realized] that self-compassion has the power to transform difficult painful experiences into pleasurable one…”

I encourage you to learn the entire story by reading Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son, her husband’s book about the family’s journey to Mongolia to seek healing of their son’s autism from traditional shamans there. Or view the film Horse Boy (referenced in my October 2009 e-newsletter “Resonance: Separateness and Oneness.”)

Neff also describes an exercise to help teenagers develop compassion and self-compassion through seeing first hand their common humanity. (www.challengeday.org) Participants are lined up on one side of the school gym, and then asked to cross to the other side if… “you’ve ever felt hurt or judged because of the color of your skin…been humiliated in a classroom by a teacher or a student….been bullied or teased or hurt for wearing glasses, braces, a hearing aid…for the way that you talked, for the clothes that you wore, or for the shape, size, or appearance of your body.” As virtually all the students cross to the other side for one reason or another, they can begin to understand the commonality of suffering that joins them rather than divides them, lessening the chance of conflicts between them.


Neff offers many exercises in her book, including many featured in these newsletters over the years: mindfulness, loving kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, guided imagery to create a safe place or wise guide, savoring, hugs, compassionate body scan. Two that focus specifically on self-compassion:

1. Keep a compassion journal, writing down experiences of the day or the week where you were able to a) mindfully notice either self-criticism or the new habit of self-compassion; b) notice how you were able to be kind to yourself; c) notice how either the pain or the kindness evoked a sense of connection to other people.

2. Develop your own self-compassion mantra.


This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.

…could be modified with phrases that work for you:

I’m having a really hard time right now.
Everyone feels this way sometimes.
May I be gentle and understanding with myself.
May I be compassionate with myself as I endeavor to open my heart.

You can even add the shift from negative through self-compassion to more well-being:

It’s hard to feel (fill in the blank) right now.
Feeling (blank) is part of the human experience.
What can I do to make myself happier in this moment?

You are compassionately acknowledging the difficulty of the moment; you are normalizing your experience, not judging it; you are re-setting your buttons by accessing your legitimate desire to be happy, even content.


Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011) www.self-compassion.org

“In this deeply personal, highly practical book, Kristin Neff moves the entire field of compassion studies forward. – Sharon Salzberg

“Drawing on a powerful blend of Western psychology and Eastern meditative strategies, Kristin Neff offers practical, wise guidance on the path of emotional healing and deep inner transformation.” – Tara Brach

Rupert Isaacson, Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son (Little Brown, New York, 2009).

“When his son Rowan was diagnosed with autism, Rupert Isaacson was devastated, afraid he might never be able to communicate with his child. But when Isaacson, a lifelong horseman, rode their neighbor’s horse with Rowan, Rowan improved immeasurably. He was struck with a crazy idea: why not take Rowan to Mongolia, the one place in the world where horses and shamanic healing intersected? 

Horse Boy is the dramatic and heartwarming story of that impossible adventure. In Mongolia, the family found undreamed of landscapes and people, unbearable setbacks, and advances beyond their wildest dreams. This is a deeply moving, truly one-of-a-kind story–of a family willing to go to the ends of the earth to help their son, and of a boy learning to connect with the world for the first time.” DVD of the movie: www.horseboymovie.com or www.netflix.com

Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (Guilford Press, New York, 2009).

“In this important book, Christopher Germer illuminates the myriad synergies between mindfulness and compassion. He offers skillful and effective ways of making sure that we are inviting ourselves to bathe in and benefit from the kind heart of awareness itself, and from the actions that follow from such a radical and sane embrace.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

Neff and Germer are now collaborating in the development of an 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion training similar to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. www.self-compassion.org or www.mindfulselfcompassion.org