Self-compassion over self-esteem: a new way to think about our mental health

Pema Chödrön describes compassion as our relationship with pain and pleasure.

If we have an unhealthy relationship with pain, we tend to resist or avoid it.  We develop unhealthy strategies, like self-medicating, which help us “numb out”. We might turn to food, sex or alcohol which have their own side-effects in the long term.

If you lean into pain – especially emotional pain – rather than avoiding it, you can begin to understand how it affects you. By turning towards our pain when we are ready, and in a safe way, we learn to recognise how life affects us, choosing healthier coping strategies for better mental health.  

It is natural to resist pain, but if you’ve ever suffered with a bad back, you’ll know the more you tense, the worse it gets. The same applies to the mind and worry; the more anxious you become, the worse you feel. Asking for help can be an important step on that healing path.

As humans we are naturally compassionate towards others – we are there for those we love, but often leave ourselves behind.  We view kindness towards ourselves as selfishness, especially if we try and make time for our own health and wellbeing.

“People can start to think that compassion is a weakness – some kind of soft, fuzzy thing that is all about self-indulgence or submissive kindness. It is absolutely none of those things…It requires strength, determination and courage within an emotional context of kindness and connection with others. These are like seedlings in the ground waiting to be nurtured and allowed to grow”. ~ Choden.

You can’t pour from an empty cup 

If you’re not kind to yourself, your physical and mental health – and your relationships –  can suffer.  If you have nothing to give yourself, you’ll eventually run out of what you can offer those you care about.

Being self-compassionate is therefore a strategy for taking care of yourself and your needs, whilst making sure you have the space – and the energy – to be there for others too.

What about self-esteem?

Self-esteem is the way we evaluate ourselves. How we measure up against others, how worthy or deserving of happiness we feel, and whether we feel we have the right to contribute and participate in the world around us.

Someone with low self-esteem may consider that they don’t have the right to have their voice heard or their needs met – they may feel they’re not worthy of love and praise. This can lead to poor mental health, including depression, and feeling unfulfilled. But even people with high self-esteem can develop and experience low self-esteem over time. It’s a continuing movement between feeling ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about ourselves, through comparisons with the world around us.   It makes good mental health difficult to maintain.

The key to self-compassion is not judging everything you do or say, but recognising – with kindness – the nature of what it means to be human.

This is where compassion focused strategies can help. Self-compassion means developing strategies which give you permission to be kind to yourself; one strategy is self-care and one you can learn to practice every day. By choosing self-compassion we can change the way we measure ourselves, without making decisions about worthiness or value.  We are able to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, without evaluating whether that makes us good or bad.

If you drop your coffee all over your desk and those freshly prepared reports you’ve just printed, instead of saying to yourself “You idiot!” (or worse), recognise this wasn’t intentional. You didn’t mean to drop the coffee so it’s ok to acknowledge the mistake without labelling or interpreting what you think that means about you. Think about how you’d talk to a dear friend and offer yourself the same empathy and kindness.

The key to self-compassion is not judging everything you do or say, but recognising – with kindness – the nature of what it means to be human.

Compassion can also mean a sensitivity to the suffering of others, as well as yourself. It can include making a commitment to creating the best for yourself and those we care about. This means, instead of moving away from pain, as we often do, we move towards it and confront it in a healthy and positive way.

Self-care – and self compassion – isn’t selfish: it’s necessary. You can’t be there for others, if you’re not taking care of yourself.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2017 – 2021

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