The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen


Translator: Rui Jiang
Reviewer: Queenie Lee I guess you could say
that I am a self-compassion evangelist. I love spreading the good word
about self-compassion. I’ve devoted the last ten years
of my research career to studying the mental health benefits
of self-compassion, and more recently I’ve been working
on developing interventions to help people learn to be more compassionate
to themselves in their lives. And the reason I’m so passionate
about self-compassion is because I have really seen
its power in my own life. I first learned
about self-compassion in 1997, when I was finishing up
my PhD at UC Berkeley. I was going through a really hard time. I had just gotten out
of a very messy divorce with feeling of a lot of shame
and self-judgment. I was feeling a lot of stress. Would I finish my PhD? And if I did, would I get a job? So, I thought it would be a good time
to learn how to practice meditation. So I signed up with a local
Buddhist meditation group. And the very first evening,
the very first course, the woman leading the group talked
about the importance of compassion, not only for others,
but also for ourselves, the importance of including ourselves
in the circle of compassion, of treating ourselves with the same
kindness, care, and concern that we treat a good friend. And it was like a light bulb went off
over my head at that moment. I realized – well, first I thought, what? You’re allowed to be nice yourself,
and this is being encouraged? But I realized, it was exactly what I needed
in that difficult moment in my life. So really, from that day forward, I can say I intentionally tried
to be more compassionate to myself, and it made a huge difference
almost immediately. And then, luckily, I did get a job;
I did two years of postdoctoral study with one of the country’s leading
self-esteem researchers. And while working with her,
I started to realize that self-compassion offered a lot of benefits
that self-esteem didn’t. Let me start by defining
what I mean by self-esteem. Self-esteem is a global evaluation
of self-worth, a judgment: “Am I a good person, or I’m a bad person?” And for many years,
psychologists really saw self-esteem as the ultimate marker
of psychological health, and there’s a reason for that. There’s lots of research
that shows if you have low self-esteem, if you hate yourself,
you’re going to be depressed, you’re going to be anxious, you’re going to have all sorts
of psychological problems; if it gets really bad,
you might even consider suicide. However, high self-esteem
also can be problematic. The problem is not if you have it; it’s how you get it. In American culture, (Laughter) to have high self-esteem, we have to feel special and above-average. Okay. If I told anyone of you,
your work performance, “Oh, it’s average,”
or “you are an average mother,” or if you told me afterward
that this talk was average, I’d be crashed, right? It’s not okay to be average. It’s considered an insult to be average. So what’s the problem with that? If all of us have to be above average
at the same time, right? Are the words “logical impossibility”
springing to mind here, right? So what happens if we all
have to feel above-average? As we started playing these little games, we start suddenly finding ways
to puff ourselves up and put others down so we can feel better
about ourselves in comparison. And some people actually
take this to an extreme. You may or may not know, but there is an epidemic
of narcissism in this culture. We’ve been tracking the narcissism levels
of college undergraduates for the past 25 years, and they are at the highest
levels ever recorded, and actually a lot of psychologists believe this is because of
the self-esteem movement in the schools. And there are a lot
of nasty social dynamics that can stem from needing
to feel better than others to feel good about ourselves. We also have an epidemic
of bullying in our culture in our schools. Why do kids bully? Why do kids who are forming
their sense of self feel they’ve got to bully others? It’s partly to build
their own sense of self-esteem, to feel that they are stronger,
more powerful than these other kids
that they’re picking on. Or why are people prejudiced? Why do we feel that our religious group,
or ethnic group, or political party is better than the other group? Partly, in order to enhance
our own self-esteem. Another problem with self-esteem
is that it’s contingent on success. We only feel good about ourselves
when we succeed in those domains of life that are important to us. But what happens when we fail? What happens when we don’t meet
our ideal standards? We feel lousy, we feel terrible about ourselves. And for women this is especially hard because what do you think
research shows, around the world, the number-one domain
in which women invest their self-esteem? (Laughter) Right? Our perception of how attractive we are. And the standards for women are so high. How can we feel above average in looks?
We’re looking at all these supermodels. Even the supermodels feel insecure
compared to other supermodels, right? It’s very interesting
if you look at this developmentally. Around third grade, boys and girls
both think they’re pretty attractive, and they have fairly high
levels of self-esteem. Then for boys,
about the end of sixth grade: yeah, looking pretty good,
feeling pretty good. End of high school: looking good,
