Table of Contents
Self-compassion is the antidote to the harmful self-judgement and self-criticism that we all fall back on. We tend to compare ourselves with others and think about how we should be better.
The Lake Wobegon effect is used to describe the tendency for people to think of themselves as superior to others in desirable personality traits. The character traits that people self-enhance are those valued by their culture. For example, Americans think that they are more independent and self-reliant than the average American because that is valued in American culture. On the other hand, Asians tend to think that they are more cooperative and self-sacrificing than their peers. Not only do we self-enhance but we actually use downward social comparison to see others negatively so that we feel superior by contrast. It is common to look for flaws in others so that we can feel better about ourselves.
We even do this to ourselves. We are often even harsher on ourselves because our critical self-talk is an internal monologue with no social consequences. Furthermore, we criticize ourselves in front of others to try and say “I’m going to beat you to the punch and criticize myself before you can. I recognize how flawed and imperfect I am so you don’t have to cut me down and tell me what I already know. Hopefully you will then have sympathy for me instead of judging me and assure me that I’m not as bad as I think I am.”
Culture and our upbringing plays a role into how we criticize ourselves. Individuals that grow up with highly critical parents are more likely to be critical toward themselves as adults. American culture emphasizes independence and individual achievement so people start believing that when they don’t reach their ideal goals, they feel that they only have themselves to blame. We think that self-criticism will prevent future mistakes or blunt the force of others’ criticism.
A verbal assault doesn’t have quite the same power when it merely repeats what you’ve already said to yourself.
We use harsh self-criticism to try and gain some control in our lives. We learn that self-control is possible and all we need to do is not fail. We learn that failure is an option box that doesn’t need to be checked and that falling short of perfection is something that can and should be avoided. We also use harsh self-criticism to punish ourselves when we inevitably make a mistake.
By taking the perspective of the one holding the whip as well as the one quivering on the ground, we are able to indulge in feelings of righteous indignation toward our own inadequacies. And righteous indignation feels pretty good.
“At least I’m smart enough to see how stupid that comment I just made was.”
“Yes, I did treat that person in an unforgivably bad way, but I’m so just and fair that I will now punish myself without mercy.”
Self-verification theory1 asserts that people want to be known by others according to their firmly held beliefs and feelings about themselves as a way to add stability to their lives. When we harshly criticize ourselves, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, when we truly believe that we suck, we do things that suck so that we are known by others that we suck.
Self-criticism is a form of self-care and a natural but unhelpful way to keep ourselves safe and on track. The way to counteract harsh self-criticism is to understand it, have compassion for it, and replace it with a kinder response. A response that you would give to a dear friend going through the same thing. With self-compassion, we can provide the security and self-care that we need. We can recognize that imperfection is part of being human, that we are all as flawed and vulnerable as the next person. We can let go of the need to feel better than others and connect more deeply with our fellow humans.
Three Doors of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion has three parts that must be practiced to become truly self-compassionate:
- Being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than being harshly critical and judgmental with self-kindness.
- Feeling connected with others in life rather than isolated and alienated by recognizing our common humanity.
- Holding our experience in balanced awareness rather than ignoring or exaggerating our pain through mindfulness.
The beauty of using self-compassion as a tool for dealing with difficult emotions is that it has three distinct doorways in. Whenever you notice you are in pain, you have three potential courses of action. You can give yourself kindness and care. You can remind yourself that encountering pain is part of the shared human experience. You can hold your thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness.
Our first response to others who are suffering is to be kind and compassionate to their struggles. Our first response to our own suffering and failure is to “hit ourselves over the head with a club” rather than “put a supportive arm around or own shoulder.” There is an idea in our culture that we should be stoic and silent toward our own suffering. This turns into constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary. Self-kindness is stopping this internal monologue and understanding our shortcomings and failures instead of condemning them. It also means comforting ourselves and responding to our own needs how we would respond to a good friend who is in need.
It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, “This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?”
One of the most important ways we can be kind to ourselves is changing our critical self-talk. In Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg stresses the importance of using sympathetic language rather than judgmental language when we talk to ourselves. He emphasizes that we should reframe our internal dialogue to express empathy for our human needs. We can either respond to our inevitable human imperfection with kindness and care or with judgment and criticism. What qualities of heart and mind do we want to encourage in ourselves?
When we develop the habit of self-kindness, suffering becomes an opportunity to experience love and tenderness from within.
