If you were to be totally honest, would you say that you really and truly like yourself? Or are you constantly performing makeovers on your appearance, personality, and abilities? When you look in the mirror, do you see imperfections in your skin and hair and wish you could make them go away? Do you feel the same way about with your personality? Every time you worry instead of relaxing before a social event, do you want to kick yourself for being so anxious?
It’s all too easy to become a mental makeover fanatic, especially when reality shows are doing just that to everything from fashion to housing. You can get to the point where you see yourself not as you truly are, but only as you wish you could be. To paraphrase Ophelia from Hamlet, who said, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be": "We know what we are, and we wish we weren’t this way.”
The basis for a positive sense of self-esteem is that you accept yourself as you are, not as you “may” be. This doesn’t mean that you’re never self-critical or that you should never change, but that you’re able to live with being flawed and with your own approach to trying to make yourself a bit less so.
Surprisingly, your self-image can be very different from how the world sees you. Some people who outwardly seem to have it all (intelligence, looks, personal and financial success) may have a bad self-image. Conversely, others who have had a very difficult life and multiple hardships may also have a very positive self-image.
The idea of self-acceptance is gaining ground in the psychological literature as an important contributor to positive mental states such as peace of mind, greater self-understanding, and the ability to empathize with others. In fact, psychologists writing from several vantage points discuss the importance of being able to view yourself without feeling undue anxiety about how you may be falling short of some unrealistic ideal self. Psychologists today are translating these theories into measures of self-acceptance that make it possible to see just how hard you tend to come down on yourself.
A growing body of research, including new studies by Berkeley’s Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, suggest that self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, may be the key to unlocking your true potential for greatness.
Now, I know that some of you are already skeptical about a term like “self-compassion.” But this is a scientific, data-driven argument – not feel-good pop psychology. So hang in there and keep an open mind.
Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding – it’s embracing the fact that to err is indeed human. When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego. It’s not surprising that self-compassion leads, as many studies show, to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.
But what about performance? Self-compassion may feel good, but aren’t the people who are harder on themselves, who are driven to always be the best, the ones who are ultimately more likely to succeed?
To answer that, it’s important to understand what self-compassion is not. While the spirit of self-compassion is to some degree captured in expressions like give yourself a break and cut yourself some slack, it is decidedly not the same thing as taking yourself off the hook or lowering the bar. You can be self-compassionate while still accepting responsibility for your performance. And you can be self-compassionate while striving for the most challenging goals – the difference lies not in where you want to end up, but in how you think about the ups and downs of your journey. As a matter of fact, if you are self-compassionate, new research suggests you are more likely to actually arrive at your destination.
In their studies, Brienes and Chen asked participants to take either a self-compassionate or self-esteem enhancing view of a setback or failure. For example, when asked to reflect on a personal weakness, some were asked to “imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?”
Others were asked to instead focus on boosting their self-esteem: “Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a perspective of validating your positive qualities. What would you say?”
People who experienced self-compassion were more likely to see their weaknesses as changeable. Self-compassion – far from taking them off the hook - actually increased their motivation to improve and avoid the same mistake again in the future.
This increased motivation lead to demonstrably superior performance. For instance, in one study, participants who failed an initial test were given a second chance to improve their scores. Those who took a self-compassionate view of their earlier failure studied 25 percent longer, and scored higher on a second test, than participants who focused on bolstering their self-esteem.
Why is self-compassion so powerful? In large part, because it is non-evaluative – in other words, your ego is effectively out of the picture - you can confront your flaws and foibles head on. You can get a realistic sense of your abilities and your actions, and figure out what needs to be done differently next time.
When your focus is instead on protecting your self-esteem, you can’t afford to really look at yourself honestly. You can’t acknowledge the need for improvement, because it means acknowledging weaknesses and shortcomings – threats to self-esteem that create feelings of anxiety and depression. How can you learn how to do things right when it’s killing you to admit – even to yourself - that you’ve done them wrong?
Here’s an unavoidable truth: You are going to screw up. Everyone – including very successful people – makes boatloads of mistakes. The key to success is, as everyone knows, to learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward. But not everyone knows how. Self-compassion is the how you’ve been looking for. So please, give yourself a break.
