High self-esteem has long been touted by psychologists as the key to happiness and success. But these days, experts are questioning self-esteem's status as a personal cure-allnoting that it's hard to acquire, even harder to hang on to, and can lead to arrogance and narcissism. What does create a healthy, resilient psyche, it turns out, is self-compassion. When things go badly, a be-kind-to-yourself mind-set makes you feel less anxious, depressed, and angry, and helps you recover more quickly from setbacks, according to groundbreaking research from Duke University. Best of all, self-compassion is easy to develop. Here's how.
Step 1: Realize that you're only human.
Goofing up, getting dumped, just plain losing it, and the like happento everyone. "Whatever failures, losses, or humiliations we face are part of the human experienceand adding self-criticism to the mix only increases the pain," says study author Mark Leary, Ph.D., director of social psychology at Duke University. "You're not unique in your trouble, and it doesn't point to a shameful personal flaw."
To embrace this frame of mind, say mantras to yourself such as, Everyone goofs up now and then, or Guess I'm human after all! Reinforce this line of thinking by reminding yourself of people you know who've dealt with the same setback you're facing. You can also visit self-help websites like dailystrength.org to see how many others are in your boat and to take comfort in their stories.
These measures help you sidestep the sense of isolation and self-bashing that make the situation feel worse. Heck, you may even start feeling affection for your idiosyncrasies and flaws as you realize that they're just part of what makes you you.
Step 2: Feel your pain.
Rushing through or denying your bad feelings won't make them go away, but wallowing isn't healthy, either. Mindful acceptancethat is, truly feeling your feelingsallows you to face your pain and then move on. "If you get mentally lost in blaming yourself or others, you prolong your suffering," notes psychology professor Kristin Neff, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin. "But if you simply allow yourself to feel the emotion and let it run its coursewhich is often a wave that builds and tapers offit dissipates much more quickly."
Start by closing your eyes and taking a few slow, deep breaths to center yourself, while recalling what you want: to be peaceful and free from suffering. Then focus on the physical sensations in your body, such as constriction in your chest, a tight throat, a clenched jaw. Note how those sensations shift and change. If your mind strays, gently bring it back to your body until the emotion ebbs away. Do the exercise as needed, whenever painful feelings emerge, and you'll feel less fearful, anxious, and depressed.
Step 3: Talk to yourself with kindness.
Now that you've moved past the difficult feelings that often come with life's obstacles, focus on comforting yourself. If you can talk to yourself as mercifully as you would to your best friend, you'll start to see yourself as worthy of that care and forgiveness. And eventually, you'll be able to tap into that self-loving mind-set whenever you're in a tough spot.
To find the right words, think about what you'd say to comfort someone close to you if he faced the same issuethen say it to yourself. Or picture a wise friend advising you lovingly; you can even write yourself a letter, as if it came from her. Consider using a prop to summon up these comforting thoughts, says Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., who's done clinical research on self-compassion at the University of Derby in England. "Try holding a small, favorite object or even a stone, like quartz, when doing these processes," he advises. "Keep it handy and rub it to cue up soothing feelings when you need them."
Learning to be more loving toward yourself also brings a less obvious but equally important benefit: You'll soon find yourself extending that compassion to others and, in the process, making the world a kinder place.