Learn How To LEAD Wellbeing Across Your Workplace, School Or Community. CLOSING SOON
The Space Between Self-Esteem & Self Compassion

The Space Between Self-Esteem & Self Compassion

BY Michelle McQuaid

When was the last time you had one of those days, filled with blunders, oversights, and a capacity to say the wrong thing at exactly the wrong moment? We can all experience those times, leaving us filled with embarrassment, self-criticism, self-doubt and despair. So when it comes to bouncing back, should we be boosting our resilience with high levels of self-esteem or high levels of self-compassion?

Dr Kristin Neff from the University of Texas warns that there can be dangers in focusing too much on self-esteem, especially if it means having to live up to our high ideals or putting others down in order to feel good about ourselves. She suggests instead, we need to relate to ourselves with more self-compassion – showing the same type of support and care we would a good friend, and kindly embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.

Watch this TedX Talk by Kristin to hear how self-esteem may just desert us at those times we need it most, whereas self-compassion can make us stronger, more motivated and happier.

What Will You Learn?

  • [2:20] Self-esteem is a global evaluation of self-worth –  a judgment about whether you are a good or bad person. Psychologists have long regarded it as the ultimate marker of psychological health, as low self-esteem can result in a number of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
  • [2:56] However the way we get high self-esteem – to feel special and above average – can be problematic. When we have to feel above average, we can start to put others down to feel better about ourselves in comparison.
  • [5:02] Another problem with self-esteem is we only feel good about ourselves when we succeed. So what happens when we fail or don’t meet our ideal standards?
  • [6:23] Self-compassion is how we can get off the treadmill of needing to feel better than others so that we can feel good about ourselves. Self-compassion has three core components. Firstly it is about treating ourselves with kindness, like we would a good friend – with encouragement, understanding, empathy, patience and gentleness.
  • [7:12] But if we listen to our harsh self-judgments when things aren’t going well, we can say cruel things to ourselves that we would never say to someone we care about. Self-compassion reverses the pattern of treating ourselves like our own worst enemy.
  • [7:45] The second component of self-compassion is common humanity – what we share with all other humans is to be imperfect. When we are struggling with something we feel it shouldn’t be this way – it’s abnormal. It’s that feeling of abnormality that isolates us from others, and can be so psychologically damaging.
  • [8:51] The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness – being in the present moment by acknowledging, validating and accepting our suffering, and to give ourselves compassion. Often we can get so lost in our self-critical messages that we don’t even notice the incredible pain we are causing ourselves.
  • [9:48] We believe we need our self-criticism to motivate ourselves, but the research shows just the opposite happens. It undermines our motivation, we feel threatened and attacked, we release a lot of cortisol, and our body’s fight or flight defense response is activated.
  • [11:59] But when we give ourselves compassion the research shows we reduce our cortisol levels, and release oxytocin and opiates which are the feel-good hormones. And when we feel safe and comfortable we are in the optimal state of mind to do our best.
  • [14:39] Research comparing self-esteem and self-compassion has found that self-compassion offers the benefits without the pitfalls. And it provides a much more stable sense of self-worth because it’s there for you precisely when you fail, giving you a sense of being worthy of love in that moment.
  • [17:55] The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves the more we have available to give to others.

What Can You Try?

  • Develop self-compassion mindfulness – become aware of the self-criticisms you tell yourself about a trait or behavior. Get in touch with the emotional pain that this causes, and give yourself some compassion for the experience of feeling so judged. Then try to find a more kind and caring way to give yourself these messages and motivate any changes you want to make. What is the most supportive message you can give yourself that would help? When you catch yourself harshly criticizing yourself for these unwanted traits in the future, notice the pain of your self-judgement, and re-frame your inner messages to be more supportive and encouraging.
  • Keep a self-compassion journal  over the next week (or longer if you like) write down anything you’ve felt bad about, anything you’ve  judged yourself for, or any difficult experiences that have caused you pain. For each event, practice using self-kindness, a sense of connectedness to others suffering, and mindfulness to process the event in a more self-compassionate way.
  • Create a self-compassion mantra – when you find yourself putting yourself down for something think about what a wise mentor and caring friend would say to you in these moments. Write this down, and use it as a kind reminder to be give yourself a self-compassionate message when you need it most.

Want More?

  • Find more ways to increase your self-compassion here.
  • Read my article on self-compassion.
Quick tip:You can save this post to your favorites, so you can access it quickly and easily later! Just click the “Add to Favorites” button to save it forever. You can then find it later in My Toolbox -> My Favorites.


Do you want to help boost people’s wellbeing, resilience & performance? Then join us for the next round of Certificate In Creating Wellbeing.

Learn More


Join us on LinkedIn where we'll share the latest research and practical ways to care for our wellbeing.



Find out where you're thriving and struggling as you care for your team.



Listen to the world’s leading positive psychology researchers and practitioners as they share their insights on our top-rated podcast.

Listen Now