And what is “normal” anyway? … Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you–with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.
Self-compassion is separate from mere self-acceptance or self-love by recognizing the interconnected nature of our lives. We remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by everyone. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling isolated by our own feelings of insufficiency and insecurity. When we self-loath, we feel like the rest of humanity doesn’t exist. It is important to remind ourselves of our inherent interconnectedness so that moments of failure become moments of togetherness rather than of isolation.
Recognizing common humanity does not mean comparing ourselves with other humans. A consequence of social comparison is distance between ourselves and others whose success makes us feel bad about ourselves.
Common humanity means the shared experience that all humans go through. When we identify or relate to only subsets of people rather than the entire human race, we create divisions between us. This is the foundation of discrimination and racism. People see other groups as inferior as a way to provide themselves with a sense of pride and righteous superiority for identifying with their own group.
When our sense of self-worth and belonging is grounded in simply being human, we can’t be rejected or cast out by others. Our humanity can never be taken away from us, no matter how far we fall. The very fact that we are imperfect affirms that we are card-carrying members of the human race and are therefore always, automatically, connected to the whole.
Perfectionists inevitably become disappointed by their unrealistic expectations they set when trying to do things without error. It is good to set high standards for yourself and have determination to do your best but when your entire self-worth is based on being perfect and not making mistakes it becomes counterproductive. Failure is necessary for us to learn and grow as people. Imperfection is a great learning opportunity.
Yes, failure is frustrating. But it’s also temporary and eventually yields wisdom. We can think of failure as part of life’s apprenticeship.
It makes no sense to harshly blame ourselves any more than it does to blame a hurricane. A hurricane is a phenomenon that happens when the right set of conditions (air pressure, temperature, humidity, etc.) meet. Similarly, we are also phenomena that are here as a result of a set of interacting conditions (family, culture, social history, etc.). Without these conditions, we wouldn’t act or feel like we do. This is known as interbeing.
There is a difference between judgment and discriminating wisdom. Discriminating wisdom recognizes when things are harmful or unjust while also recognizing the conditions that lead to situations of harm or injustice in the first place. Judgment means putting people into boxes with simple labels like “good” or “bad”. Discriminating wisdom acknowledges the complexity of how life has unfolded in such a way to cause something to happen and allows for the possibility that with a new set of conditions, things may go differently.
Being mindful means clearly seeing and nonjudgmentally accepting what is happening in the present moment. It is seeing things as they are, no more and no less, to be able to respond compassionately.
When we inevitably fall short of our ideals, we tend to focus on the failure itself rather than the pain caused by the failure. Our entire attention is on our perceived flaws and we don’t have the perspective to recognize the suffering caused by our feelings of imperfection. We immediately go into problem-solving mode to try and fix the problem. Instead, take a minute to breath, acknowledge that this is a moment of suffering, and recognize that our pain is deserving of a kind response.
We risk getting burned out, exhausted, and overwhelmed, because we’re spending all our energy trying to fix external problems without remembering to refresh ourselves internally.
We also tend to engage in a process called overidentification. This happens when our sense of self is so wrapped up in our emotional reactions that our entire reality is consumed by them. Instead of stepping back and objectively observing what is happening, we get lost in the emotional response. What we are thinking or feeling becomes our perception of reality. For example, you are giving a public speech and are worried people will judge you. Rather than noticing that you are nervous about the speech (actual reality), you instead believe that people will boo you off the stage or laugh at you (false reality).
The past doesn’t exist except in our memories, and the future doesn’t exist except in our imagination. Rather than being lost in our train of thought, therefore, we can take a step back and say–ahh, this is what I’m thinking, feeling, and experiencing right now.
Mindfulness can be a form of meta-awareness, an awareness of awareness. Instead of feeling anger, you become aware that you are feeling anger. You are thinking about what you are going to say in your speech and you are aware that you are thinking about what you are going to say. It allows us to take the role of an objective observer of our own awareness. It is also important to distinguish between awareness itself and the contents of awareness:
Imagine a red cardinal bird flying across a clear blue sky. The bird represents a particular thought or emotion we’re experiencing, and the sky represents mindfulness, which holds the thought or emotion. The bird might start doing crazy loops, take a nose dive, land on a tree branch, whatever, but the sky is still there, unperturbed. When we identify with the sky rather than with the bird, or in other words, when our attention rests in awareness itself, rather than the particular thought or emotion arising within that awareness, we can stay calm and centered. This is important, because when we are mindful, we find our resting place—our seat, as it’s sometimes called. Rather than having our sense of self caught up in and carried away by the contents of awareness, our sense of self remains centered in awareness itself. We can notice what is happening—an angry thought, a fear, a throbbing sensation in our temple—without falling into the trap of thinking that we are defined by this anger, fear, or pain. We can’t be defined by what we are thinking and feeling when our consciousness is aware that we are thinking and feeling: otherwise, who is it that is being aware of our thoughts and feelings?
