Self-Compassion: An Antidote for Social Anxiety

“Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.”

William Shakespeare

What are you great at? In what areas are you above average or perhaps even outstanding?

Everyone is exceptional at something, and recognizing that can boost our self-esteem.

But what happens when we fail in our areas of expertise, in our uniqueness that sets as apart as a special being?

For many, it can feel like they are being robbed of their self-esteem, and they may struggle with feelings of diminished self-worth.

Those who continue to feel good about themselves despite their perceived failures usually have one thing in common: they are compassionate with themselves.

Here, we’ll explain the concept of self-compassion, compare it to self-esteem, and show you how to apply it to reduce your social anxiety.

Above-Averageness & Self-Esteem

Melissa is a 16-year-old high school student with good grades. Her parents are proud of her and her teachers predict that she will be able to study at the college of her 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 high self-esteem and is happy with who she is.

Marc is one of the kids who makes fun of Melissa. He has always been a bad student, and since puberty has set in, his grades have dropped even further.

He has no time for homework or extensive studying because he has to show up for baseball practice five times a week. Marc is the star player on the team, and his teammates and coach love him.

He might fail this school year, but he doesn’t care. All he cares about is being good at baseball. Marc, like Melissa, has high self-esteem.

So far, so good.

Betting on Your Performance: Thin Ice for Your Self-Worth

But imagine Melissa gets bad grades and Marc plays some lousy games.

Their self-esteem will probably crumble and since they put all their eggs in one basket (academic/athletic performance), they’ll probably be highly anxious about winning it back.

After perceived personal failures, our self-esteem can crumble.

In other words, they have a lot at stake in their next math test and baseball game, and they are likely to experience some form of anxiety in these situations.

It has been noted that self-esteem can cause problems when it is dependent on certain outcomes (Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, & Bouvrette, 2003).

According to Kernis (2005), self-esteem that depends on specific results leads people to magnify the negative effects of personal failure, which leads to a greater tendency to develop anxiety and depression.

This means that self-esteem is a good thing for our sense of self-worth – as long as we do well. But it can quickly dwindle and let us down if we don’t live up to our standards.

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.

Socially anxious people, for example, can have high self esteem, but only as long as they appear socially confident or do well in social situations.

Since their self-esteem is based on a certain outcome (generating a certain impression), they not only live in constant fear of not living up to their ideals (experience anxiety in social situations), but are also crushed when they fail to do so (embarrassed and depressed).

Self-Compassion: A Sound Alternative to Self-Esteem

Kristin Neff (2011) of the University of Texas has suggested a useful alternative to self-esteem: self-compassion.

Self-compassion offers similar benefits to self-esteem but appears to have fewer downsides,” she says.

While self-compassion offers similar benefits to self-esteem, it appears to have fewer downsides. Kristin Neff quote.

Neff continues by pointing out that self-compassion involves an attitude of self-kindness.

Rather than criticizing ourselves for our weaknesses and faults, she advocates a self-caring and understanding attitude.

While most people tend to criticize themselves for their shortcomings, she recommends an attitude that reassures and supports us in times of individual distress.

In addition, Neff adds the concept of common humanity, which refers to the recognition that we are not the only ones who struggle, fail and face 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 others’ standards. Perceived failures and weaknesses are part of the human experience.

Failure is a normal part of life.

Neff argues that suffering is a reason to feel connected to others rather than disconnected because we are not good enough.

Neff’s third component of self-compassion is mindfulness. Many have heard of it in the context of meditation.

Mindfulness is described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Jon-Kabat-Zinn, 1994).

Let’s explore why mindfulness is so important to the concept of self-compassion.

Self-Compassion, Mindfulness & Personal Shortcomings

Neff draws on Brown and Ryan (2003) to emphasize the importance of mindfulness in relation to the “disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life.

She argues that noticing that we are suffering is necessary if we are to be able to respond in a self-compassionate way to the struggles we are going through.

Mindfulness is one of the three components of self-compassion proposed by Kristin Neff.

Imagine a person who has to give a presentation at work, for example. She doesn’t get the feedback she was hoping for and blames herself for being too nervous when she presented the content.

She may be so caught up in her habit of self-blame and rumination that she doesn’t even realize she is suffering.

Mindfulness, then, can help us recognize when we are going through a difficult time and respond with self-compassion.

You may be wondering, “Isn’t self-compassion the same as self-pity?

Neff says it’s not.

She argues that people who feel sorry for themselves tend to get caught up in their misery and believe that they are the only ones suffering in this world.

Remember the second concept Neff proposes?

The concept of common humanity refers to our interconnectedness, meaning that everyone suffers in life.

Common humanity. We should feel connected to others because we are suffering, not detached.

