Self-Compassion Verses Self-Esteem: Learning to Love Yourself

by Dr. Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D

Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. It’s our self-worth or value and it is touted as a pretty big part of our mental well-being. Low self-esteem has long been associated with mental health concerns (like depression) and risky behaviors (like substance use), so it makes sense that fostering a solid sense of self-esteem in our kids, especially in the ‘tween years, is high on our parent priority list.

But what if I told you there’s something better and more long-lasting that we could be focusing on? Because here’s the thing, self-esteem has some issues.

For one, it can be unstable especially in the tween/teen years. Let’s say you have an athletic kid who gathers much of her self-worth from being a “good athlete.” She’s great at soccer, is captain of her team, and wants to play in college. A huge part of her identity is “being good at soccer.” So, what happens if she doesn’t make it onto the competitive travel team? You now have a kid who, on top of feeling disappointed about the outcome of the try-outs, is also wrestling with her sense of worth, and likely catastrophizing what this means for her future. 

Another issue with self-esteem is the amount of effort needed in order to maintain it. Doing well in one soccer game isn’t going to be enough to boost your tweens self-esteem for the entire year. It’s going to require consistently performing “above average”, which is a lot of pressure for a kid to handle. Not to mention, nearly impossible, and something that may eventually manifest in performance anxiety, perfectionism, or burnout.

Furthermore, in the pursuit of high self-esteem, your tween may engage in some problematic behaviors, like bullying, for example. In Western culture, being “special”, “above average” or “ahead of the pack” is valued. And sometimes, kids (and adults) misconstrue feelings of superiority for high self-esteem. In other words, your tween might put others down in order to feel better about himself, in order to be “above” someone else. Or she might evaluate herself in a more positive light than what is actually accurate (this is an inflated self-esteem). By refusing to acknowledge her shortcomings, she isn’t giving herself the chance to improve upon them, and is therefore stunting her personal growth.

So, if we aren’t encouraging self-esteem, then what is there?

Self-compassion

Self-compassion is not based on evaluations or comparisons. It has nothing to do with being above-average, or feeling good about yourself because you possess a particular talent. Simply put, self-compassion is treating yourself with the same gentle care that you would extend to your favorite person. And as opposed to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate views of themselves, more caring relationships, less narcissism, and less reactive anger. It involves the following three components:

2. Self-Kindness

Exactly as it sounds, self-kindness is the tendency to be caring, supportive and understanding of ourselves, rather than being critical, blaming, and judgmental.

2. Common Humanity

Common humanity is recognizing that you are not the only one who struggles! And not in a minimizing or invalidating sort of way, but more in a way that connects you to other people. So often when we feel inadequate or when we fail, we think we are the only ones who go through hard times (How often have you heard your tween say “I’m the only one who….”). Common humanity simply reminds us that imperfections, failures, and difficult times are part of being human.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment that is non-judgmental and balanced. It tells us to acknowledge our feelings, without being completely consumed by them and it keeps us from drudging up past hurts/mistakes or catastrophizing about what will happen in the future.

Self-compassion allows for the opportunity to love yourself, flaws and all.

Interested in learning more about self-compassion? Join me at the All Kinds of Love Event on Sunday, February 9, where I’ll be hosting a workshop on self-compassion including journal prompts, a guided meditation, and parent coaching on how to nurture self-compassion in your tween.

Dr. Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist with over a decade of experience working with children, adolescents, and parents. She has a soft spot for ‘tweens, teens, and new moms, and enjoys helping them navigate the transitions that are a hallmark of those stages in life. She considers helpful therapy to be one that simultaneously promotes acceptance and change. Check out her website: www.chrysocolla-counseling.com for more information about her private practice or email her at dr.amanda.darnley@gmail.com to schedule a free 20-minute phone consultation. You can also find her on Instagram @hey.dr.d for daily tips, humor, and motivation.