If you read our recent post about the top 20 science-based recommendations for working with highly self-critical and shame-prone clients, you already know that the pursuit of high self-esteem should be dead. The scientific community has definitively shown that attempts to raise self-esteem don’t generally work, and may even have some negative side-effects (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). In contrast, self-compassion has all of the positive benefits of having higher self-esteem, without the downsides.
Global, overarching beliefs about ourselves can be hard to change. This is probably part of why changing self-esteem is so difficult or even problematic. It focuses our efforts on a goal which is very difficult or nearly impossible to obtain. This just leads to wasted time and more of a sense of failure. In contrast, self-compassion is a concrete skill that one can practice and develop.
Some clients, especially highly self-critical and shame-prone clients, believe that they just need to work on raising their self-esteem or feel better about themselves. They have implicitly adopted the idea promoted by much of society that high self-esteem is not only good, but essential to living a good life. For at least some of these clients, it can be helpful to do some psychoeducation around the differences between trying to get self-esteem and intentionally practicing self-compassion. To help with this, we have created a short handout that we give to clients comparing and contrasting self-esteem with self-compassion.
Download the handout: Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion
Another resource is to have clients watch video by Kirsten Neff where she talks about self-compassion versus self-esteem. This video can also give you some tips about how to talk about this concept with clients.
Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44.