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The Secret to Stellar Self-Esteem

     What one single trait has been found to be more powerful than self-esteem? Which trait has been shown to lead to greater resiliency than self-esteem? What trait turns down the volume on negative emotions like guilt and self-loathing following a colossal mistake?
Self-Esteem Is NOT the Solution
For decades, experts in America have been overfocused on self-esteem. For years, experts thought if they could just make people feel good enough about themselves, it would take care of family problems, societal problems and psychological problems. For example, if you search the phrase 'self-esteem' on Google Scholar, over 300,000 studies are listed. Experts created programs to instill high self-esteem in our children, our students and our families. The bright side is that high self-esteem is associated with less anxiety and depression and greater optimism. So there is some good news and some bad news as far as self-esteem goes. Yet, it hasn't worked out nearly as well as many had hoped.
Self-Esteem Alone Can Be Dangerous
Self-esteem involves how one feels about herself. There are 2 types of self-esteem – state and trait.
State self-esteem is how positively one evaluates himself in the moment.
Trait self-esteem has to do with how positively one sees himself overall across time.
A number of recent studies have shown that increasing self-esteem is not as effective as once thought. Many people with high self-esteem feel so good about themselves that they are okay with abusing and taking advantage of other people (e.g., higher degrees of narcissism). At some point, individuals with high self-esteem seem to be able to rationalize destructive behaviors towards others using the idea that they are superior. So some individuals with high self-esteem can be highly defensive, narcissistic and don't take responsibility for their actions (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, Vohs).
So how do we get people to feel good about themselves without adding to their sense of superiority?

The Answer Is Self-Compassion
While self-esteem had to do with how one feels about himself, self-compassion has to do with how one treats herself when things go badly. The goal is to treat oneself with the same type of kindness and compassion that most people extend to loved ones when they come up short. When someone else makes a mistake, most people will react with some degree of kindness and understanding (Neff, Rude, Kirkpatrick). Self-compassion seems to turn down the volume on the negative emotions typically associated with egregious mistakes while maintaining a sense of personal responsibility. A 2007 study at Duke University found that "inducing self-compassion may decouple the relationship between taking responsibility and experiencing negative affect" (Leary, Tate, Allen, Hancock).
People who are self-compassionate seem to be more accepting of constructive criticism because they have a different mindset regarding personal growth. Self-compassionate folks have a growth mindset whereby they are seeking to develop mastery of self. So negative feedback is considered, evaluated objectively and, if found to have merit, acted upon to further self-improvement.
On the other hand, people who lack self-compassion tend to reject constructive criticism outright due to the rush of negative emotions associated with the idea of a flaw in their personal make up. This eliminates the opportunities for growth and learning.
Most people are hard on themselves regarding their own shortcomings. Many are self-punitive, disparaging and hypercritical of their own mistakes. Unfortunately, this reduces satisfaction with life in the sense that mistakes then lead to anger, regret and disappointment. This increase in destructive emotions makes it more difficult to bounce back and recover quickly from disappointments. It also pushes the individual further away from a healthier ratio of positive to negative emotions (the 3:1 ratio).
Even people with high self-esteem are prone to this sort of self-punishing internal beat down. Individuals without self-compassion are truly their own worst critics.
Self-Compassion Leads to Greater Resiliency
People with self-compassion are more resilient. They roll with the punches. Self-compassionate people bounce back more quickly from setbacks because they treat themselves more kindly when they fail or make a mistake. It's easier to bounce back from mistakes because there are fewer and less intense destructive emotions, such as shame and embarrassment, following a mistake. And those negative emotions that do arise are fleeting and temporary.

Can We Have Too Much Self-Compassion?
What's the catch? Is it possible to be overly self-compassionate to the point where one might be irresponsible or lazy? How likely is it that a self-compassionate person might not own up to their mistakes?
Research at Duke University suggests that is not the case. Self-compassionate people take responsibility for failures and own up to mistakes. They do feel badly when things go awry. According to Mark Leary at Duke, self-compassionate people simply lack that extra layer of self-flagellation and internal criticism. In other words, their internal critic has learned to speak up less frequently and to speak with greater kindness.
How To Build More Self-Compassion
Kristin Neff, a researcher at University of Texas, suggests the following ways in which you can foster more self-compassion…
"Self-Kindness – Ask yourself…'What would a caring friend say to me in this situation?' 'What is a kind and constructive way to think about how I can rectify this mistake or do better next time?'
Limit Self-Judgment – Ask yourself…'Who ever said human beings are supposed to be perfect?' 'Would a caring mother say this to her child if she wanted the child to grow and develop?' 'How will I learn if it's not okay to make mistakes?'
Common Humanity - Think about all the other people who have made similar mistakes, gone through similar situations, and so on. Tell yourself…'This is the human condition - all humans are vulnerable, flawed, make mistakes, have things happen that are difficult and painful.' 'How does this situation give me more insight into and compassion for the human experience?'
The experiments coming out of Duke and University of Texas show that self-compassion is a learnable skill just like riding a bike. You can learn to become more self-compassionate with practice.
Self-Compassion Exercise
So here is a simple yet powerful exercise to develop self-compassion based on this research.
To begin, think back to a mistake in your life with which you still struggle or have feelings of anger, guilt or embarrassment. While holding that event in mind, answer the three items below while keeping in mind the three pillars of self-compassion
1. Common humanity
2. Self-kindness
3. Mindfulness
1. Write down some ways in which other people may experience a similar setback.
2. Write a short paragraph expressing self-kindness and incorporating the idea of failing your way to success. Think of encouraging words you might say to a much younger friend who has made the same mistake.
3. List the emotions you have about the event in an objective and nonjudgmental fashion. There is no right or wrong here. Simply note down the feelings you have about the event.
As you practice this exercise, you will enjoy the benefits of greater self-compassion, increased resiliency, and a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions.
Self-compassion fosters greater resiliency by lightening up on the negative emotions following a mistake while maintaining a sense of personal responsibility. It truly is more powerful than self-esteem. Check it out for yourself. You'll notice greater power, energy, positive emotion and resiliency.

Article Source:

Dr. John Schinnerer is a much sought after speaker, author & executive coach. He is an award-winning author 'Guide To Self' ( His blog 'Shrunken Mind - Using Positive Psychology to Master Life' is among the top 3 in positive psychology on the web. Dr. John hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time show, in the SF Bay Area.

Posted on 2010-07-14, By: *

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