Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion

Developing self-compassion can help anyone deal with self-esteem wounds.

For years now, I have been working on helping people identify and correct negative self-beliefs that were formed byself-esteem harsh criticism, rejection or abuse. I knew that these beliefs triggered negative thinking, depression, anxiety, damaged relationships and sometimes even suicide. I referred to these negative self-beliefs as self-esteem wounds. I said that my work focused on the self-esteem, but I never liked the term.

The term self-esteem is very overused, and has several negative connotations. Some earlier self-esteem programs focused on positive affirmations, such as “I’m very smart” “I can do anything I want” or “I’m a great athlete.” Several self-esteem programs were introduced into the schools in the 80’s and 90’s, but were later found to be fairly ineffective. Some went so far as to say that you shouldn’t point out a student’s mistakes, as that might hurt their self-esteem. Some programs were said to even foster narcissistic tendencies. The negative side of self-esteem work was epitomized by Saturday Night Live’s character, Stuart Smiley, who stared into a mirror, while reciting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Many self-esteem programs seemed to foster feelings of superiority, or seeing oneself as above average. The reality is that everyone cannot be above average. Except, of course, in Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.”

My work focused on helping those who saw themselves as inferior to everyone else. I wanted to help them recognize that they were human, with positive and negative traits, successes and failures like everyone else. I tried to help people see themselves as equal with others. I’ve tried to help them have compassion for themselves, while taking full responsibility for their behaviors.

Then I discovered the term self-compassion. Self-compassion can be defined as extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. In other words, you recognize your difficulty, but show kindness to yourself, as you deal with that difficulty. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. has led the study of this concept. Research has shown that self-compassion helps us deal with the inevitable difficulties and failures of life. We bounce back more quickly, remain stronger under adversity, and show more compassion toward others, when we practice self-compassion. We see ourselves, and treat ourselves as being equal to other human beings. And after all, aren’t we?

How Your Posture Can Change Your Mood

Your body position and facial expression can have a powerful impact on your mood.

We can tell a lot about another person’s mood without them saying a word. Facial expressions, body position and theYour body can change your mind. way they move can let us know how they are feeling. We pay attention to the smile, frown or furrowed brow to let us know their reactions in a conversation.

We also read other’s moods by the way they walk or the way they sit. Sitting slumped over with legs and arms crossed conveys a more subdued or depressed mood. Sitting upright, with arms extended usually denotes a more positive or empowered mood.

We generally think that our bodies respond to our minds. If we feel a certain way, the body reacts. When we’re happy, we smile. When we’re sad, we frown. When we’re down, we slump and walk more slowly.

Certainly, it is true that the body reacts to the mind, but recent research has clearly shown that the opposite also occurs. The mind reacts to the body. Standing or sitting in certain positions, or holding a particular facial expression, actually changes the mood.

The researchers found several ingenious ways to get subjects to hold positions normally associated with depressed, happy, angry, powerless or empowered moods. The subjects were given a false explanation for these poses, so they didn’t realize they were mimicking a mood. The researchers then gave the subjects questionnaires to measure mood, and blood tests to measure hormones.

When subjects held depressed or powerless poses or facial expressions, they later reported negative, depressed moods. More importantly, their blood work showed hormonal changes associated with more negative or powerless moods. When they held empowered or positive poses or facial expressions, they later reported happy or confident emotions, and their blood work reflected the same.

Some studies had subjects engage in a stressful event (like a job interview) after holding empowered or powerless poses. They had independent raters observe the subjects’ performance in those situations. Results indicated that the subjects who held the empowered poses actually performed significantly better in the stressful activity.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, Amy Cuddy, Ph.D. gave a very popular presentation on You can also read her recent book on the subject, “Presence.”

So, you might want to try this easy mood altering technique. Change your posture or your facial expression, whether you feel like it or not. Make yourself smile. Stand up straight with your hands on your hips, and your head tilted slightly upward. Hold that stance for about two minutes. Remember the Wonder Woman pose? By the way, you don’t have to do this in front of anyone.

As silly as this may sound, research shows it makes a difference in mood, body chemistry and performance. Fake it til you make it. You might just change your mind!

The Placebo and the Nocebo Effect

Your expectations can have a major impact on your health and your future.

Most people have heard of the placebo effect. This is when a non-therapeutic pill (e.g. sugar pill) actually helps the placebo effectpatient get better because they expect it to help. A placebo is usually used to test new medication. One group is given the placebo, and a second group is given the actual medication. The patients don’t know which they have received. The researchers then compare the results reported by each group.

The truly amazing thing is the fact that many people report an improvement in symptoms, even though they just received the sugar pill. The improvement was produced by their expectation of positive results. Our brains have an amazing ability to heal and correct physical abnormalities. We need to develop a better understanding of this natural ability, so we can use it for our benefit.

While many have heard of the placebo effect, few are aware of the “nocebo effect.” This is when a detrimental effect on health is produced by negative expectations or beliefs. Research has shown that negative beliefs about health can result in actual worsening of physical functioning.

One dramatic example of the nocebo effect is when a witch doctor puts a curse on one of the tribesmen. The witch doctor may declare that the man will die before sunrise, and the otherwise healthy man will die. Of course, this only happens when the victim fully believes the power of the curse, but it does happen, and has been documented.

Fortunately, most of us have escaped a witch doctor’s curse. Unfortunately, many have been impacted by the nocebo effect. Negative expectations of health have worsened health concerns. Seeing yourself as old, can make you older. Expectations of early death can sometimes hasten death.

I have known several situations where a person said they didn’t think they would live beyond a certain age, and their prediction came true. Perhaps they had some premonition, or perhaps it was just coincidence. But, it seems more likely that their bodies responded to their expectations.

I have also known situations where people perceived themselves as old, began to act old, and then seemed to age prematurely. Was this the result of the nocebo effect, or was it something else? It’s difficult to tell, but just in case, you might want to work on your expectations. Make the decision to expect the best in your health, think young thoughts, and plan your one hundredth birthday party. You just might make it!