feeling good about myself. But for girls, after third grade … their perception
of how attractive they are, and therefore their self-esteem,
starts to take a nosedive. It starts very young. So how do we get off this treadmill, this constant need
to feel better than others so that we can feel good about ourselves? That’s where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion is not a way
of judging ourselves positively, self-compassion is a way
of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves
as we are: flaws and all. I actually define
self-compassion in my research as having three core components. The first, you might say,
is the most obvious, and that is treating ourselves
with kindness versus harsh self-judgment. Treating ourselves
like we treat a good friend, with encouragement, understanding,
empathy, patience, gentleness. But if you stop to check in
with how we treat ourselves, especially on a bad day
when things aren’t going so well, we’re often harsher and more cruel
to ourselves in the language we use. We say things to ourselves we would never say
to someone we cared about. We say things to ourselves we probably even wouldn’t say
to someone we didn’t like very much. We are often our own worst enemy. With self-compassion,
we reverse that pattern and start treating ourselves
like we treat our good friends. The second component of self-compassion is common humanity. Where self-esteem asks,
“How am I different than others?” Self-compassion says,
“Well, how am I same as others?” And one of the ways
we are the same as others – What does it mean to be human? To be human means to be imperfect. All of us, everyone on the entire globe, we are imperfect as people,
and our lives are imperfect. That is the shared human experience. Often what happens, though, irrationally, when we notice something about ourselves – we haven’t reached our goal,
or we’re struggling in life – we feel as if, “Something
has gone wrong here.” “This is abnormal.”
“This shouldn’t be this way.” “I shouldn’t be failing
to reach my goals.” And it’s that feeling of abnormality,
of separation from others, that is so psychologically damaging. We make it so much worse by feeling we’re isolated
in our suffering and our imperfection, when in fact, that’s precisely
what connects us to other people. The third component
of self-compassion is mindfulness. Mindfulness means being
with what is in the present moment. And we need to be able
to turn toward, acknowledge, validate, and accept the fact that we are suffering in order to give ourselves compassion. Actually, oftentimes we aren’t
aware of our own suffering, especially when that suffering
comes from our own harsh self-criticism. We get so lost in the role of self-critic, so identified with the part of ourselves
that puts the back up straight, saying, “You are wrong,
you should have done better.” But we don’t even notice the incredible pain
we’re causing ourselves. And if we don’t notice what we’re doing to ourselves
with our harsh self-criticism, we can’t give yourselves
the compassion we need. You might be asking, “Why do we do it?” Self-criticism, we know it’s painful.
Why do we do it? We’ve actually found in research – there are lots of reasons
we’re self-critical – but the number one reason … is that we believe we need
our self-criticism to motivate ourselves; that if we are too kind to ourselves, we’ll be self-indulgent and lazy. So the question is: Is it true? Actually, the research
shows just the opposite: Self-criticism undermines our motivation, and here’s why. When we criticize ourselves, we are tapping into
our bodies’ threat-defense system: the reptilian brain. This system evolved so that if there was a threat
to our physical person, we would release adrenaline and cortisol, and prepare for
the fight-or-flight response. The system evolved for threats
to our actual bodily self, but in modern times, typically,
the threat is not to our actual selves but to our self-concept. When we think a thought
about ourselves that we don’t like,
that’s some imperfection, we feel threatened, and so we attack the problem,
meaning we attack ourselves. And with self-criticism,
it’s a double whammy because we are both
the attacker and the attacked. So self-criticism
releases a lot of cortisol. If you are constant self-critic,
you have constantly high levels of stress, and eventually the body,
to protect itself, will shut itself down and become “I’m depressed”
in order to deal with all the stress. And as we know, depression is not exactly
the best motivational mindstate. Alright? Luckily, we aren’t just reptiles, we’re also mammals. There’s another way we can feel safe, and that is by tapping
into the mammalian caregiving system. What’s unique about mammals
is they are born very immature, which means a system had to be evolved in which the infant would want
to stay close next to the mother and stay safe, which means our bodies
are programmed to respond to warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalizations. So when we give ourselves compassion, the research shows we actually
reduce our cortisol levels, and release oxytocin and opiates, which are the feel-good hormones. And when we feel safe and comforted, we are in the optimal
mindstate to do our best. And it’s actually very easy to see when we think about
how to best motivate our children. Let’s say there is a father whose son comes home from high school
