Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion: What's the Difference?

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Self-esteem and self-compassion sound very similar. After all, they involve how you view and treat yourself.

However, they are very different perspectives.

Knowing both, and the difference between them, is important for your mental well-being.

What Is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is how confidently you view yourself and your abilities.

University of Texas researcher, Dr. Kristen Neff, defines self-esteem as a “global evaluation of self-worth,” and asking yourself whether you are a good person or a bad person.

To evaluate your self-esteem, consider your answers these questions:

  • Are you the kind of person that has always had the knack of knowing what to do?
  • Do you take on a challenge with enthusiasm?
  • Have you developed self-assurance regarding your abilities after years of practice?

When you think about it, a part of self-esteem comes from the experiences that you have had throughout your lifetime, and the positive feedback you receive from others. These can include successes and how you responded to and recovered from failures. Both give you the knowledge, assurance, and confidence to know that you can handle the situation before you.

The Possible Self-Esteem Trap

Having self-esteem is a good thing. The issue is not that you have self-esteem, but how you get self-esteem. Oftentimes people fall into the trap of looking for self-esteem through the validation of others. You can also get trapped in comparing yourself to others and measuring your self-worth on how you compare to your friends, other families, your co-workers, and even what media communicates to you as a consumer – “Am I thin enough?” “Do I drive the right car, live in the trendiest neighborhood, or wear the best clothes?” “Is my family as well-adjusted as those I see on television, or at school, or at my church or synagogue?” “Am I as happily married as the couple across the street seems to be?” By comparing, you judge yourself. “Am I above average or below average?”

Everyone, of course, likes to hear a compliment or praise, and feel that they are above average. Yet, if you rely only on this outside commendation and comparisons to boost your self-esteem, you may be disappointed.

Self-esteem often depends on how successful we feel in areas of our lives that are important to us.

At the first sign of struggle or hardship, that shell of confidence and self-esteem may shatter. True self-esteem, in contrast, comes not from accolades, but from the grit and skills acquired within through your life experience, and the compassion you show to yourself through the ups-and-downs of normal life experience.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is how you treat yourself. Dr. Neff describes self-compassion as “relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.”

For example, think about your answers to these questions:

  • Do you learn from your mistakes or beat yourself up over them?
  • Even when you do succeed, do you discount yourself?
  • Do you give yourself the same kindness, patience, gentleness, and compassion during difficult times, as you would give a friend going through something similar?

You may struggle with self-compassion if you regard yourself primarily with a negative point of view. This can have a serious impact on your relationships with others, as well as how you view yourself as a person.

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The Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion

There is a big difference between these two perspectives. Self-esteem is directly related to confidence. On the other hand, self-compassion is how you treat yourself. The two can be interrelated, however. Research shows that being self-compassionate can lead to higher self-esteem.

For example, let’s say you are a college student who has just received a poor grade on an exam. In the aftermath of receiving the poor grade, you could think that you are below average and don’t have what it takes to be in college to pursue your dreams and goals. You may compare your grade with those of your classmates who performed better on the exam and feel that you don’t measure up. With your self-esteem shattered over this one exam, you may consider yourself a failure. Or, you could look at the experience and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow, having self-compassion and never doubting that you are, overall, a good student.

As you can see, self-esteem is derived from external experiences, while self-compassion comes from deep inside.

What Can You Do to Improve Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion?

To improve both perspectives involves taking a risk. It means being willing to put yourself out there and to be open to both positive and negative experiences. It also calls for being honest about how you treat yourself and the outlook you have of yourself as a person.

If you discover that both outlooks are negative, try these ideas to improve them:

  • Start with identifying your strengths
  • Use a guided experience to try something new
  • When you find that you are being critical or judging yourself, consider how you might treat a friend who came to you with the same issue
  • Reflect on how you view the world and consider engaging another perspective

Getting Professional Help

You can also seek out professional help for understanding how you view yourself, and how you can improve your self-esteem and your self-compassion.

A therapist can work with you to explore why you struggle with self-esteem and/or self-compassion. The origin of low self-esteem and lack of self-compassion varies from person-to-person, but many times these issues may originate with your early life experiences or how you were treated when young. These experiences form the basis of how you view your world. A counseling professional can also help you learn techniques to boost both self-concepts in positive and affirming ways.

Self-esteem and self-compassion shape how you see yourself and others. If you struggle with these concepts, take steps soon to make the positive, self-affirming changes in your life you’ve been longing for.

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Janie McMahan, MA, LMFT, works with individuals who want to improve their self-esteem and self-compassion. If you struggle with emotions and beliefs that you are "not enough," contact her at 512-362-8050 to explore how you can live your life to the fullest.