A Balanced View of Self

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview
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A Balanced View of Self

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

For a generation now, it seems parents, teachers, counselors and social workers - even kids - have been talking nonstop about the importance of building self-esteem, which Merriam-Webster defines as "a confidence and satisfaction in oneself" - but which in many cases seems prone to slip into the second dictionary meaning: "an exaggerated opinion of one's own qualities or abilities," sometimes known as self-conceit.

Researcher Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has spent much of her career re-examining the idea of self-esteem. She has come up with what she thinks is a more satisfactory goal for people to pursue: self-compassion.

"Self-esteem usually is based on our perception of how much better we are than other people," Neff says. "But we can't always be better than others, so self-esteem can become quite an unrealistic and unstable way of looking at ourselves."

While a lack of self-esteem can leave people depressed and unmotivated, a constant struggle always to feel better than average can lead to narcissism, self-absorption and even anger, Neff says.

"Self-compassion is a good alternative to self-esteem. It has the upside of appreciating the good things about ourselves but not the downside of always fearing to fall short. Self-compassion allows us to accept both our successes and our failures, because nobody's perfect, and we don't have to defend our egos all the time."

Neff has written a book on the topic, "Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind," and she will come to Eugene later this month for a discussion and book-signing.

Neff first began to hone her concept of self-compassion during her last year of work on her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I had been through a messy divorce, and I started going to a Budd hist group for meditation, and I learned that self-compassion is a value that Buddhism has embraced for a very long time," Neff says.

"It's very different from the Western idea of self evaluation, and to me it made a lot of sense."

She summarizes the difference between self-esteem and self- compassion on her website:

"In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self- evaluations," Neff writes. "People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented and so on). This means that with self- compassion, you don't have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.

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