In the Shadow of Self Esteem: Self Compassion


In the Shadow of Self Esteem: Self Compassion

By Leighton Pu

Self esteem is overrated. Psychologists touted it as a method to maintain psychological well being, establishing its legacy as a positive psychological model. In accordance with knowledge at the time, mentors, role models, and teachers around the globe promoted, and continue to promote, self esteem to up-and coming-generations. Simply put, self esteem became the gold standard to feel good. But recent research challenges the status of self esteem and points to self compassion as the gold standard.

Healthy levels of self esteem offer a long list of benefits, from confident decision making to being better at forming secure relationships. Additionally, self esteem gives rise to the idea that an individual is unique or special, which translates into favorable feelings of self worth. Self compassion also confers multiple benefits when practiced, such as being kind to oneself, especially in times of pain, and preventing overidentification with negative emotions and thoughts. With these benefits in mind, it seems impossible to go wrong practicing either.

As favorable as either seem, part of self esteem is rooted in the need to feel special and necessitates comparison with others. Rather than judging oneself by a personal barometer, self esteem can corner individuals into social comparisons that can negatively impact one’s self esteem. In a study headed by Stan Morse and Kenneth J. Gergen, undergraduates underwent fluctuations in self esteem caused by interactions with a stimulus person who was competing with participants for a job. Fluctuations were caused by similarity between stimulus and participant, as well as social desirability of the stimulus person. Though social comparison may lead to increases in self esteem, decreases occur as well. These decreases aren’t possible in the practice of self compassion because comparison to others has no place in self compassion. Additionally, the difficulty of navigating the balance between too little and too much self love can lead to a broad spectrum of deleterious effects, from depression to entitlement. 

Anyone can reap the benefits of self esteem, but few can maintain the right amount of it. Many suffer the consequences of low self worth or narcissism in their journey to achieving healthy self esteem. The potential consequences of embarking on a journey to healthy self esteem may seem a risk worth taking on if the end goal is achieved. In the presence of self compassion, however, self esteem isn’t as appealing. A journey towards attaining self compassion offers similar benefits as, and lacks the potential consequences, many suffer on a journey towards healthy self esteem.


Morse, S., & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency, and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(1), 148–156. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0029862

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(1), 139–154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2006.03.004

The scientific benefits of self-compassion. (2014, May 9). The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/the-scientific-benefits-of-self-compassion-infographic/


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