Dr. Nathaniel Branden’s (1969) well-intentioned book, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” operationalized self-esteem as an evaluation of self that is to be discovered, possessing two intertwined components; a “sense of personal efficacy and…self-worth” (p.110). Self-esteem, as an important component of a healthy self-concept, became an accessible idea in pop-culture; yet the complexity and drawbacks of self-esteem had yet to be addressed in early self-esteem literature. Subsequently, attempts to enhance self-esteem didn’t take into consideration nuanced complexities. Thus present literature on self-esteem explores issues like inflated praise on children with low self-esteem (Brummelman, Thomaes, Orobio, Overbeek, & Bushman, 2014) and the negative implications of excessive praise (Suissa, 2013).
Self-compassion is a relatively new construct in the field of psychology. Neff (2011) describes self-compassion as a way of relating to one’s self, and breaks down the practice of Mindful Self-compassion as having three necessary components; recognition of suffering, a shared feeling of common humanity, and mindfulness. The theoretical simplicity of being compassionate to one’s self is not lost in the complexity of the construct or techniques.
This paper addresses the benefits and the downsides of self-esteem, detailing complicated and often dichotomous research about the nuanced ways in which self-esteem is defined, operationalized and enhanced. After, the movement toward and benefits of self-compassion will be addressed. This paper will conclude with a brief discussion of the implications for future social work practice.
Research On and the Downside of Self-Esteem: Moving Away
Self-esteem has been linked to a multitude of benefits and challenges. Research supports that self-esteem acts a buffer to negative life events, while simultaneously supporting that the negative aspects of self-esteem are felt in the best of times (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2003). Individuals who boast high self-esteem also claim to be more likeable and successful, while objective research generally refutes the claims that individuals with high-self esteem actually are more likeable (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2003). Individuals have taken to inflating praise in an attempt to raise esteem in children with low self-esteem, however work by Carol Dweck shows that using praise to raise self-esteem may inhibit intrinsic motivation if used carelessly. Self-esteem is complex in theory and as a theoretical end.
Further complicating the research about self-esteem outcomes is the way in which self-esteem is defined. Implicit self-esteem is differentiated from explicit self-esteem, and research posits that while both have an evaluative component, implicit self-esteem comes from conscious awareness of self while explicit comes from “automatic self-evaluation” occurring outside of self-awareness (Sariyska, Reuter, Bey, Sha, Li, Chen, Liu, Suárez-Rivillas, Feldman, Hellman, Keiper, Markett, Young and Montag, 2013; citing Kernis, 2003; Rosenberg, 1965; and Greenwalk & Banaji, 1995). Self-esteem is further broken down into distinct subtypes, like relationship-contingent self-esteem (Rodriguez, Knee & Neighbors, 2014), global self-esteem, which is relative to general well-being, or specific self-esteem, which is dependent on behavior (Rosenberg, Schoenbach, Schooler, & Rosenberg, 1995). The subtlety involved in enhancing an individual or group’s self-esteem in a healthy and sustainable way presents challenges to any practitioner.
All types of self-esteem and esteem-enhancing techniques involve an evaluative or judgmental component due to the inherent evaluative aspect of self-esteem. Many proponents of the self-esteem movement have used praise as a means of enhancing self-esteem, but Kamins and Dweck’s (1999) work shows that praise is a subtle and complicated mechanism. Kamins and Dweck’s (1999) study looking at self-worth and coping, which research had suggested is an outcome of self-esteem, illustrates this well: Person-centered praise (i.e. “You are awesome!”) creates more vulnerability and contingent self-worth than process-centered praise (i.e. “You must have worked very hard!”). The implication here is that we internalize different evaluations in different ways, and techniques used by parents, teachers and coaches may need to be re-assessed. Further convoluting the evaluative component of self-esteem, implicit self-esteem can be characterized as the way one judges one’s self consciously, while relationship-contingent self-esteem can be defined as the way in which one judges oneself depending on one’s relationship status (Rodriguez et. al., 2014).
Self-esteem, both as an outcome and a focus of intervention, is judgmental in nature. However, it’s important to distinguish judgment from what Neff (2009) terms discernible wisdom: While it’s critical to provide context for any decision that is being made about or for one’s self (i.e. to discern with wisdom), it’s equally critical to do so without the negative connotation of being judged. It’s with self-esteem’s complicated history in mind that self-compassion moves to the forefront of healthy self-concept literature.