Now let’s examine 10 ways you can become a self-liker rather than a self-critic:
- Don’t be afraid to confront your failings. The Boyraz and Waits study showed that being able to think about your weaknesses doesn’t condemn you to a life of self-hatred.
- Step back and enjoy your accomplishments. When you’ve done something well, don’t be afraid to admit that you succeeded. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering: Having cooked a good meal, eat it with pleasure and allow any compliments from those you cooked for to sink in.
- Learn to look at the things you like about yourself in the mirror. Sure, your makeup isn’t perfect and that rash on your chin makes it look a little red. But what about the great job you did on your hair? If all else fails, find a mirror with better lighting than the bright fluorescents in your office.
- Go on a date with yourself. On the date, spend some time alone devoted to thinking about your experiences: Enjoy a movie or concert, or a meal at your favorite restaurant while you spend time reflecting on what’s going on around you. You can even laugh at your own jokes.
- Strive to be a better person, but don’t expect changes to happen all at once. You might be completely unhappy with your weight and can’t stand the thought that the pounds aren’t melting off faster. Give yourself a realistic timeline and measure yourself against smaller, achievable goals.
- Spend a weekend day or evening without worrying about how you look. Try a makeup-free Sunday or a grubby t-shirt Tuesday night. See what it’s like to be yourself without being concerned about impressing anyone else.
- Think about the past, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed with regret. You wish like anything that you could turn back the clock and not have said the hurtful thing you said to your friend. Once you've uttered those words, though, you can't unsay them. However, you may have learned something useful about yourself in the process and certainly can make every effort to apologize.
- Understand that no one is perfect. When you’re in low self-acceptance mode, you believe that everyone is better than you. It’s possible that others are better than you in certain ways, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less of a person yourself. Instead of comparing yourself negatively, accept that fact, and then see if you can learn from it.
- Enjoy your personality, foibles and all. So you’re a little bit too meticulous and want everything to be perfect. When things don’t work out as you wish and you start to berate your weaknesses, stop and do a reality check. So you spilled coffee all over your brand-new tablecloth. OK, maybe you’re a bit clumsy. That doesn’t mean you’re worthless.
- Like “most” of yourself as much as you can. You’re may not reach 100% self-satisfaction, but maybe you can get to 75 or 80%. In the measure of self-acceptance that the Louisiana Tech team used, getting high scores meant saying you were happy with “most” of your personality traits.
5 Steps to Nourishing Self-Esteem
- Avoid generic positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are like empty calories. You can tell yourself you’re great but if you don’t really believe it, your mind will reject the affirmation and make you feel worse as a result. Affirmations only work when they fall within the range of believability, and for people with low self-esteem, they usually don't.
- Identify areas of authentic strength or competency. To begin building your self-esteem, you have to identify what you’re good at, what you do well, or what you do that other people appreciate. It can be something small, a single small step in the right direction, but it is has to be something.
- Demonstrate ability. Once you’ve identified an area of strength, find ways to demonstrate it. If you’re a good bowler, join a bowling league. If you’re a good writer, post an essay to a blog. If you’re a good planner, organize the family reunion. Engage in the things you do well.
- Learn to tolerate positive feedback. When our self-esteem is low we become resistant to compliments. Work on accepting compliments graciously (a simple "thank you" is sufficient). Hard as it might feel to do so, especially at first, being able to receive compliments is very important for those seeking to nourish their self-esteem.
- Self-affirm. Once you’ve demonstrated your ability, allow yourself to feel good about it, proud, satisfied, or pleased with yourself. Self-affirmations are specifically crafted positive messages we can give ourselves based on our true strengths (e.g., I'm a fantastic cook). Realize it is not arrogant to feel proud of the things you are actually good at, whatever they are, as when your self-esteem is low, every ounce of emotional nourishment helps. Self-esteem is not fueled by hope—“I’ll be successful any day now”—or by false beliefs—“I’m the greatest." It's fueled by authentic experiences of competence and ability, and well-deserved feedback. If those are lacking in your life, take action to bring them into your daily experience by demonstrating your abilities and opening yourself up to positive feedback (from yourself as well as from others) once you do.