On the long list of desires in life—health, happiness, fulfillment—feeling authentic, genuinely feeling good about yourself is probably the number one goal for many. It’s about building self-confidence, which often means improving your self-esteem — an internal judgment of self-worth or “valuation of worth,” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Perhaps the most talked about way to lift yourself up is to point the needle in the direction you want to, tell yourself to work harder, get stronger, and develop grit. But now, psychologists are challenging that theory, pointing out that while boosting self-esteem is certainly a path to confidence, it also has flaws.
“Self-esteem is tied to external validation, like a compliment at work or a compliment on an IG post, so it’s vulnerable,” says Dr. Christopher Germer, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where isolation and criticism creep in.
Let’s say you fell behind in your marathon training plan and you’re mad at yourself for it. You might be thinking, I’m going to try harder because I just don’t feel good enough. In the short term, this might work, but what about the long term? No. When you feel disappointed in yourself, you create doubts about yourself, which makes it harder to take risks, learn, and grow. You become afraid of failure and you are more likely to give up than try again.
Another way to make yourself more confident: Self-compassion, showing kindness to yourself when you’re struggling, failing, or noticing something you don’t like. Self-compassion isn’t living up to expectations; it’s a way of seeing yourself. By caring and showing caring for yourself during difficult times, you are able to persevere and create change.
Well, yeah, it feels a little obvious, right? Let’s go back to the training situation and draw the picture a little more clearly. With self-compassion, you’re like, I’m going to try because I care about myself and I don’t want to suffer. This motivation “leads to more self-confidence,” says Neff. When you can sit down with the pain and think about what you might need to achieve your goals—such as waking up early for a run or scheduling a run on your phone calendar—instead of spinning around in all the ways you’ve failed, move on Along the way, you’ll overcome challenges and build confidence and belief in yourself. It’s a small change in React, but it makes a huge difference. “Self-compassion provides you with a steady source of self-competence rather than a ‘sugar-coated bullet,’” Neff says.
We tend to think of self-compassion as passive, even unhelpful (“If I relax with myself, I’ll become complacent”). but it is not the truth. There are two sides to self-compassion, says Neff. The soft side embodies the idea that despite your natural flaws, you are still worthwhile. And the evil side says, if
You really care about yourself, you accept who you are, but not all your behaviors, especially harmful ones. “Part of caring for yourself means taking positive steps to change,” Neve says. This is where the power of self-compassion lies.
But none of this is easy. We tend to be much nicer to others than to ourselves, and we’re quick to judge ourselves for our flaws and failures. The good news is, it’s a trainable skill. “It’s a muscle you can build,” says Neve.
try a self-compassion exercise
These three methods create a deeper understanding of self-compassion and will help you feel your best today and in the days to come. Motivation, a better mood, and, yes, all things feel-good, right here…
- Ask yourself. what do i need
That’s the question that guides the entire self-compassion-building agenda, Germer says. Let’s say you missed a deadline and were hard on yourself for it. Rather than getting bogged down in negative self-talk, figure out what you need—a few extra hours of babysitting, writing a daily to-do list to fix problems. This inquiry (part of the intense side of self-compassion) provides the resources and tools for change, which ultimately engenders confidence as you are able to learn and grow.
- Put your hand on your heart
Touching your heart or your cheek “is probably the most widely used, simple, physiologically altering experience of self-compassion,” Germer says. (You’re probably already doing this — you probably instinctively put your hand over your heart when you get bad news!). According to German research, this kind of self-touch can lower cortisol levels. Plus, when you rub your chest specifically, you’re likely activating your vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) system, says Germer.
- Figure out when you just don’t have it on you
Find out when you lack self-compassion, says Purja Lakshmin, MD, author of the forthcoming book Authentic Self-Care. Does your head spin when you read an email from a co-worker, or negative self-talk bubbles up every time you and your partner have an argument? In these moments, aiming for self-kindness can move you toward the kind of change you’re looking for.
How to Practice Positive Self-Talk
The way you talk to yourself can spark your compassion, but positive self-talk goes beyond simply telling yourself, “Everything is fine!” How to change your tune.
pay attention to negative factors
An easy way to develop love for yourself is to practice the meditation Neve has customized for this purpose. Focus on the mistakes or flaws that have been bothering you recently, and then find where the emotions about those mistakes or flaws end up in your body, such as the tightness of your jaw or the tension in your shoulders. Allow these emotions to linger in your body instead of resisting or rejecting them. This exposes you to the pain caused by your criticism or belief that you must be perfect.
make a wish
Germer favors the use of wishes, rather than positive self-statements (such as “I’m getting stronger!”). Desires, such as “May I accept every part of me,” are like “surrounding ourselves with divine company, not the nasty nagging of our own minds,” he said. Plus, they encourage growth.
replace the word “should”
Have you ever caught yourself “assuming” it was you? (Ugh, I should have done this earlier.) It’s a common form of self-criticism, and a form of not quite self-compassion, says Dr. Lakshmin. Try replacing your “should” with anything that promotes curiosity (Do I have the option to do X? Or: I wonder what’s holding me back this week?) Curiosity is kinder than “should,” she says, more productive.