As a child, I remember my mother teaching me this song:
The foolish man built his house upon the sand. The foolish man built his house upon the sand. The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down, and the floods came up. The rain came down, and the floods came up. The rain came down, and the floods came up, and the house on the sand went “splat!” (clapping our hands as loud as we could as we would sing “splat”. This was my favorite part of the song!)
The wise man built his house upon the rock. The wise man built his house upon the rock. The wise man built his house upon the rock, and the rain came tumbling down.
The rain came down, and the floods came up. The rain came down, and the floods came up. The rain came down, and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm!
I had forgotten about that song, until last year when I attended a training on Therapeutic Mindfulness. The speakers included Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. I was surprised to hear, for the first time, that pursuing self-esteem does not work and can actually be dangerous.
Since the 80’s, we have thought that building a strong self-esteem was key to mental and emotional health, as well as overall success. We believed it to be the way to build self-confidence and promote motivation to improve oneself. Now, however, new studies are showing that self-esteem actually increases symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Self-esteem is based on judgement. You feel good about yourself when you see that you are better than those around you. A strong self-esteem comes when you judge yourself better than others, subsequently judging others as less than you. This, researchers have found, can lead to negative outcomes such as egotistical or narcissistic personalities. It also increases levels of anxiety as we fight to “keep up” with others. Self-esteem fluctuates depending on our current circumstances. When things are going well, we feel good about ourselves. When things go wrong, we blame ourselves. We wonder what we did wrong and judge ourselves harshly, quickly resulting in a low self-esteem. We see that we are no longer the skinniest, or the strongest, or the prettiest, or the most successful, etc. Thus, self-esteem is temperamental and temporary.
Self-esteem is fragile. Self-esteem is the house that is built on the sand.
Self-compassion, however, is based on self-acceptance. Self-compassion is being kind to ourselves; talking to ourselves the way we would talk to our best friend. Self-compassion is gentle and understanding. It’s loving ourselves even in our imperfect states. Self-compassion leads to contentment and peace. It increases self-forgiveness. Research has also found that pursuing self-compassion results in a higher self-esteem, decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety and increased motivation to try harder with a decreased fear of failure. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on circumstances. In fact, through self-compassion, we are able to continue to stand strong even when the storms of life come crashing at our feet.
Self-compassion lasts. Self-compassion is the house that is built on a rock and stands firm.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers.
Siegel, R. (March 2, 2017) Mindfulness and Compassion For Anxiety and Depression. 5th Annual Compassion and Wisdom Conference; Faces Conferences. San Diego, CA.