self compassionNew Zealanders are constantly bombarded with the message that health, wealth and happiness are the cornerstones of our Kiwi ambition – and that to attain them, we must remain devoted to maintaining high self-esteem.

This is reflected in our worship of success – especially in sports – and in how we raise our children to feel special and proud of their achievements. But there’s a growing body of research which shows that this repetitive desire to evaluate ourselves positively is actually harmful.

In order to make sense of a world in which everyone sees themselves as “above average” – a logical impossibility – our minds develop what’s known as “self-enhancement bias”, the tendency by which we see ourselves as funnier, friendlier, more popular, smarter etc than those around us.

The trouble is that by creating this method of maintaining our self-esteem, we’re naturally inclined to three negative tendencies:

  1. Picking on weaker people is a simple way to boost self-esteem.
  2. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, found narcissism levels of more than 15,000 US college students soared between 1987 and 2006 with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations. A New Zealand study found far higher levels of narcissism in younger generations than older ones adding that it would be “a little naïve” to assume that New Zealand had avoided the cultural influences which Twenge had revealed.
  3. Stress and anxiety. The constant need for reassurance as to our superiority is a drain on our emotions – especially when soaring highs are met with occasional reality-doses of self-criticism when we fail to meet the mark.

So how do we avoid falling into this three-pronged trap? The answer is self-compassion and mindfulness.

In a series of studies, associate professor of human development Kristin Neff has compared the use of self-compassion with global self-esteem as they relate to aspects of psychological functioning.

Self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself. [In a study of 2187 cases relating to ego-focused reactivity it] was found that self-compassion predicted more stable feelings of self-worth than self-esteem and was less contingent on particular outcomes. Self-compassion also had a stronger negative association with social comparison, public self-consciousness, self-rumination, anger, and need for cognitive closure. Self-esteem (but not self-compassion) was positively associated with narcissism. [A second study of 165 cases] compared global self-esteem and self-compassion with regard to positive mood states. It was found that the two constructs were statistically equivalent predictors of happiness, optimism, and positive affect. Results from these two studies suggest that self-compassion may be a useful alternative to global self-esteem when considering what constitutes a healthy self-stance.

In other words, a clear recognition of an imperfect human condition and the non-judgmental acceptance of painful emotions is far better for our mental health and emotional balance, than the constant desire to be the best.

Health, wealth and happiness may well be good ambitions, but a realistic and kind view of ourselves is far more likely to help us attain them.

  • If you’re interested in discovering how The Robert St Clinic can help you learn more about mindfulness, contact us here or call 09 973 5950.