Since the late 1990s a movement away from self-esteem has been brewing. A pioneer of this movement is Dr. Kristin Neff who with her book, ‘Self-compassion’ published in 2011 drew on more than 10 years of her own work when her son was diagnosed with Autism.
In an article published on The Atlantic, Neff said, “because of [the] emphasis on self-esteem, we actually got a generation of narcissists. I think it’s generally out there in the culture, but maybe especially among parents and educators.”
The problem lies not in feeling good, but how we achieve it. “Usually self-esteem is highly contingent on success,” namely “peer approval.” Comparison then becomes the key to feeling good. “We see ourselves as better in almost any culturally valued trait.”
What do we fall back on when we come up as less than? “When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most.” Self-esteem is unstable and Neff argues that this rise and fall determined by perceived success is damaging for young children.
Self-compassion acknowledges that failure is what it means to be human. “You have self-compassion both when you fail and when you succeed. The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.”
So does self-compassion make you weak? Neff says she always surprises people by sharing research that self-compassion enhances motivation. “People who are more self-compassionate, when they fail, they’re less afraid of failure. They also have more self-confidence, because they aren’t cutting themselves down all the time.”
Neff recounts a scene where she was watching her son at the playground standing alone, while everyone was laughing and interacting. “I had this very powerful experience where I remembered…maybe these mothers are not dealing [with] autism, but every single one of these mothers will have challenges with their child in some form…this is what motherhood’s all about.”
Neff’s son, who is now 14, said that immediately when he was diagnosed instead of jumping into problem solving, she first had to acknowledge that it was difficult and emotionally painful. “I had to really think about being kind and caring and understanding to myself, letting myself feel whatever feelings were coming…”
It is only then, she said, that you can process suffering in a mindful way. “Once you do that, framing it in a larger compassionate perspective helps you to simultaneously acknowledge it, hopefully to some healing, and move on.”