Women often come to see me In my Bedford counselling office for help with improving self-esteem. They tell me that they are so tired of feeling like failures and the sense that they will never measure up. Often, they tell me that they have struggled with self-esteem for as long as they can remember. In fact, if you google the term ‘women self-esteem counselling’ you’ll come up with nearly 72 million results. This leads me to believe that the women I work with are not alone in this struggle.
As women, we are often quick to criticize ourselves or beat ourselves up for our perceived failings. We’ll talk to ourselves in ways that we never would to others. We get accustomed to using our inner critic as some warped form of motivation. And for a while it might work… until it doesn’t and you crumble under the crushing weight of feeling like you are never good enough and will never be able to get it right.
This experience of feeling like we are not enough is a common human experience. So common in fact, that it has led to countless books, blog posts and articles having been written in recent years about self esteem and how to improve it. Self-Esteem has become a buzz word.
Kristin Neff, an author, professor and social researcher, has studied self-compassion and self-esteem and she notes that “the pursuit of high self-esteem has become a virtual religion, but research indicates this has serious downsides. Our culture has become so competitive we need to feel special and above average to just feel okay about ourselves (being called “average” is an insult)… And then, once you’ve gotten high self-esteem, how do you keep it? It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride: our sense of self-worth bounces around like a ping-pong ball, rising and falling in lock-step with our latest success or failure.”
And so it is not that as women we should settle for low self-esteem, but rather that we want our own ability to be kind to ourselves not to be dependent on our performance or being better than someone else. We want to have the capacity to treat ourselves with kindness when life feels difficult or things are not coming together the way we hoped. The alternative to the pursuit of improved self-esteem is self-compassion.
While self-esteem causes us to stack our performance up against others around us and to appraise how we measure up compared to others, self-compassion is really the acceptance of who we are and what we are going through without being judgemental or harsh towards ourselves, knowing that life on this earth is full of hard stuff.
I love the metaphor that Russ Harris uses in his book ACT Made Simple (p. 203) “Suppose you are going through a really hard time in your life. There are all sorts of problems and difficulties, and just about everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. Now as you’re going through this, what kind of friend would you like by your side?
“Would you like the sort of friend who says ‘Ah, shut up. Stop your whinging and whining. I don’t want to hear about it. What do you have to complain about…Suck it up and get on with it.'”
“Or would you like the sort of friend who says, ‘This is really rough. What you are going through right now, anyone would be struggling. I want you to know I am here for you. I’ve got your back. We’re in this together. I’m with you ever step of the way.'”
I know which friend I’m picking. You?
Neff has found that increased self-compassion carries all the benefits of self-esteem (happiness, less depression, etc.) but without any of the down sides (not sustainable and can lead to narcissistic qualities). Social Researcher Brene Brown notes that self-compassion helps increase our likelihood of being more vulnerable and able to connect with others. Here are some interesting clips of Kristen and Brene talking together about self -esteem and self-compassion
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably curious about how you can begin to develop greater self-compassion.
If you’re looking to do this work on your own, here are some resources that I encourage you to check out.
2. Kristen Neff’s book on Self-Compassion.
3. Kristen Neff & Christopher Germer’s Workbook on Self-Compassion
3. Russ Harris’s book Called the Reality Slap which focus on self-compassion amidst grief and loss
Often as people are working to step out of their old ways of doing things, it is helpful for them to work 1:1 with a therapist who can really help them to apply new perspectives and new learning to their situation so that growth and transformation can occur.
If after checking out this blog post you realize you’d like to talk to someone how to use self-compassion to change how you feel about yourself, let’s connect. You can book a free 15 minute consultation call online at or call Stephanie at (902) 702-7722 to book an appointment.
I look forward to hearing from you.
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