Teaching Children Self Compassion not Self Esteem.

This week I was listening to the amazing podcast by Sounds True where Tami Simon interviews leading spiritual teachers, psychologists, neuroscientists etc. They are always such gems of insight and learning and her conversation Dr Kristin Neff was so valuable I feel compelled to give you the highlights.

So here we go……

Dr Kristin Neff is the leading researcher on self compassion. She had began meditating and learning about the Buddhist concept of self compassion while going through a particularly stressful time in her life. At around the same time she was working with a researcher uncovering the benefits and downsides of self esteem.

For years self esteem has been seen as the ultimate marker of good psychological health, thousands of books  have been written about self esteem. People who have higher levels of self-esteem are less depressed, less anxious, and are generally happier than people who hate themselves.

However, the problem with self-esteem is not if you have it, but how you get it. In our culture, we have to be special and above average to have high self-esteem. That’s logically impossible. We can’t always be special and above average. And even if we could be  special and above average it requires others around us, our peers  to be less than us. My path to self esteem requires their disesteem.

“It sets up a process of social comparison where we’re always trying to feel a little better than others, and see others as a little bit worse than ourselves. That can lead to things like narcissism. There’s an epidemic of narcissism in our culture—people who have really taken the need to be above average very seriously—that appears to be related to the self-esteem movement in schools.”

So if we  tell kids constantly that they’re special, that they’re wonderful, that they’re great; we think that we are helping kids to judge themselves positively. But actually this unconditional praise given to children is giving them the message that I get love because I am particularly wonderful and special. “People feel they need to be above average to feel good about themselves.”

Research shows that self-compassion is associated with well-being just like high self-esteem. It’s linked to less depression, anxiety, stress, greater happiness, optimism, etc. But it’s not linked to the same problems associated with self-esteem—it’s not linked with narcissism, it’s linked to less social comparison it’s not contingent on things like success, successful performance, social approval, or perceived attractiveness.

We also only have self-esteem when we succeed, and that it deserts us when we fail. “Self-compassion doesn’t have these problems because it’s not about judging yourself positively, it’s about merely relating to yourself kindly.”

“So you want kids to feel good about themselves, but not because they’re above average or better than others, but simply because you’re a human being, worthy of care and kindness and respect. So this would mean helping children to be self-compassionate when they fail. Letting them know that it’s only human to fail, but that if they give themselves support and encouragement they can pick themselves up and try again.”

Self-compassion is also strongly linked to motivation and making an effort to do our best, but we do so not because we’re inadequate or worse than others if we fail, we do it because we care and want to be happy, and then therefore this type of motivation is much more sustainable over time.

So how to do it?

OK, so the first component is perhaps the most obvious, and that is treating yourself with kindness and care as opposed to harsh self-judgment. So in self-compassion we’re kind, supportive, just like we would be to a good friend, and also the self-kindness component refers to the fact that we actively soothe and comfort ourselves when we’re in distress. We would give our friend a hug so we give ourselves a hug. What would I say to someone I cared about?” Physical gestures of kindness, comfort, and soothing are very powerful because our bodies can go there sometimes even when our minds can’t. Using terms of endearment like, “darling” or “sweetheart,” are very powerful.

The second component is the sense of common humanity. Self-compassion recognises that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Failure and suffering are part of every life.

The third component may be a little less obvious but it’s very important, and that’s mindfulness. Paying attention to present moment experience without resistance, without judgment, and with real acceptance of what is. Mindfulness is a type of balanced awareness that neither diminishes, nor exaggerates our suffering. If we avoid the fact that we’re suffering—if we aren’t aware of it or if we’re just fighting against it—we can’t give ourselves compassion. We have to say, “This is a moment of suffering.” We have to accept  that we’re really having a hard time in order to be compassionate with ourselves.

Research  shows that the attempt to suppress negative or unwanted thoughts doesn’t work. Research on emotional avoidance shows that the more we try to resist, the more is persists. Resistance and suppression is really a way of containing things, and when we contain things it means we keep a hold of them. Whereas when we let go, we don’t resist and we don’t contain them, and they’re free to just dissipate on their own.

As Tami Simon says at one point in the conversation …..” …..needing to be special and above average—that everybody feels that in Western culture to some degree or another, to some extent……self compassion is  the antidote, if you will, for this disease of one-upmanship that we’ve all been immersed in.”

I couldn’t agree more.