“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you—with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.”
A few days ago I sat down for a coaching session with an anxious new teacher. As she discussed her initial teaching experiences, she wasn’t concerned about her content knowledge or her lack of preparation. She was caught up in cycles of nervousness and self-consciousness—in the midst of her instruction. “It’s not about what I’m doing; this is in me,” she explained. “My colleague says that she can sense my lack of confidence.”
As she described her childhood and her intense training as a musician, she pinpointed her ingrained need for perfection. And then, in a moment of recognition, we laughed together because anyone who has taught for more than a few hours knows that teaching requires on-your-toes flexibility and adaptability, in the moment, every day. Classrooms full of students are never perfect, and neither are teachers. Therein lies the challenge—and the fun. Then, I watched this new teacher burst the bubble of her anxiety: “What if I just tell myself, ‘It’s okay.’”
This new teacher’s struggle (which many of us undoubtedly understand) can be informed by Kristin Neff’s cutting edge self-compassion research. In her book, she describes the three components of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness—the ability to be gentle and accepting rather than harsh or critical with ourselves
- Common humanity—the recognition that we are not alone in our suffering—and that we can feel connected to others in the world who feel similar pain
- Mindfulness—the ability to be balanced, present and aware of our experiences (rather than exaggerating them or running from them)
Self-compassion emphasizes acceptance while self-esteem relies on social comparison—being above average, distinctive and special. Regardless of this difference, Neff’s research findings indicate that individuals with high self-compassion and high self-esteem can actually experience similar benefits such as lower anxiety and depression as well as greater happiness, optimism, and positive emotions.
However, unlike self-compassion, self-esteem has its downsides. In several of Neff’s studies, participants with low self-compassion and high self-esteem really struggled, in the moment, when their abilities were challenged and their egos were threatened in some way. For example, in one study, participants who reported high self-compassion experienced less anxiety than those with low self-compassion when asked to discuss their weaknesses in a mock interview. On the other hand, the participants reporting both high and low levels of self-esteem experienced similar levels of anxiety. Regardless of self-esteem level, they appeared to be uncomfortable discussing their shortcomings.
In another study where participants were asked to imagine their reactions to potentially embarrassing situations (e.g., forgetting your lines in the middle of a play or being responsible for losing a big game), the more self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated and incompetent. Those with both low and high self-esteem, however, were significantly self-critical.
Some individuals initially express discomfort with the idea of self-compassion, associating it with something like self-indulgence or self-pity, which it is not. Further research by Neff and Vonk revealed that people with high self-esteem were more likely to demonstrate narcissism than those with low self-esteem, while self-compassion levels didn’t correlate with narcissism at all.
Bottom line, self-compassion is a good thing to practice—and it can be learned. (See Neff’s website for more information.) If we can 1) extend kindness to ourselves (e.g., telling ourselves “It’s okay” in those seemingly catastrophic moments), 2) remember that we aren’t alone in our struggles, and 3) practice a more balanced, non-judgmental, and accepting stance when we feel inadequate, we can begin to experience greater calm in our lives.