A Coaching Power Tool Created by Annie Yi-Ju Huang
(Spiritual Coach, AUSTRALIA)
I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt. – Maya Angelou
I became a Buddhist about 10 years ago. Since then, I have been learning about the importance of compassion for all sentient beings, but I have never succeeded at practising compassion for myself. On the contrary, I have been really hard on myself – always quick to judge and criticise myself for the smallest setback (real or imagined) and never quite satisfied with my achievements. One of the likely reasons for my lack of self-compassion is that I have been brought up to believe that we need to be tough on ourselves in order to have the necessary motivation and discipline to stay on the right track towards achieving our goals. After all, we don’t want to become complacent or self-indulgent, right?
So it was quite a revelation to me when I came across a TED presentation by Dr. Kristin Neff that compared and contrasted the concepts of self-esteem and self-compassion. It picked my interest and also reminded me of the now well-known work by Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability. I decided to take a closer look at self-compassion, both as an independent concept and as a complement to self-esteem.
Self-‐Esteem vs. Self-Compassion
Self-Esteem is defined as a person’s overall emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a broad, global judgment of ourselves. It is usually considered desirable to have a high self-esteem. However, our self-esteem is also ego-driven, constantly striving to be different and better than others. It does not like to be “average”, so it tries hard to be better, to do more and to have more. When we encounter a setback or failure, our self-esteem takes a dive and we turn on ourselves with the harshest criticisms.
Self-Compassion, on the other hand, occurs when we embrace ourselves as we are, warts and all. We behave with gentleness and kindness towards ourselves, affirming to ourselves that “we are enough”, rather than treating ourselves as our worst enemies. Moreover, self-compassion focuses on the common humanity that connects us all rather than the differences that separate us, and as such, we feel we are not alone and our struggles are universal struggles. It becomes a lot easier to just let go and accept ourselves and our situation as it is.
It is my belief that we don’t need the harsh criticisms of an ego-driven self-esteem because they undermine our motivation rather than driving us to achieve our best. Indeed, according to Dr Kristin Neff, self-‐compassion offers the benefits of self-esteem without the related pitfalls, and it is more reliable than self-esteem – it comes into action just as self-esteem deserts us on those really bad days when we feel the most vulnerable.
Moving from Self-Esteem to Self-Compassion
You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.– Brené Brown
Given that self-esteem is a global judgment of ourselves, it is hard to avoid having self-esteem, and I would argue that it is not necessary to do away with self-esteem altogether; what we need is to have a healthy, balanced sense of self-esteem, one that is based on being and doing our best rather than incessantly judging ourselves and comparing ourselves with others, especially when it comes to qualities that we cannot change, such as our physical appearances.
In addition, we need to intentionally introduce more self-compassion into our lives. When we give in to the temptation of comparing ourselves to others, or beating ourselves up over something we did (or didn’t do), it’s important to remember that ultimately we are all human. We are imperfect beings and we live imperfect lives; we all make mistakes and have setbacks from time to time. We need to forgive ourselves, learn the lessons and just move on. As humans, we are all inherently worthy of love and compassion. And we need to start by loving and being compassionate with ourselves.
So every time we judge ourselves, hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations, engage in unhelpful comparisons, fail, fall short, or fall behind, or are just having a bad day – we give ourselves the gift of self-compassion. And when we fail to be self-compassionate, we are compassionate about out inability to be self-compassionate!
In fact, I would go a step further and suggest that self-esteem can be harnessed to work in harmony with self-compassion to maximise our growth and wellbeing. For example, we can rely on our ego-‐driven, competitive self-esteem to change the things we are able to change, but be self-compassionate and accept those that we cannot. Moreover, this combination is helpful for the practice of mindful non-attachment, where we focus on the process rather than the outcome. Our healthy self-esteem drives us forward with our progress, but we turn to self-compassion when things don’t turn out the way we expect and know that we have done the best we could and that is enough. And we are enough.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. – Dalai Lama
So, how do we make the shift? Awareness is the first step. We should start by considering our own level of self-compassion. If our self-compassion is low, chances are we find ourselves constantly judging and criticising ourselves and comparing ourselves to others, believing that we are never good enough, or never as good as ‘them’, so we need to try harder and be more. However, by focusing on everything we think are ‘wrong’ with us, we move further away from our true self and we lose touch with our uniqueness and humanity. We continue on a never-ending quest for perfection, which is just ever so slightly out of reach.
The practice of mindfulness is also important. By being mindful of the here and now, we are more likely to catch ourselves when we have fallen victim to an ego-driven self-esteem (yet again), and to take steps to bring in self-kindness and self-compassion to help restore the balance of the situation, instead of automatically start beating ourselves up for the smallest problems, having completely identified ourselves with our internal critic that we are not even aware that we are suffering.
In addition, we do well to remember the common humanity that connects us with one another. We are more alike than different. We all have similar problems, and we all suffer in one way or another from loneliness, fear, anxiety, anger, and a host of other negative emotions. It’s the human condition and it’s ‘normal’ because it happens to everyone. At the same time, we all deserve love and compassion from one another and from ourselves.
In addition to bringing awareness and mindfulness to our clients as well as allowing them to perceive the common humanity that unites us all, it is important to show openness and acceptance for whatever they say, including what they say about their problems and their feelings about these problems. By being accepting and non-judgmental towards our clients, we make it easier for clients to approach themselves with compassion too.
Enabling clients to conduct regular reviews of their own progress is also a very useful practice. Clients are often so intent on moving towards the future that they forget to stop and look at how far they have come. Acknowledgement and celebration play a part too. Achievements, no matter how small, need to be acknowledged and celebrated with our clients.
Moreover, there are a variety of self-care techniques we can encourage our clients to practise and we can help them set up structures to incorporate these practices in their daily lives, such as taking a daily walk, regular breaks, yoga and meditation. Other techniques including journalling, gratitude practice and affirmations such as
I am doing the best that I can
can also be powerful. Clients will come to see that they are doing the best they can and that is enough, and that they are enough in themselves.
- What experiences did you recall while reading this Power Tool?
- Are you really tough on yourself or do you have clients that are like this?
- If so, what are the areas of your life where you constantly judge yourself or seek comparison with others? And how about your clients?
- What are some powerful questions you could ask your clients to shift them from judgment and comparison towards feeling love and compassion towards themselves?
- What tools can you use to remind yourself of your inherent worthiness and humanity and how might you use these to support your clients?
- How else would you use this Power Tool with yourself or your clients?
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It’s about cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I AM ENOUGH. It’s going to bed at night thinking, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. – Brené Brown