The upside of Self-Compassion: Moving Toward
Self-compassion is described by Neff (2009) as a way of relating to one’s self, and the practice of Mindful Self-compassion integrates three essential elements: loving-kindness, acknowledgement of shared humanity, and mindfulness in consideration of self-qualities that one does not like. The first component, loving-kindness to one’s self, is touching on the way in which one relates to the self. The second component, acknowledgement of shared humanity, is a way of feeling and being connected to more than the self. Finally, the mindfulness component shifts attention away from complicated cognitive patterns, especially stories about the self, and toward acceptance of present (issues) in a non-judgmental manner (Neff, 2011). The simplicity of self-compassion, in theory, makes application available to a wide range of individuals and groups.
Research on self-compassion shows that self-compassion possesses many of the benefits of self-esteem, yet without self-esteem’s drawbacks (Neff, 2011). Higher levels of self-compassion are associated with life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, goal mastery, social connectedness and less disordered eating, self-criticism, depression, anxiety, perfectionism and thought suppression (Neff & Vonk, 2009). Neff and Vonk (2009) posit that self-compassion activates the self-soothing system that is associated with the release of oxytocin-opiates, shows significant correlation with attachment style (secure), and is more predictive of positive relationships. Finally, self-compassion has been correlated with more emotional resilience, more accurate self-concept, and in a study of 49 college young female adults, provided a buffer to anxiety when asked to consider greatest weaknesses by increasing the participant’s ability to observe upsetting thoughts without over-identifying with them (Smeets, Neff, Alberts & Peters, 2014). Self-compassion, as associated with self-worth, is “less likely to fluctuate according to external circumstances” (Neff and Vonk, 2009, p. 38). It’s becoming more clear that a healthy relationship with one’s self is further explained by self-compassion.
Self-compassion is beneficial even when it isn’t the primary focus of the intervention. In a study examining the process by which MBCT functions within our cognitions, self-compassion nullified the relationship between reactivity and outcome (Kuyken, Watkins, Holden, White, Taylor, Byford, Evans, Radford, Teasdale & Dalgleish, 2010). In Kuyken et. al.’s (2010) study, the way in which the participant responded to negative thought patterns, not the existence of the negative thought itself, is what impacted depression outcomes post-treatment. Compassion has an adaptive quality in this response by enhancing an individual’s ability to self-sooth (Neff, 2011), which has staggering implications for client self-empowerment and sustaining a specific treatment’s effects. Because self-compassion is process-focused and based in acceptance with loving-kindness, integration of Mindful Self-compassion into various interventions may increase that specific interventions effectiveness.
Self-compassion’s theoretical simplicity, long-lasting benefits, and practical application, both as a focus of therapeutic intervention and a factor within a therapeutic intervention, provides hope for future social work and research. And even though additional research exploring the most efficacious and effective integration of self-compassion into various therapeutic treatments is necessary, the positive outcomes of self-compassion will continue to be felt throughout the process.
Implications for Future Social Work Practice
Research on self-compassion, and the move away from self-esteem as a measure of a healthy self-concept, creates the space for a self-sustained healthy self-concept that is not contingent on external factors. The relative simplicity of theoretical self-compassion suggests that treatments focused on enhancing self-compassion may generate more positive and long-lasting health outcomes both in and out of the therapeutic setting. Additionally, because self-compassion’s focus on approach over product allows for learning and growth throughout the healing process, the effects of self-compassion can be felt immediatly.
According to the NASW Code of Ethics, social workers’ charge is to champion the dignity and worth of each person and promote human relationships, recognizing that they are the vehicles of change. Within social work practice, utilizing self-compassion’s elements of loving-kindness and promotion of shared humanity aligns directly with the NASW Code of Ethics. Further, providing mindfulness training for clients will enhance their capacity to exercise their right to self-determination as a result of reducing levels of reactivity, thus creating more choice in thought, feeling and action. It’s critical that the field of Social Work be looking toward treatments that can clients can sustain after the engagement with a social worker ends, empowerment that comes from within the client, and that any treatment leaves the client with the dignity, respect and self-determination that Social Work’s ethical framework describes.
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