According to author, researcher, and psychology professor Kristin Neff, the self-esteem movement was a bust. The issue with self-esteem, Neff says, isn’t in having it but in seeking it. “The problem is we're constantly comparing ourselves to others. We try to puff ourselves up.” Because boosting our self-esteem is based in comparing ourselves to others, it’s fundamentally transient and potentially harmful. Constantly seeking to build our own self-concept can lead to bullying and narcissism. When our self-esteem is based on being better than others, it quickly deserts us when our performance shows we’re not better after all.
So, if self-esteem doesn’t work, what does? Self-compassion. It turns out this is a real struggle for many women. “It's a very small difference,” Neff says, “but it's consistent: Women tend to be less self-compassionate than men.” According to her research, this is especially true for women who strongly identify with traditional stereotypes. “Women are told they should not take care of themselves; that they should always be outwardly focused.” In my experience, this can be a serious struggle for women in ministry.
When we lack self-compassion, we are quick to criticize ourselves in ways and at times we would never criticize someone else. We routinely say things to ourselves we would never say to others: You’re a failure. You can’t do anything right. You’re hopeless. We might tell ourselves we’re stupid when we would never consider saying such words to our children. Telling ourselves these words, however, is just as devastating to us as it would be to our kids.
So what does it mean to have self-compassion? It means we allow ourselves to be imperfect, treat ourselves with kindness, validate our needs, and speak to ourselves with respect. We recognize that other people experience the same things we do and that we are not alone. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity, wallowing in despair, or developing a victim mentality. It does not mean convincing ourselves we didn’t fail when we really did or minimizing the importance of our struggles. Simply put, “Self-compassion is what you’d show a loved one struggling with a similar situation.”
How God Sees Us
Self-compassion also gives us a more accurate view of the way God sees us. When we pursue self-esteem—often comparing ourselves to others or trying to convince ourselves we are way above average, even if we’re not—we get distracted by our own judgments. We lose sight of the compassion that comes from God, who is in the rightful position to judge each and every one of us. When we offer ourselves compassion, we agree with what God has already given us: