There’s this misconception that exists lumping self-esteem and self-compassion as one in the same. Self-esteem is often labeled as how we think about ourselves (often in comparison to others) and self-compassion is different; it’s how we treat ourselves. We might feel good about ourselves but what happens when you make a mistake? Think about a lofty goal you set for yourself recently. Did you reach it? If not, what was the language you used in your head? How did you treat yourself? For example, let’s say you’re a runner and your goal was to beat your time on an upcoming race. Race day comes and you don’t beat your time; in fact, it’s slower than you’ve ever run. In that moment, the wheel of negative thoughts might be circling in your head: “I failed,” “I knew I couldn’t do it,” “I’m too old/slow/fat, etc.”
Recently I listened to this TedTalk by Kristin Neff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4 where she talks about the three core components to self-compassion. Those components are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. When I think about self-compassion for myself and for the adolescents I work with this idea of common humanity really stands out. Common humanity is essentially the principle of knowing you are not alone. You are not the only one with anxiety, depression, frustration, hurt, disappointment.
In stark contrast, self-criticism does two things (among others). First, self-criticism releases high levels of cortisol to make you feel stressed and second, self-criticism leads to isolation. Self-criticism makes you believe that you don’t deserve to be around others and thus does the opposite of what is most needed in that moment. Self-criticism fuels one of the most vulnerable human emotions which is shame.
So what can be done to help our children and ourselves? I think the first step is to think about self-kindness being the words you would use to talk to a close friend. If your friend didn’t beat her goal time in the race, would you say to her “I knew you couldn’t do it.” No you wouldn’t. You’d probably sense her feelings of disappointment and might say something along these lines, “It sounds like you’re feeling disappointed about your time but think about all the ways you prioritized your training runs and what an accomplishment that was.”
Particularly for adolescents who developmentally are so focused on peer relations, teaching self-kindness through the mindset of “what would you tell a friend” can have a huge impact in shifting their negative thoughts away from self-criticism and more towards self-compassion. Rachel Simmons offers some valuable insights about how teaching self-compassion can help stressed out teens in her article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/well/family/self-compassion-stressed-out-teens.html
Know of a teen struggling with self-criticism? I’d be happy to help!