An Alternative to Self-Esteem: Fostering Self-Compassion in Youth

Article excerpt

Research-Based Practice

For more than a generation, the idea that children need nurturance of a high self-esteemin order tobe developmentally healthy has had wide acceptance in Western psychology (Neff, 2009a; Neff & Pittman, 2010). A generation of parents has been told that one of their key tasks is to increase their children's self-esteem, and teachers have been trained to give accolades, gold stars, and the occasional trophy to foster self-esteemin their students (Twenge, 2006). The emphasis on self-esteem is an outgrowth of the perception that global self-esteem is almost synonymous with mental health (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004). Though numerous scholarly articles have been written about selfesteem (cf. Baumeister, i998),withmost (see Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004, for a review) arguing that it relates to adaptive outcomes, the idea that self-esteem brings well-being alone has been increasingly questioned, in part because in some cases, people engage in counterproductive or dysfunctional behaviors to nurture high self-esteem in others and to produce it in themselves.

As Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, and Gillham (2005) argue, self-esteem programs tend lo emphasize feeling good about oneself rather than building competence, and therefore the programs may hamper the giving of critical feedback to children out of concern for protecting their self-esteem. As a result, this practice has helped contribute to significant grade inflation (Neff, 2011). Also, as Neff and Lamb (2009) argue, in some individuals, high self-esteem can be associated with exaggerated and/or inaccurate self-concepts, making self-improvement difficult. These individuals are more likely to dismiss negative feedback as unreliable or biased, to trivialize failures, or attribute them to external causes (Crocker & Park, 2004) , the result being less personal responsibility for harmful actions.

Inflated self-esteem can be counterproductive in some individuals, causing antagonistic behavior toward those who threaten the inaccurate image they hold of themselves as well as the experience of anger toward anyone perceived as a threat to their egos (Neff, 2009b) . For example, bullies are as likely to have high self-esteem as others, with the bullying behavior causing them to feel good about themselves (Neff, 2009a) . It also increases the likelihood that individuals may engage in both relational aggression and downward social comparisons (Twenge & Campbell, 2003) by derogating others to affirm themselves (cf. Fein & Spencer, 1997). Finally, individuals whose inflated images of themselves need constant bolstering and social validation often have relationship problems (Campbell & Baumeister, 2001). High and inflated self-esteem may have its perils, and to avoid them, self-compassion is proposed as an alternate construct.

SELF-ESTEEM VERSUS SELF-COMPASSION

Self-compassion is different from self-esteem and contributes to many indicators of well-being. Self-compassion involves kindness toward one's difficulties, recognition that such experience s are part of being human, anda mindful awareness and acceptance of one's painful feelings. Neff (2003a, 2003b) is a prolific researcher of self-compassion, and most Western research on self-compassion as a psychological construct has been conducted using the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS) she created (2003a). The scale has strong psychometric properties, demonstrates concurrent, discriminate, and convergent validity, and has been used in dozens of studies that support self-compassion as a compelling and important construct distinctly different from self-esteem.

Neff and Vonk (2009) and Neff (2011) each offer a review of studies that have used the SCS to contrast self-compassion with self-esteem. They state that one key difference is that self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations, social comparisons, or personal success, and therefore avoids most negative characteristics associated with self-esteem. …