Self Compassion, Self Esteem and Mental Health

In today’s world, self-love is seen as essential to having your life together. How do we begin to develop that love? Most people take the self-esteem route, which takes a sharp detour down Comparison Avenue and Specialness Street — places you think you want to be until you realize the cobblestone roads beneath your feet are outdated, and could crumble at any second. There’s a better way: self-compassion.

The two are separated by a fine line but can be the difference between constant emotional rollercoasters, and driving down a steady highway. Let’s unpack how they’re different, and why self-compassion is the better way to approach your relationship with yourself.

Self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Most of us grew up during the self-esteem movement. We were taught self-love strategies that, in the long run, can be destructive and set us up for failure:

Specialness

And not in a good way. Many of us were raised to base our self-worth on how different we were from others, and how much positive feedback we were receiving. While that fueled many of us to work hard and be better, it also led us to internalize the idea that being average is not okay. Newsflash: not only is it totally okay, but it’s a part of being human. Aim to be great at a handful of things you’re really passionate about! For everything else, embrace averageness. I promise being picked in 5th place for your beer-league baseball team says nothing about you as a person.

Comparisons

In order to distinguish if we were special or not, we constantly had to compare ourselves to our peers. And what feelings would come up if we uncovered that we weren’t better at spelling than Becky, or that James was a much faster runner? Shame, discouragement, and a sense of total failure. It’s not a good long-term strategy. The only person you should ever try to be better than, is your past self.

Defensiveness

Because self-esteem is based on an inflated sense of self, we can get defensive or angry while receiving criticism. Worse, some may put others down to maintain their own sense of self-esteem. It’s a vicious cycle.

Fragility

Self-esteem relies on how others see us. So, it’s completely conditional on how well we’re performing at the things we’re supposed to be good at. This leaves absolutely no room for failure, and creates a ton of opportunities for beating ourselves up. Not an ideal combo. Remember, overvaluing compliments also means overvaluing the negative comments that come your way.

All of these negative strategies come with yet another caveat: the self-love paradox. We’ve been taught to think highly of ourselves at all costs. Self-love, and the self-care routines that come with it have been placed on such a pedestal, that on our down days we feel extra guilty.

We get into the Feedback Loop From Hell, which goes a little something like this: You’re having an off day, and the negative thoughts just won’t go away. The negativity starts to get to you, to the point where it changes how you react to everything around you. You wonder why you can’t snap out of it and love yourself the way every Instagram post on your feed says you should.

Now you’re upset about being upset, which makes you even more upset and disappointed in yourself. Day ruined. Welcome to the loop! It’s like riding the teacups at Disneyland: you think you’ll be fine, but you quickly discover it’s nauseating. Let’s talk about how we can get off the ride.

Self-compassion on the other hand…

Self-compassion is based on steadier factors that we actually have control over:

Acceptance

This means accepting ALL of you. Think about it, it’s impossible to fix something if we pretend it’s not there. Growth comes with accepting your not-so-great sides, showing them compassion, noting that they’re no longer serving you, and making a commitment to evolve. This is something a counsellor does an amazing job at guiding you through. Don’t have one yet? Check out Wellin5 to be matched with one for your specific needs.

Equality

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion doesn’t require that we see ourselves as different or unique in order to be worthy of love and approval. When we accept ourselves for who we are and forgive ourselves for our shortcomings, there’s a pretty amazing spillover effect: we start to do just that with other people too. Cool, right? Turns out loving yourself makes it easy to love everyone else.

Consistency

When we eliminate the need to keep our egos inflated at all times, we stop avoiding criticism, and stop chasing positive experiences for their momentary highs. Mark Manson said it best: “The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”

Confidence

All of these factors lead to some serious confidence, without the conceit. We begin to feel in control rather than victims of fate, and we begin to feel good about ourselves without being narcissistic. We develop the knowledge that we don’t have to be inadequate to improve, and we don’t have to be the absolute best at something to succeed. It’s okay to live somewhere in the middle.

It’s about balance

Self-compassion is the key to building the strong foundation that self-esteem falls short of. The thing is, we’re human and we’re bound to fail sometimes. It’s a given. But accepting our weaknesses while celebrating our strengths leaves space for improvement, without basing our entire sense of self on our output. We’re all a work in progress, and compassion is key.

If you’re looking for a counsellor to guide you through your self-compassion journey, check out Wellin5.

Sarina Arefzadeh is a Vancouver-based content marketer, mental health advocate, and pop culture enthusiast. She brings her education in psychology and sociology to unpack topics like tech, gender, mental health, and online life. She’s a speaker with Jack.org, regularly visiting schools to talk to students about their mental health, what it means, and how they can be there for themselves and their peers. Connect with Sarina on LinkedIn, Twitter, or by email.