Mindfulness allows us to respond rather than react. It provides a gap between a stimulus and an action.2 We are able to recognize what we are feeling without letting those feelings immediately propel us into action. We can use that gap to question if we really want to take the action we are thinking about taking. We often react to our shortcomings with self-criticism but mindfulness allows us to take a step back and respond to our suffering with kindness.
Suffering is caused by comparing our reality to our ideals. When reality doesn’t match up to our desires (most of the time it doesn’t), we suffer. The key to happiness is understanding that suffering is caused by resisting pain.3 Our suffering is caused by wanting things to be different than they are. The more we resist what is happening right now, the more we suffer.
Counterintuitively, we can’t control which emotions and feelings come into our awareness. We can’t make negative thoughts and feelings go away but we can control how we relate and respond to them. We make things worse when we judge ourselves for having a particular negative thought. We tend to think to ourselves, “What a horrible person I am for having that thought” rather than a more mindful “These are the thoughts and emotions that are arising in my conscious awareness in the present moment.” We don’t need to criticize ourselves for these emotions because they are out of our control. All we need to do is let them go and dissipate on their own.
The experience of depression and anxiety imply feelings of self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy. When we don’t feel equipped to handle the challenges life gives us, we tend to shut down emotionally and all we see is the bad. We also have a negativity bias where we take positives for granted and ruminate on the negatives. When we ruminate about the past, we experience depression and ruminating on the future causes anxiety. It is important to not judge yourself for ruminating on negative thoughts. While counterproductive, it just comes from your desire to feel safe.
One way to acknowledge and relate to our negative emotions is to become aware of their physical manifestations and harness the mind/body connection. It is much easier to stay present by focusing on what our body is doing rather than focusing on what is causing the negative thoughts. We can reduce our negativity bias and rumination by being kind to ourselves and remembering our inherent interconnectedness.
It is important to note that while self-compassion can help us lessen the hold of negative emotions, it does not push negative emotions away. Again, resisting the negative only makes it worse. We can’t actually suppress unwanted thoughts and emotions and trying to will only make them more intrusive.4 People with more self-compassion are less likely to suppress unwanted thoughts than those who are less self-compassionate. Instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones.
Self-compassion is a form of emotional intelligence and those that are more self-compassionate are better able to maintain emotional equanimity. They are better able to deal with the challenges life throws at them by being more willing to feel painful emotions and hold them with compassion.
People are often afraid of being compassionate towards themselves. They believe that if they don’t use self-criticism as a way of addressing personal shortcomings, they will become weak or rejected. They go through stages of self-compassion. First is “backdraft” where they become angry and negative when they first try to be more compassionate with themselves. Their identity is so wrapped up in self-criticism that they feel like their sense of self is being attacked. The second stage is “infatuation”. They become really enthusiastic about self-compassion practice as a way of blocking out their negative emotions. The last stage happens when the infatuation starts to fade and they realize that self-compassion isn’t a silver bullet that eradicates negative thoughts. Since self-compassion embraces negative emotions with kindness, the bad feelings often get worse before they get better.
In other words, high self-esteem isn’t associated with being a better person, just with thinking you are.
Self-esteem is an evaluation of our worthiness and a sort of judgment that we are good and valuable people. It is a product of perceived competence in domains of importance.5 We only care if we are good at things that we value. So, one way to raise our self-esteem is to value the things that we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. For example, if I am bad at writing, I may tell myself that writing is for nerds and it’s a useless skill anyway. The trap here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. The other approach is to increase our competence in areas that we deem important. The problem with this is we may prioritize things that aren’t actually important and striving to improve is counterproductive. I might decide that a relationship is important and do everything I can to improve it while the other person couldn’t care less. This just leads to feeling frustrated and dejected where downplaying the importance of that relationship may have been a better move.