Self-compassion, then, means becoming aware of one’s own suffering, recognizing that it is part of the human experience we all share, and responding to it in a kind and supportive way.

Let’s take a look at the practical, real-life implications of such an attitude toward ourselves.

Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion, or: Superiority vs. Connection

Research on self-compassion has shown that it has strong, positive effects on numerous areas of life, such as social connections, positive feelings, and happiness (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007).

At the same time, these studies have shown that it is associated with less anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, and depression, among other benefits.

Self-compassion is related to experiencing less anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, as well as depression, along with other benefits.

So what if Melissa and Marc exhibited high levels of self-compassion instead of self-esteem?

As it turns out, they would still view themselves positively and feel valuable and confident.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is argued that self-compassionate responses activate a system responsible for self-soothing and attachment, while deactivating the threat system (Gilbert, 1989).

Self-esteem, on the other hand, 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 comparison to others is necessary.

This is similar to a constant competition in which one tries to climb up the social ladder while at the same time fearing that one will lose one’s current position, as Melissa and Marc did in the opening example.

Evolutionary psychology argues that self-esteem is based on a social rank system, which puts the individual in competition mode and leads to anxiety of losing social status..

One of the most important advantages of self-compassion over self-esteem is that it can be applied in any situation (Neff, 2011).

We can benefit from it when we feel good or bad, when we feel anxious or depressed, or when we are confronted with our own flaws and shortcomings.

Neff emphasizes that self-esteem is unavailable precisely when we need it, because it is built on our successes and positive qualities.

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.

These aspects have been found to be typically absent in people with social anxiety.

Self-Compassion as a Buffer Against Shame

In one experiment, participants were instructed to vividly imagine a situation of personal failure that might be perceived as embarrassing (Leary et al., 2007).

For example, imagine Marc missing an easy chance to win an important game for his team or Melissa getting a C on her math test.

The results suggest that people with high self-esteem differed little from people with low self-esteem in their reactions to the imagined event.

Both groups felt responsible for their shortcomings and felt humiliated.

People with high self-esteem and people with low self-esteem both put themselves down for their inadequacies and feel humiliated when personal shortcomings are exposed.

Self-compassionate people, on the other hand, did not experience such reactions, but rather remembered that it is normal to fail now and then.

They do not take their failures personally and therefore do not perceive them as embarrassing.

This means that self-compassion can act as a buffer against feelings of shame. And if you suffer from social phobia, you know very well that shame plays an important role in your life.

Self-Compassion & Social Anxiety

While most socially anxious people have low self-esteem, there are also some who have high levels of it, as long as they can make a certain impression on others.

What they all have in common, however, is a fear of not being perceived a certain way by others.

Because of this, some social situations pose a great threat to them.

The stakes are high, just like at baseball games for Marc and exams for Melissa, especially if they have “failed” in similar social situations before.

It has been suggested that socially anxious people represent a group with especially high levels of self-criticism.

It has been suggested that socially anxious people are a particularly self-critical group (Cox, Fleet, & Stein, 2004).

You may know this from your own experience, if you are prone to criticize yourself for your insecurity, awkwardness, social anxiety symptoms, or other traits that you consider personal shortcomings.

Your self-criticism increases your social anxiety rather than helping you reduce it (as many people believe it will).

However, it is in your hands to change this. And by now you have a good idea of how to go about it.

Researchers tested what happens when people with high social anxiety scores do a self-compassion exercise before a public speaking engagement (Harwood & Kocovski, 2017).

Self-compassion was found to act as a buffer against social anxiety, similar to the previously described feelings of shame.

Self-compassion acts like a buffer against social anxiety.

There’s even a whole therapeutic approach called compassion focused therapy that fosters self-compassion, among other things.

Preliminary outcomes of this treatment approach are promising, especially for individuals with high levels of self-criticism (Leaviss & Uttley, 2014).

By the way, we have written an eBook about 17 different therapeutic approaches for social phobia that have been shown to be effective. You can click here to see if it can help you start a therapeutic process for your SAD.

But back to what we were trying to say. It’s time to change your relationship with yourself. It’s time to develop self-compassion, especially in relation to your personal flaws and your social anxiety.

Here again are the three main components of self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness (recognize that you are suffering and experiencing a difficult moment).
  2. Common humanity (remember that this experience makes you human and connects you to others).
  3. Self-kindness (treat yourself as you would a good friend – with compassion, kind words and benevolence).

The more compassionate you are with yourself, the less your personal flaws will drag you down and the less afraid you will be of them being exposed.

In a nutshell: the more self-compassion, the less social anxiety.

Thanks for reading! If you have not already done so, make sure to check out our complete introduction to social phobia as well as our comprehensive treatment guide.

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