with a failing math grade. The father has two different ways
to try to motivate his child. The first is with harsh criticism. The son comes in,
shows to father the math grade, and the father says, “I’m ashamed of you. What a loser.
You’ll never amount to anything.” Does that make you cringe? Isn’t that often precisely the type
of language we use with ourselves? What’s going to happen to that son? Will he try harder?
Yes, he will for the short term. But eventually, he’s going
to lose faith in himself. He’s going to become depressed,
and he will become afraid of failure and probably give up math because the consequences
of failing again are just too dire. But what if the father
takes a compassionate approach? The son shows him the failing
math grade, and the father says, “Uhh, ouch, wow.
You must be hurting. I’m sorry. Hey, give me a hug. I still love you.
It happens to everyone. But I know you want
to get your math grades up because you want to go to college.” Here’s what compassion says:
“What can I do to help?” “How can I support you?” And the more encouraging,
loving, compassionate the father is, the better place, emotionally,
the son will be in to do his best. And luckily, research strongly supports
everything I’ve been saying. The last few years, especially,
have seen a sharp uptick in the number of research studies
conducted on self-compassion. And the bottom line is unequivocally: Self-compassion is very strongly
related to mental well-being. It’s strongly related to less depression, less anxiety, less stress,
less perfectionism. It’s equally strongly related
to positive states, like happiness, like life satisfaction. It’s linked to greater motivation,
taking greater self-responsibility, making healthier lifestyle choices. It’s also linked to having
more sense of connectedness with others, better interpersonal relationships. We’ve also done some research comparing directly self-esteem
and self-compassion. And what we find, what you can say is that self-compassion
offers the benefits of self-esteem without the pitfalls. So it’s associated
with strong mental health, but it’s not associated with narcissism,
or constant social comparison, or ego-defensive aggression. It also provides a much more stable sense
of self-worth than self-esteem does because it’s there for you
precisely when you fail. Just when self-esteem deserts you, self-compassion steps in
and gives you a sense of being valuable, not because you’ve reached some standard,
or you’ve judged yourself positively, but because you are a human being,
worthy of love in that moment. And again this is something
I really know from my personal life. The greatest challenge
I have faced in my life, so far, was when my son Rowan
was diagnosed with autism. And luckily when he was diagnosed, I had a long practice
of self-compassion under my belt. So when I first got the diagnosis, I felt incredible grief; I even felt some shame. And it was very hard to feel that,
to admit that to myself. Because how can I feel grief about this child who I love
more than anyone else in the world? The thing is I was feeling that, and I knew that what I needed at that moment
was to embrace how difficult it was. And the more I could embrace my own grief,
the more quickly I moved through it, and then the more able I was
to turn toward him and accept and love him for who he was. It also helped me over and over again
in the heat of the moment. As you may know, one issue
with autistic children, especially when they’re young,
is they can throw very terrible tantrums. So, imagine being on a plane to England – this is a true story,
Rowan was four years old – I don’t know what set him off, but he throws a doozy of tantrum. Flailing and screaming. Everyone on that plane looking at us
like they wish we were dead. He’s four years old; he looks normal. People are thinking, “What’s wrong with this kid?
Why is he acting this way? What’s wrong with this mother,
why can’t she control her child?” Okay, lots of fear.
What do I do, what do I do? Jumping out the window
sadly wasn’t an option, so … I know, I’ll take him to the bathroom.
Try to comfort him there. Maybe it’ll muffle his screams. So I’m kind of taking this four-year-old,
flailing child to the bathroom, which was, of course … occupied. (Laughter) Imagine being in that little space
outside the bathroom door with this tantruming child, and I knew, in that moment,
the only refuge I had was self-compassion. So I put my hands over my heart,
and I tried to comfort him, but I was mainly focusing on myself. “This is so hard right now, darling.
I’m so sorry you’re going through this. But I’m here for you.” And you know what?
It got me through. And by allowing myself
to be open-hearted toward myself, I could remain open-hearted to Rowan. People sometimes think self-compassion
is self-indulgent or selfish. It’s not. Because the more we were able
to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available
to give to others. So I would like to invite you to try
to be more compassionate to yourself. Especially as women,
you know how to do it. You know how to be a good friend. You know what to say
to comfort someone when they’re in need. You just have to remember
to be a good friend to yourself. It’s easier than you think,
and it really could change your life. And that’s why I think self-compassion
is an idea worth spreading. Thank you. (Applause)