Another source of self-esteem is from the “looking glass self”6, our perception of how we are perceived by others. If we believe that others judge us positively, we will feel good about ourselves and vice versa. We give a lot of weight to what others think of us, especially the nameless, faceless people in our second order relationships because we think they are more objective than our close friends.
Self-esteem isn’t bad in and of itself. However, there are healthy and unhealthy pathways to self-esteem. Getting self-esteem from a supportive family or from working hard to achieve highly valued goals is healthy. Putting others down to inflate your ego is not.
When our sense of self-esteem depends on success or failure, approval or disapproval, it becomes contingent self-worth. These areas of contingency can be personal attractiveness, peer approval, work success, competition with others, etc. The more your overall sense of self-worth is dependent on success in a particular life area, the more it hurts when you fail in those areas. Contingent self-esteem becomes addictive because we want to keep chasing the compliments or approval from others. It becomes a hedonic treadmill where we have to continually work harder just to stay in the same place.
Once we start basing our self-esteem purely on our performance, our greatest joys in life can start to seem like so much hard work, our pleasure morphing into pain.
We are prone to falling into the trap of confusing the map for the territory. Our thoughts and evaluations of ourselves can easily become confused with who we truly are. In reality, we are in a constant state of change. Sometimes we display good qualities and sometimes we choose bad behaviors. Our actions change all the time and one action doesn’t define us. We often forget this and try to capture self-esteem so that we can put ourselves in a box labeled as “good.” We try and flatten our complex experience into simplistic evaluations of self-worth.
Our successes and failures come and go–they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness. They are merely part of the process of being alive.
In comparison, self-compassion doesn’t try and evaluate the worth and essence of who we are. Self-compassion embraces and honors the fact that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Instead of constantly wondering if we are “good” or “bad”, we become mindful of our experience and recognize that our experience is impermanent and always changing. The good feelings of self-compassion are not contingent on being better than others or meeting our ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves, exactly as we are.
When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect–rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals–our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.
When we’re mainly filtering our experience through the ego, constantly trying to improve or maintain our high self-esteem, we’re denying ourselves the thing we actually want most. To be accepted as we are, an integral part of something much greater than our small selves.
Motivation and Personal Growth
People are afraid that if they give themselves more self-compassion, they will become lazy, unambitious, or overly self-indulgent. We think that beating ourselves up is an effective strategy for motivating ourselves to improve. But we all know that we need to feel calm, secure, and confident to do our best. When you try to motivate someone you love, you go out of your way to let them know that you believe in them and that you have their back. Why do we take the exact opposite approach with ourselves?
Our beliefs in our own abilities are directly related to our ability to achieve our dreams. Self-criticism undermines our self-efficacy beliefs and harms our ability to do our best. We begin to lose faith in our abilities when we constantly berate ourselves. We also begin to fear our own self-judgment and that anxiety that it causes also undermines performance.
Sometimes we undermine our own performance in ways that create a plausible excuse for failing. We become so afraid of failure that we self-sabotage. This is known as self-handicapping. One form of self-handicapping is just not trying very hard. Another is procrastinating. These create alternate excuses for failure other than our own shortcomings. We can say things like “Well, it’s actually not that bad considering I hardly studied” or “I just ran out of time” instead of “I’m incompetent.”
If Jim was more comfortable with the fact that he might fail even when he did his best, he wouldn’t have to self-sabotage in order to save his ego when he did fail.
Self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-criticism because the driving force is love instead of fear. It makes us confident and secure when we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail. Self-criticism asks if you are good enough where self-compassion asks what is good for you. If you care about yourself, you will do what you need to do to learn and grow. Self-compassion involves valuing yourself enough that you make choices that lead to long term wellbeing.
As the Buddha said, “It is perceiving one’s hair being on fire.” The actions that are spurred when we see our hair go up in smoke, like grabbing a wet towel or jumping in the shower, stem from wanting to solve the problem, to escape from the danger of being burned. They don’t come from the desire to prove ourselves (see what an excellent fire-putter-out I am?). In the same way, the effort that comes from self-compassion is not the result of egoistic striving, but from the natural desire to ameliorate suffering.
