For years now, I have been working on helping people identify and correct negative self-beliefs that were formed by 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?