Photo of a woman with short dark hair standing and holding a baby that's looking toward the camera, with a plaid blanket wrapped around them. The woman is kissing the baby's head, and the baby's fist is in its mouth.

Self-esteem isn’t new, but a “self-esteem movement” of sorts started back in the 1970s, predicated on the idea that many of society’s problems were due to individuals’ low self-esteem. Parents and teachers were encouraged to bolster children’s self-esteem, even though there really wasn’t much research to show this would actually improve grades, academic performance and future success. Well, this was a failed experiment, and there are a few reasons why.

What is self-esteem?

Interestingly, there are actually two types of self-esteem, defensive and secure. When someone have high defensive self-esteem, they appear to have a positive view of themself, but their self-esteem is actually very fragile, because they also have a lot of subconscious insecurities and self-doubts. They react very negatively to any criticism they may receive, and need constant positive feedback to maintain their feelings of self-worth. This constant need for praise can make them seem arrogant, with the flip side being anger towards anyone who questions their self-worth. (This describes one of my bosses from several years ago perfectly).

Just as low self-esteem can be a problem, so can extremely high defensive self-esteem, since this relies on feeling above average, and we can’t all be above average, at least not all of the time. The feeling that we are better than others, or need to be better than others, can lead to narcissism, and it certainly doesn’t help us form meaningful connections (would you want to be friends with someone you knew was always thinking “I’m better than them”?) This type of self-esteem is fickle, contingent on how we think other people regard us, or on our most recent success or failure (thus it’s also called contingent self-esteem).

On the other hand, when someone has high secure or non-contingent self-esteem, they don’t need reassurance from others to think well of themselves. Childhood experiences that contribute to secure, aka healthy, self-esteem include being listened to and spoken to respectfully along with receiving appropriate attention and affection and — this part is key — having accomplishments recognized and mistakes or failures acknowledged and accepted. To me, this sound a lot like factors that can help build self-compassion.

Unfortunately, the way self-esteem is often “nurtured” in children falls more along the lines of “everyone’s a winner,” “there are no losers,” “you’re so good at everything you do.” Trouble is, sometimes we do lose, sometimes we do fail, sometimes we do make mistakes, and there may be things we attempt (and maybe even enjoy doing) that objectively, we’re just not very good at. And that’s OK…unless always being a winner and always being “good at things” are what your self-view is based on.

Self-compassion and the critical voice

Last week, I was in San Diego for the Be Body Positive facilitator training from The Body Positive Institute. One of the things that co-founder Connie Sobczak talked about was our relationship with our critical voice. You know, that little voice in your head that says you’re a loser, that life’s not fair, that you weigh too much, that you’ll never have any friends, etc., etc.

“There’s a reason we have a critical voice, but we don’t want to let it run the show,” she said. She talks about welcoming the critical voice, treating it as you would, say a small child, and ask what it’s afraid of–because the critical voice generally comes from fear. And that fear can be quieted when met with self-love, another way to think of self-compassion.

We actually did this as an exercise in the workshop. Imagine 50 people wandering around a large meeting room, verbally expressing their fears and countering them with self-compassion. It felt hard, but it felt good. Connie and her fellow co-founder Elizabeth Scott pointed out that our critical voices don’t actually belong to us, that they are the byproduct of internalized oppression. But it’s important to recognize the voice — rather than trying to run away from it, which only makes it stronger — and explore how it got in there in the first place.

Curiosity. It’s a good thing. (Especially when paired with non-judgement.)

Why self-compassion is a win-win for all

Compassion is noticing someone’s suffering (or struggles, if the word “suffering” conjures up ideas of victimhood for you) and feeling moved by that suffering so your heart responds to their pain. You feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the person in some way. Compassion is also being understanding and kind to others when they make a mistake or experience a failure, rather than judging them harshly.

So that’s compassion. Turn that warmth and kindness and understanding and non-judgement towards yourself, and you have self-compassion. Unlike self-esteem the way most people are taught it, self-compassion is always available to us, although most of us need to cultivate it first. Self-compassion doesn’t require you to be “better” than someone else. You feel compassion for yourself because you are human, and all humans deserve compassion.

Where to learn more about self-compassion

I’m planning another post (or two) on self-compassion, but in the meantime I highly, highly visiting Kristen Neff’s website, She’s one of the top experts and preeminent researchers on self-compassion, and her website is a wealth of information. The video of her TEDx talk on the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion is on there, plus so much more!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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