Our ability to realize our potential depends partly on where our motivation comes from. Motivation can be intrinsic, stemming from our desire to learn or just because we want to. It can also be extrinsic, doing things to gain some external reward or avoid external punishment. Similarly, you can have learning goals and performance goals. Learning goals are intrinsically motivated by curiosity and because you want to develop new skills. Performance goals are extrinsically motivated to enhance self-esteem. They come from a desire to do well so that others approve. These are the “easy A” people who don’t really care how much they learn in the process.
When you can trust that failure will be greeted with understanding rather than judgment, it no longer becomes the boogeyman lurking in the closet. Instead, failure can be recognized as the master teacher it is.
Self-compassion does not lead to complacency or a lack of ambition. Self-compassion allows us to lose our fear of failure and we become free to challenge ourselves more than we would otherwise. We become more resilient and able to learn from those failures to achieve more. By softening the blow of self-criticism and recognizing our common humanity, we can see ourselves with greater honesty and clarity to see what is working for us and what is not.
So when you make mistakes or fall short of your expectations, you can throw away that rawhide whip and instead throw a cozy blanket of compassion around your shoulders. You will be more motivated to learn, grow, and make the much-needed changes in your life, while also having more clarity to see where you are now and where you’d like to go next.
Compassion for Others
People that are more self-compassionate are better able to create close, authentic, and supportive friendships by focusing on helping their friends and being compassionate towards their friends’ mistakes. They also admit their own shortcomings to their friends. Self-compassion allows us to feel others’ pain without becoming overwhelmed by it.7 This builds empathy and meaningful connection with others.
Self-compassion also helps us in forgiving those who have hurt us. By recognizing common humanity and our interconnectedness, we recognize the factors and infinite conditions that lead people to do what they do. It becomes impossible to blame any one individual for anything. Understanding this allows us to forgive ourselves and others. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning bad behavior and accepting being walked over. Discriminating wisdom sees when an action is harmful and when we need to protect ourselves. It also sees that people are imperfect and there are so many conditions that cause people to act the way they do.
And even in those cases where people are cognizant of the harm they are causing, the question still needs to be asked–what happened to make them lose touch with their hearts? What would occur to lead to such cold and callous behavior? What’s their story?
A Buddhist practice that cultivates goodwill towards ourselves and others is known as “loving-kindness meditation.” Phrases that invoke good feelings are repeated silently and aimed at different targets. Phrases are directed towards the self, another person, and to all beings. It can either start with the self and move out or start with all beings and move toward the self.
May I be safe
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I live with ease
May you be safe
May you be peaceful
May you be healthy
May you live with ease
By cultivating the intention for ourselves and for others to experience wellbeing, corresponding feelings of love and compassion arise. When we are compassion towards others, we are giving a gift to ourselves.
With the equanimity of an open heart, the slings and arrows of our difficult and frustrating lives find less purchase, and suffering becomes a doorway into love.
The reason it’s so blissful to fall in love is partly because it allows us to feel truly valued, accepted, and understood by another. Our partner loves us warts and all, which means that maybe our warts aren’t so bad.
According to John Gottman, there are four main problem behaviors in conflicts that predict a doomed relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. On the other hand, couples that show some sort of positive emotion during a conflict are more likely to last. Conflicts usually stem from each partner wanting their own point of view and their own feelings to be validated at the same time. As such, each partner should validate and empathize with the emotions of the other partner before presenting his or her own view. Self-compassion can help you feel validated by allowing you to validate your own feelings. You don’t have to negotiate or talk louder and louder to feel heard.
Self-compassion gives incredible strength to romantic relationships. When we stop depending on our partners to meet all our emotional needs—giving ourselves the love and acceptance we want—we become less clingy, needy, and dependent. When we remember that we’re only human, we can admit our mistakes and talk things through with greater calm and clarity. And by being gentle and warm with ourselves, we’ll be in a better emotional space to be there for the person we love.
Openheartedness is a state of emotional receptivity in which even unpleasant or negative experiences are held with caring concern. When we feel compassion, we experience an inner warmth that lets us know our hearts are open. When we close our hearts, we shut down and cut ourselves off from others. We get scared of being overwhelmed by negative emotions and we shut them out. The price for this is feeling cold, empty, and alone.
When we hold our negative emotions with compassionate care, we create a new positive emotion alongside the negative. We not only feel inadequate, we feel connected in remembering that inadequacy is part of the human experience. We not only feel fear but also comfort from our own kindness and caring.
