Self-esteem vs Self-compassion?

Having recently experienced many life-changing workshops during the AAGT 2018 Conference, ‘Radical Respect’, here in Toronto, I find one topic has emerged as being especially figural for me: what is the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion? Is there a difference? And if so, what does this mean?

I think it’s fair to say we’ve all struggled with our self-esteem at one time or another. As parents, it is the thing that we most want to impart to our kids – as kids growing up, it’s the thing that we know adults worry about. It’s top of mind, achieving it is considered developmental nirvana: we all know we need it. But what exactly is it?

Self-esteem is a positive sense of self and our capabilities that is relative – we assess whether or not we have it in comparison to others. It results from a measurement of what we have achieved: what level of success we have attained and how we have shown up in the world. It is our impact on the other and it fluctuates. It exists outside of ourselves, and is therefore, outside of our control. It is directly impacted by that critical voice we all carry within ourselves – ideally there to keep us safe and to motivate us toward greater achievement, but far too often a harsh taskmaster.

Ok. But how does this differ from self-compassion?

If self-esteem is outside of us, self-compassion comes from within. It is the positive voice that supports and loves us, regardless of our accomplishments (or lack thereof). It is the voice that collaborates, that listens, that holds space for our failures and disappointments, all the while maintaining the belief that we are ok. That we are valuable – not because we have done anything notable – but because we are human beings worthy of love and respect. Self-compassion comes from a place that is constant and is not dependent on the other.

I’m not saying that self-esteem is a bad thing – it’s clearly not. We all need to learn how to navigate the world in which we live and the challenge of being judged on our accomplishments is part of that. But when faced with this inevitable challenge, what if we could swap that critical voice and sense of external value for one that tells us it loves us no matter what? A voice that acknowledges how hard things might be, and hangs in regardless? That motivates from a place of unconditional love and support, not criticism and a harsh, relative ‘truth’?

As someone who has grown up in this North American society, I have spent a lot of time trying to buoy up my sense of self-esteem. I have worked hard to ‘do’, to ‘accomplish’, to ‘achieve’ – many times I have succeeded; often I have failed. But my recent experiment of trading that critical voice for a loving one showed me something shocking: it wasn’t hard work. It wasn’t ‘work’ at all.

For me? I think there’s something in here that warrants further exploration. So this is my challenge: give it a try. Try unconditional love instead of criticism and see what happens. And I invite you to share your thoughts below.

Good luck!

Katie MeadComment