What one single trait has been found to be healthier than self-esteem? Which trait has been shown to lead to more resiliency than self-esteem? What trait turns down the volume on negative emotions like guilt and self-loathing following a huge mistake?

Self-Esteem Is NOT the Answer We Thought It Was

For decades, experts in the United States have been obsessed with self-esteem. For so long, experts thought if they could just make people feel good about themselves, it would solve family problems, societal problems and psychological problems. For example, if you search the phrase ‘self-esteem’ on Google Scholar, over 300,000 studies come up. Experts created programs to instill high self-esteem in our children, our students and our families. The good news is that high self-esteem is related to less anxiety and depression and greater optimism. 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 him- or herself. There are two 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.

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 feel comfortable 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 behavior (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 involves how one treats himself 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 fail. 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 quite harsh with themselves regarding their own mistakes. Many are self-punitive, disparaging and hypercritical of their own mistakes. Unfortunately, this reduces satisfaction with life in the sense that mistakes lead to anger, regret and disappointment. This increase in destructive emotions makes it more difficult to bounce back and recover quickly from negative events. It also pushes the individual further away from a healthier ratio of positive to negative emotions.

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 mistake.

2. Write a short paragraph expressing self-kindness and 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.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. John Schinnerer is in private practice helping clients learn anger management, stress management and the latest ways to deal with destructive negative emotions. He also helps guys discover happier, more meaningful lives via positive psychology. His offices are in Danville, California 94526. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He has been an executive, speaker and anger management coach for over 18 years. John is Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches men to happiness and success using the latest in positive psychology. He was an expert consultant on Pixar's celebrated movie, Inside Out. He was featured in a documentary entitled, Skewed. He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area. His areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to anger management, to coaching men. He wrote the award-winning, Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought, which is available on Amazon. His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web. His new anger management site, WebAngerManagement.com offers the latest in online video-based anger management courses.