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Mindful : December 2014
last night?” “It was average.” Ouch!) Of course, it’s logically impossible for every human being on the planet to be above average at the same time, putting usinabitofabind.Onewaywetrytodealwiththis is through a process of social compa rison in which we continually try to puff ourselves up a nd put others down ( just think of the film Mean Girls a nd you’ll know what I’m talking about). The quest to ra ise one’s esteem at the expense of others is a phenomenon that underlies ma ny societal problems, such as prejudice, social inequality, a nd bullying. Bullies generally have high self-esteem, since picking on people weaker than themselves is an easy way to boost their sense of self-worth. One of the most insidious consequences of the self-esteem movement over the last couple of decades is the na rcissism epidemic. Jea n Twenge, author of Generation Me, exa mined the narcissism levels of over 15,000 U.S . college students between 1987 and 2006. During that 20-year period narcis- sism scores went through the roof, with 65% of mod- ern-day students scoring higher in narcissism tha n previous generations. Not coincidentally, students’ average self-esteem levels rose by an even greater margin over the same period. Even when you have high self-esteem, however, you can’t necessarily keep it. Your self-esteem is likely to fly out the window the next time you blow a big work assignment, can’t zip up your pants anymore, or don’t get invited to that big party. Self- esteem is an emotional roller-coaster ride: Our sense of self-worth rises and falls in step with our latest success or failure. Yet we don’t want to suffer from low self-esteem either. What’s the alternative? There is another way to feel good about ourselves that does not involve evaluating how good or worthy we are: self-compassion. Self-compassion is not based on positive evaluations of ourselves. Rather, it is a way of relating to ourselves. It involves being caring and supportive to ourselves when we fail, feel inadequate, or struggle in life—extending the same feelings of compassion to ourselves that we typically extend to others. People are compassionate to them- selves because they’re human beings who suffer, not because they’re special and above average. Unlike self-esteem, therefore, self-compassion emphasizes interconnection rather than sepa rateness. It also offers more emotional stability, because it is always there for you—when you’re on top of the world and when you fall flat on your face. A huge body of research now supports the mental health benefits of self-compassion, and programs— such as Mindful Self-Compassion, which my col- league from Ha rva rd, Chris Germer, and I devel- oped—a re now being taught all over the world. But what is self-compassion exactly? As I define it, it involves three key components— being kind to ourselves when we suffer, f raming our experience of imperfection in light of the sha red human experience, a nd being mindfully aware of our negative thoughts and emotions. 1 SELF-KINDNESS When we are self-compassionate we’re kind to ourselves rather than harshly self-critical, or to put it more simply, we treat ourselves in the same way we would treat a good friend. The golden rule tells us “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That ’s all well and good, but hopefully we won’t treat others even half as badly as we treat ourselves. Listen to our self-talk: “You’re such an idiot! You’re disgusting!” Would you talk this way to a f riend? It’s natural for us to try to be kind to the people we care about in our lives. We let them know it’s okay to be human when they fail. We reassure them of our respect and support when they’re feeling bad about themselves. We comfort them when they’re going through hard times. In other words, most of us are very good at being kind a nd understa nding toward others, but not toward ourselves. Think of all the generous, caring people you know who con- stantly beat themselves up (this may even be you). For some strange reason our culture tells us that’s the way we should be—women especially—or we’ll become self-centered and selfish. But is it true? All harsh self-criticism does is make us feel depressed, insecure, and afra id to take on new chal- lenges because we’re af raid of the self-flagellation that will come if we fail. When our inner voice continually criticizes and berates us for not being good enough, we often end up in negative cycles of self-sabotage and self-harm—and these are incred- ibly self-focused states of mind. When we are self-compassionate, however, we are kind, nurturing, and understanding toward ourselves when we fail. Self-kindness is expressed Even when you have high self- esteem, it will likely fly out the window the next time you blow a big work assignment, can’t zip up your pants anymore, or don’t get invited to that big party. Three Components of Self-Compassion in practice insight 76 mindful December 2014