Want to Feel Good About Yourself? Be Above Average!
Melissa is a 16-year-old high school student who gets good grades. Her parents are proud of her, and her teachers predict she will be able to study at her college of choice. Although there are some kids at school who sometimes make fun of her for being a straight-A student, Melissa doesn’t care. She has good self-esteem and is happy about who she is.
Marc is one of the kids who make fun of Melissa. He has always been a bad student, and, since puberty kicked in, his grades dropped even further. He doesn’t have time for homework and extensive studying, since he has to show up for baseball practice five times a week. Marc is the star player of the team, and his peers and his coach love him. He might fail this academic year, but he doesn’t care. He cares about being good at baseball. Marc exhibits, just as Melissa, high self-esteem.
Having to Be Better Than the Rest Means Thin Ice for Your Feeling of Self-Worth
So far, so good, but picture Melissa starting to get bad grades and Marc playing a couple of lousy games. Their self-worth is likely to crumble, and, since they have put everything on one card (academic/athletic achievement), they are likely to worry about whether they will be able to gain it back. In other words, a lot is on the line at the next math test and the next baseball game, and they are likely to experience some form of anxiety in these situations.
It has been pointed out that self-esteem might generate problems when it depends on particular results (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003). According to Kernis (2005), self-esteem that relies upon certain outcomes causes people to magnify the negative effects of personal failure, which leads to a greater propensity of developing depression. In other words: self-esteem is a good thing for our sense of self-worth, as long as we do well, but it can fade away quickly and let us down when we don’t live up to our standards. A socially-anxious person, for instance, might actually exhibit good self-esteem, but only as long as she comes across as socially confident. Since her sense of self-worth is based on a specific type of outcome, she not only lives in a constant fear of not living up to her ideals but also is completely crushed when she doesn’t manage to do so.
Self-Compassion: A Solid Alternative to Self-Esteem
Kristin Neff (2011), from the University of Texas, has proposed a useful alternative to self-esteem, called self-compassion. “While self-compassion offers similar benefits to self-esteem, it appears to have fewer downsides,” according to the author (p. 3).
Neff continues by pointing out that self-compassion encompasses an attitude of self-kindness (p. 4). Instead of criticizing ourselves for our flaws and mistakes, she advocates a self-caring and understanding mindset. While most people tend to criticize themselves for their inadequacies, she refers to an attitude which is meant to sooth and support ourselves in times of individual hardships.
Additionally, Neff adds the concept of common humanity, which relates to the recognition that we are not the only ones who struggle, fail, and have to deal with imperfection. What connects us to others, according to this concept, is that we all suffer. It is a normal part of life to fail—to not live up to one’s own or other people’s standards. Perceived flaws and weaknesses are part of the human experience. Neff argues that suffering actually is a reason to feel connected to others and not disconnected because we are not good enough.
Neff’s third component of self-compassion is mindfulness. Many have heard of it related to meditation practices. Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Jon-Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
Self-Compassion and Personal Shortcomings
Neff draws upon Brown and Ryan (2003) to highlight the importance of this practice concerning the “disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life.” She argues that it is necessary to notice that we are suffering, if we want to be able to respond in a self-compassionate manner to the struggles we go through. Imagine a person who has to give a presentation at work, for instance. She does not receive the feedback she was hoping for and criticizes herself for being too nervous when presenting the content. She might get so caught up in her habit of self-blaming and ruminating that she doesn’t even notice that she is suffering.
‘Isn’t self-compassion the same as self-pity?‘, you might ask. Neff says it is not (p. 5). She argues that people who pity themselves tend to get caught up in their suffering, believing they are the only ones who suffer in this world. This is the opposite of the second concept proposed by Neff: common humanity. Self-compassion, therefore, entails awareness of one’s own suffering, realizing that it is part of the human experience we all share, and responding in a kind and supportive way.
Self-Esteem Vs. Self-Compassion –
Superiority Vs. Connection
Research on self-compassion has shown its strong, positive effects across numerous life domains, such as social connection, positive affect, and happiness (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007; Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007). At the same time, these studies have shown that it is related to experiencing less anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, as well as depression, among others.
So, what if Melissa and Marc were to exhibit high levels of self-compassion, instead of self-esteem? As it turns out, they still would hold themselves in positive regard, feeling valuable, and secure. From an evolutionary perspective, it has been argued that self-compassionate responses activate a system responsible for self-soothing and attachment, while deactivating the threat system (Gilbert, 1989). Self-esteem, in contrast, is based on a social rank system (Gilbert et al., 2008). In order to determine one’s position in the social hierarchy, a constant evaluation of superiority and inferiority in relation to others is necessary. It can be compared to a constant competition, trying to climb up the social ladder while dreading losing one’s current position, just as Melissa and Marc in the opening example.
One of the most important advantages of self-compassion over self-esteem is that it is accessible in any situation (Neff, p. 6). We can benefit from it whether we feel good or bad, we experience fear or depression, or when being faced with our own failures and imperfections. Neff emphasizes that this is precisely the moment when self-esteem is not available to us, since it is built on our successes and positive attributes. Self-esteem, she argues, makes us feel good because it helps us feel better than others and confident in our abilities. Self-compassion, she continues, makes us feel good because it helps us feel safe, supported, and protected.
Self-Compassion as Buffer Against Shame
In an experiment, participants were instructed to vividly imagine a situation of personal failure which could be perceived as embarrassing (Leary et al., 2007). Imagine Marc, for instance, missing an easy opportunity to win an important game for his team or Melissa getting a C in her math test. The findings suggest that there was little difference between people with high self-esteem compared to people with low self-esteem in their reactions to the imagined event. Both groups put themselves down for their inadequacies and felt humiliated. Self-compassionate people, on the contrary, did not experience such reactions but rather reminded themselves that it is normal to fail now and then. They did not take their failures personally nor view them as embarrassing.
What Does This Have to do With Social Anxiety?
A whole lot, I would argue. While most socially-anxious people exhibit low self-esteem, there also are some who enjoy high levels of it, as long as they can generate a certain impression on others. What all of them have in common, though, is the anxiety of not being able to be perceived in a certain way by others. Because of this, they experience anxiety in social situations. A lot is on the line, just like at the baseball games for Marc and at the exams for Melissa, especially after having experienced failures in these areas before. It has been suggested that socially-anxious people represent a group with especially high levels of self-criticism (Cox, Fleet, & Stein, 2004). Since social success and physiological reactions are not something we can easily control, individuals suffering from SAD might be well advised to promote an attitude of self-compassion as antidote to social anxiety.
So, next time you feel rejected, disappointed about a presentation, embarrassed for calling unwanted attention, or simply lonely, try to notice that you are passing through a difficult moment, remind yourself that this is part of the human experience—and that it connects you to everyone else on this planet—and respond in a kind and supportive way that makes you feel better, just as you would with a good friend who is having a hard time. In short: the more compassionate you treat yourself, the less your personal failure will drag you down, and the less you anxiety you will experience about having them exposed.