by Zachary Durisko, PhD
New research is showing that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem for recovery and resilience. Bad things happen: relationships end, partners cheat, potential mates shoot us down. Sometimes we can’t help but let these things get to us.
According to the field of research known as Positive Psychology, however, a better way to bounce back from such hardships may be to accept your humanity (nobody is perfect), acknowledge the pain (don’t suppress it or dwell on it), and reassure yourself that you are worthy of understanding and kindness (it’s true!). Although men are often taught to be tough, stay strong, and remain confident no matter what, this kind of approach may not be beneficial in the long run.
Self-esteem can be important. Not only is it attractive to others (including potential mates), but striding through the world with an abundance of pride and confidence can numb us to the impacts of negative events. Just lost your job? You’ll be okay, you’re an all-star! Failed that test? Don’t even worry about it, you’re great! Girlfriend left you for another guy? Her loss—plenty of fish in the sea! Self-esteem can be a problem, however, when it becomes delusional. It is good to feel capable, but one should also maintain a realistic understanding of one’s skills and weaknesses. It is not helpful if to blindly plow through hardships and never learn anything or develop as a person. Sometimes bad things happen and we should pay attention to what the pain and negative emotions are telling us. Maybe your loss or failure is an opportunity to learn and improve. Additionally, self-esteem requires us to constantly compare ourselves against others, and even when things are going well, this can too easily turn into cockiness, narcissism, and a lack of empathy for others. Self-esteem is also conditional. It is typically based on external indicators of success: our job, money, love-life, athletic abilities—all of which can decline or go away, leaving us feeling worthless and overly critical of ourselves.
When bad things happen to you, the healthiest response is to accept that they have happened and understand that they happen to all of us. Be aware of your emotional response without judging it. It is okay to be sad, or angry, or afraid. Recognize your emotions without being controlled by them.
Self-compassion is an alternative psychological construct. It consists of being kind to oneself (instead of criticizing oneself harshly), understanding that we’re all human (we all go through difficulties and that’s part of what makes being a human interesting), and mindfulness (being aware of one’s emotions without judging or being overwhelmed by them). Taking this perspective is thought to provide greater resilience when facing hardships, leading to less frustration, anger, and depression. Don’t ignore bad things, but don’t dwell on them and criticize yourself too harshly either. When bad things happen to you, the healthiest response is to accept that they have happened and understand that they happen to all of us. Be aware of your emotional response without judging it. It is okay to be sad, or angry, or afraid. Recognize your emotions without being controlled by them. Emotions are the body’s natural response to life events and negative emotions serve a purpose.
Finally, treat yourself the way that you would treat others. You wouldn’t say to someone feeling these negative emotions that they are a failure, or should just be stronger and get over it, so don’t say those things to yourself! While challenging, keeping these things in mind the next time you’re struggling may give you the perspective you need to fight off the unnecessary anger, frustration, and depression that can accompany the things that life throws at you. Dr. Kristin Neff, PhD., is a leading researcher in this field and provides more information as well as several free tests and exercises for self-compassion on her website http://self-compassion.org
Zachary Durisko, PhD – Freelance writer, editor, and scientist. Research Fellow, Evolutionary Ecology of Health Research Laboratories, McMaster University, Ontario.Dr. Durisko is a researcher in Evolutionary Psychiatry and Behavioral Ecology with several peer-reviewed academic articles. His research focuses on how human history has shaped the way we think. His work is revolutionizing how we understand mental illness, especially depression. His PhD is in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Animal Behavior.