Self-compassion doesn’t just open our hearts but it also opens our minds. When we are overwhelmed in negative emotions, our minds focus on the problem and miss the beauty of the bigger picture. Negative emotions serve a purpose that helps us survive. Fear is accompanied by the urge to escape, shame urges us to hide, and anger urges us to attack. When we are stuck in negative emotions, it feels like we have only one option. Self-compassion allows us to take a step back and provide ourselves with a calm and productive mindset.
This mindset leads to an upward spiral of positive emotions in a theory called broaden-and-build.8 Where negative emotions narrow our attention and possible actions, positive emotions broaden it. When we feel positive emotions, we are better able to choose an appropriate response to a stimulus. We broaden our repertoires and build personal resources we can use to respond effectively to subsequent events. This leads to an upward spiral of positive emotion → psychological broadening → positive emotion → and so on.
Positive psychology focuses on understanding the factors that lead to mental health rather than the factors that led to mental illness. It emphasizes cultivating strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses. Self-compassion focuses on accepting our weakness and allows us to delight in what’s wonderful about our lives rather than dwelling on limitations.
Self-compassion provides us with the sense of safety and equanimity needed to remain open as we take leaps into the unknown. It allows us to take refuge in interest and discovery when we have no idea what’s going to unfold from one moment to the next.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the positive aspects of ourselves because it causes fear. One fear is setting up overly high expectations. If we underplay our strengths, we are pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed. We are scared of over-selling and under-delivering. Another fear is losing a piece of our sense of self. Our sense of self might be so infused with beating ourselves up that as soon as we start to appreciate ourselves, we lose that piece of our identity. We are also scared of seeming like we are better than those around us. We don’t want to ostracize ourselves by outshining others.
If I acknowledge my greatness, does that mean I’m better than you, and does that in turn mean you and I can no longer relate as equals?
We can celebrate our admirable qualities without falling into the trap of egotism by practicing self-appreciation. This is a subset of self-compassion. We recognize that all people have strengths and weaknesses and we allow ourselves to appreciate our good aspects without feeling arrogant or superior.
We can acknowledge our own beauty. Not because we’re better than others, but because we are human beings expressing the beautiful side of human nature.
Sympathetic joy (or, as Brené Brown calls it, freudenfreude) is the state that occurs when we are delighted by the good qualities and circumstances of others and is closely related to self-appreciation. It is typical to feel inadequate when considering others’ good qualities. I feel stupid because she is so intelligent. Sympathetic joy requires recognition of common humanity as well as mindfulness. We need to be mindful of others’ good qualities rather than let them fade into the background of the assumed and expected.
An essential ingredient of sympathetic joy is the recognition of our inherent connectedness. When we’re part of a larger whole, we can feel glad whenever one of “us” has something to celebrate.
Self-appreciation is not self-esteem. Where self-esteem focuses on separation and comparison, self-appreciation is based on connectedness. Rather than trying to feel better than others, we see our similarities and recognize that everyone has their strong points. Self-esteem is also a judgment of worthiness. We try and label ourselves as “good” or “bad” or “beautiful” or “ugly.” We confuse our self-concept with our actual self. Instead, self-appreciation is a way of relating to what is good in us. It is not a judgment or a label.
There are always wonderful things to appreciate about ourselves, even if they don’t make us unique. The fact that I can breathe, walk, eat, make love, hug a friend–these are all magnificent abilities that are definitely to be celebrated, despite the fact that just about everyone shares these abilities–despite the fact that they are beautifully average.
Two important factors for maximizing happiness are being grateful and savoring joy. Savoring is the conscious enjoyment of what gives us pleasure. These aren’t just sensual experiences. Savoring can also be applied to experiences by holding it in mindful awareness, paying attention to the pleasant thoughts and emotions that arise in the present moment.
We don’t need to be perfect to feel good about ourselves, and our lives don’t need to be any certain way for us to be content. Every one of us has the capacity for resilience, growth, and happiness, simply by relating to our ever-arising experience with both compassion and appreciation. And if you feel you can’t change, that it’s too hard, that the countervailing forces of our culture are too strong, then have compassion for that feeling and start from there.
Bill Swann, 1981 ↩︎
This is a part of being proactive in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. ↩︎
Shinzen Young ↩︎
This is known as the Pink Elephant Paradox. The more you try to suppress unwanted and intrusive thoughts, the more they will bother you. ↩︎
William James ↩︎
Charles Horton Cooley ↩︎
Barbara Frederickson ↩︎