Everyone deserves joy, yet, for some reason, it’s becoming more elusive in our culture. We hear it described less, talked about less and sometimes not mentioned at all.
Recent research suggests that many of us now tend to ignore something important about ourselves – something on the inside – that promotes joy in our lives.
What’s being ignored?
Looking at how we build Self-Worth, Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
We are forgetting that who we are on the inside is not a definable variable. Instead, we allow our feelings of self-worth to be defined and dictated by our ability to meet the standards and expectations we create. Regardless of how we create our standards to judge ourselves, when we don’t measure up, ugly stuff can happen. Perhaps nothing is uglier and more destructive to our self-worth than self-criticism. Why’s that?
“in our cross-cultural study…we found that self-criticism was strongly related to depression and dissatisfaction with life.”
Self-criticism feeds depression. Ever wonder why one in ten US women are depressed? Just look at the impossibly high standards women need to meet to feel good about themselves. All the ladies are expected to be successful, sexy, intelligent, fit, fashionable, interesting, and perfect at just about everything. Meeting those standards is not realistic for any woman. And it’s not just adult women being affected. What most people don’t realize is that the young are more depressed too.
In the United States, rates of depression are ten times higher today than they were in the 1960s and the average age for the onset of depression is fourteen and a half compared to twenty-nine and half in 1960.
Depression is a problem. Self-criticism feeds it.
So if self-criticism is a buzz-kill to joy, what then is the key to building it along with self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence?
Self-compassion. I kid you not.
Self-compassion “involves wanting health and well-being for oneself and leads to proactive behavior to better one’s situation, rather than passivity. And self-compassion doesn’t mean that I think my problems are more important than yours, it just means I think my problems are also important and worthy of being attended to.”
How can self-compassion help?
Self-Compassion Builds Contentment
By learning to be compassionate with ourselves, we can overcome self-criticism.
“Research over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. At the same time, self-compassion fosters positive mind states such as happiness and optimism.”
(on Inspired Living™ Archive: For the 3 Words for a Happy Approach to Life, click here).
We’re happier when we practice self-compassion. When practicing, the generated optimism allows our self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence to flourish.
Self-Compassion Has No Drawbacks
By being compassionate with ourselves, we naturally avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism.
Perfectionism happens when self-esteem building becomes connected to impossible to achieve standards. It is today’s accelerator for extreme self-criticism.
“Thousands of articles had been written on the importance of self-esteem, researchers were now starting to point out all the traps that people can fall into when they try to get and keep a sense of high self-esteem: narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous, anger, prejudice, discrimination, and so on.
Self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem…it offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or better than others.
The problem with chasing self-esteem by meeting and exceeding high social standards is that we end up beating ourselves up when we fail. Sadly, research indicates that perfectionists are at much greater risk for anxiety, eating disorders, depression and other psychological problems.
Being perfect is not human and having self-compassion embraces what it means to be human. It sets an achievable standard for building self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence.
You get the idea. But how do we practice it?
Here’s two techniques.
Technique #1: Question Your Standards
We all have standards for how we view ourselves. Often times we feel good when we meet those standards. However, sometimes, we can attach too much of our self-esteem to meeting those standards and it can really hurt us internally, especially when we don’t meet them.
For example, when I was in college, I wanted to be the leanest and strongest guy I could. Why? I wanted to raise my self-esteem, be attractive and feel good about myself. To reach my standard, I stopped at nothing for several years. I closely followed a strict lean body diet plan and trained two hours a day, six days a week…without exception.
(on Inspired Living™ Archive: For a personalized lean body diet plan, click here)
As the results came, I felt good about myself and wanted more. I pushed myself harder, but at the same time, I became more anxious.
I was chasing the illusion of a “perfect body”. My body looked good, my self-esteem was satisfied, yet my self-worth suffered. In my pursuit for the “perfect body,” I became what I’d call a rigid, self-obsessed, narcissist who was judgmental and critical, especially when I didn’t feel good about myself. One unexpected change in my daily plan and the screaming voice of self-criticism began.
To make matters worse, I often projected my standards and view of the world onto others. When the standards weren’t met, a negative judgment came with it. There was no margin for error for myself or for anyone else.
Then one day in graduate school, I had an inner meltdown. At 4% body fat with six-pack abs and a body many guys envied and ladies complimented, I only liked myself when I felt strong, lean and focused. What was I missing? Why was I so insecure?
My self-confidence and self-esteem were so attached to my image that the smallest remark about me looking thin or weak popped my self-worth like a balloon.
In time, I learned that the extreme standard I created hurt me in the long run. I realized that anytime my self-esteem was tied to meeting impossible standards I created for myself, my happiness suffered when I was too extreme, rigid and unforgiving of my failures.
I began to question my standards. How could I change my standards to find more happiness? That’s when I discovered the power of self-kindness.
Technique #2: Practice Self-Kindness
Self-kindness is a technique that can soothe inner turmoil.
Here’s a 3-step shortcut to practice self-kindness, (notes from Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on Self-Compassion)
- Observe your thoughts and notice when you become self-critical.
- Substitute harsh self-criticisms with a gentler voice. If you hear your inner critic call out, “You’re such an idiot”, respond with “I know you’re trying to help me improve, but the harsh judgments and criticisms aren’t working. Please stop the criticisms, they are creating unnecessary hurt.”
- Reframe harsh inner chatter in a friendlier, kinder, more positive way. Think of the most loving and compassionate people you know. Imagine what they would say to you in your situation. Genuine lovingness and self-kindness can work wonders to offset negativity.
Here’s Dr. Neff…
“The healing power of self-kindness was demonstrated in a recent study of chronic acne sufferers…It was found that the intervention significantly lessened people’s feelings of depression and shame due to their acne. Interestingly, it also lessened the degree to which their acne bothered them physically, reducing sensations of burning and stinging.”
Before the wrap-up, one quick personal note. For me, practicing these techniques is a life practice. While I still have standards I strive for, I no longer beat myself up or blame others when I don’t meet them. As a result, I can validate what the research shows; self-compassion naturally builds self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence in a way that brings more daily joy.
- Self-criticism feeds depression. Self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism that builds self-esteem, self-confidence, self-worth and joy.
- Understanding your standards is a key to self-knowledge for finding real joy in life. Align with standards that build your self-worth.
- Practice self-kindness by observing your inner critic, softening the self-critical thoughts and reframing them in a positive friendly way, like a loving companion would do for you.