The Beginners Guide to Self-Compassion


Have We Created a World of Narcissists ?

Is our obsession with self-esteem responsible for a world full of narcissists ?

Kristen Neff, one of the world's leading experts on self-compassion thinks it may well be. In her 2009 paper,  she puts forward the idea that focusing on self-esteem may do more harm than good.


The Western Model of Self-Esteem

It has long been accepted that building up one’s self-esteem is an important part of childhood development. Parents often worry that setbacks may impact their child’s self-esteem leading to a negative image of self. Prizes for taking part, tip-toeing around bad behavior and an obsession with praise are sometimes the result.  

Yet, Neff argues that scholars are ‘starting to fall out of love with self-esteem.’ Whilst high self-esteem is associated with happiness, there are drawbacks to high self-esteem. It correlates strongly with narcissism, namely a focus on one’s self with a feeling of superiority over others. It also encourages a culture of comparison that can lead to isolation and separateness.


The Drawbacks of High Self-Esteem

Neff draws on research that shows that self-esteem does not improve career performance or prevent children from engaging in destructive behavior. Bullies often have high-self esteem which drives behavior to put others down. People with high self esteem are just as likely to be prejudiced as others with low self-esteem. In addition, they often engage in anti-social behavior such as cheating.

Yet, low self-esteem is not the answer. Those with low self-esteem suffer from depression, anxiety and in some cases suicidal ideation.


The Fundamentals of Self-Compassion

Neff puts forward that the alternative to self-esteem is the model of self-compassion. It’s taken from Eastern philosophy, particularly the models put forward by Buddhist scholars.  Neff breaks down self-compassion into three main components:


1.     Self-kindness versus self-judgment

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. It offers comfort to the self instead of judgment.


2.     A sense of common humanity versus isolation

By identifying with others, we can see our own struggles in the context of those greater than our own. It also helps us to feel a sense of connectedness with those around us


3.     Mindfulness versus over identification

Mindfulness involves being aware the present moment, helping us to break free from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.  


The Benefits of Self-Compassion

Research shows that self-compassion is strongly associated with psychological well-being. People who demonstrate this skill are happier, more optimistic and have a greater connection with those around them. They are also less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.  


Is Self-Compassion Overindulgent ?

But is this type of thinking, well, a bit over indulgent ? This is the most common sentiment when people start thinking about self-compassion although there is no evidence to back this up.

In fact, when you adopt this model of positive thinking, you are more likely to make changes in your life rather than indulge in learned habits. You are also more likely to admit mistakes, modify unproductive behaviors and relish new experiences.

A study looking at self-compassion found that it improved learning, encouraging individuals to learn and grow for their own personal growth rather than social approval. 


A Sign of Maturity

Self-compassion may be as sign of maturity and wisdom. It makes sense, the older we get the more we realize that things are rarely black and white. We are less likely to make the same rash judgments we did when we were younger.

Self-compassion may well come naturally with age. But if we recognize its benefits and foster its practice, we could help generations of younger people reach greater levels of wellbeing.



Neff, Kristin D., and Roos Vonk. "Self‐compassion versus global self‐esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself." Journal of personality 77.1 (2009): 23-50.