In 2001, fresh out of graduate school, I began my practice as a school social worker at a time when self-esteem groups were a common intervention in the schools. I ran countless groups with curriculums that focused on feeling good about yourself, building self-worth, and evaluating yourself through a positive lens. But I always felt that these curriculums were missing something. I noticed that when life handed these kids a curveball - a failed test, peer conflict, or life not going as they had planned - their self-esteem would take a nosedive. What I was sensing is now more clear, based on resiliency research, it's the skill of self-compassion.
We now understand the shortfalls of working solely on building one's self-esteem thanks in part to the pioneering work of Kristin Neff along with other scientists researching the field of self-compassion. “Self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances. In our modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others. It is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”
Self-Compassion is not based on self-evaluation, instead, it involves treating oneself as you would a friend, being gentler and more understanding of your life in the context of the larger human experience. All humans experience adversity, and being mindful of this shared experience helps us feel less isolated; it helps us see more clearly our interconnectedness and gives us permission to acknowledge, especially in challenging times, our challenges. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with me” or thinking "I’m a failure" it’s acknowledging “this is difficult”, and asking oneself, “what do I need to take care of myself?” Self-compassion is being emotionally supportive towards yourself when suffering or imperfection is confronted.
We can model the action of compassion when we see a child struggling "I can see this is hard, I’m here with you.” Once we invite and allow space for children to feel and acknowledge their pain, they can learn to tend to how they feel from a place of self-worth. Questions like "What would you say to a friend right now?" or “What would feel comforting?” help them put self-compassion into action.
We're not looking to change or negate how feel when we practice self-compassion, instead, we’re validating the emotional experience, and once we know how we feel, we're in a better place to take care of those feelings in a helpful and friendly way.
Author, Jennifer Wilhelm Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT
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