100 Responses

  1. beachhum

    October 27, 2017 3:11 am

    Short summary – Self-compassion: relating to self kindly; as we are. 1)Self-kindness (encourage, patience, empathize); 2) Humanity (how am I the same as others, we are all imperfect); 3) mindfulness (accept/validate the present & feelings). Better mental health. Benefits of self-esteem without pitfalls.
    self-esteem: am I good person or bad person? Feelings of self-worth. High self-esteem in USA means above average (puff up and put others down; comparison). Lots of bullying/prejudice. Women told image is important.
    Self-criticism undermines motivation. Triggers Threat system (flight or fight); you become the attacker and the attacked; cause depression.
    Feel safe by Mammal system – warm, gentle touch, soft voice (feel safe and comforted). "What can I do to support you?"

  2. karen arthur

    November 20, 2017 9:07 pm

    Amazing. Was put off by the 19min and almost didn't give it my time. Glad I did. Great idea definitely worth spreading!

  3. Ian Lambert

    November 23, 2017 11:57 am

    Really needed to here this today being very judgmental of myself practices mindfulness with self compassion what a beautiful way of being, thank you.

  4. #1Lazer

    December 11, 2017 6:56 am

    I am a very critical person, and I can say from experience- it not only steals my motivation, but the motivation of those who spend a lot of time with me. Very dangerous. Not proud of it, but I am recognizing a trend.
    Also mammals? Show me some proof that I am part reptile? As I'd have to be in order to "also be" something else.? Wait, I'm being critical… okay, I am very beautiful, some say cold blooded, I may have a forked tongue at times… wait, people again having a sense of self responsibility? Okay, I hope everyone watching this believes that, because we need it badly as a society!

  5. MrTcuk

    January 4, 2018 12:38 am

    Narcissism can't be created in schools. It is an abuse that is generated at home. Trough self esteem can't be affected by external validation those people didn't have self esteem in first place.

  6. whatever noe

    February 9, 2018 11:18 am

    Gosh I’m feeling bad about myself as I loose my compassion towards that sound underneath her voice coming from her mouth movement ugh

  7. Nithisha jain

    February 17, 2018 6:59 pm

    Woooow. My way of seeing things changed after watching this video. Self compassion. Thank you so much. That lady is so positive. Could receive the good vibes.

  8. CleverCat

    February 25, 2018 10:01 pm

    I think putting people down to feel better about yourself is defiantly not confined to Western culture (of the necessity to feel above average.)

  9. Lady H. Wotton

    March 5, 2018 5:31 pm

    I respect Dr. Neff deeply. I loved her book about self-compassion, it changed my life. But I gotta be honest, her therapist-voice sets my teeth on edge.

  10. Mathew Wienbar

    March 7, 2018 2:29 am

    No to downplay the importance of self compassion, but she is mischaracterizing self esteem in this video. Self esteem is not a belief that you're better than others, it is belief that you are competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and that you are worthy of happiness. I think the self esteem movement that Dr. Nathaniel Branden started back in the day actually encompasses everything she's talking about here. Arrogance is a sign of low self esteem – her references to narcissism and self esteem are off base, people with high self esteem are happy being themselves and don't need to derive their happiness from feeling superior to others.

  11. Amparo Gonzalez

    March 8, 2018 1:33 am

    Do we need techniques and steps to find ourselves? Or maybe some silence is needed to be along with ourselves. I liked her "mindfulness" concept about being in the present.

  12. Blair Ashby

    April 16, 2018 6:34 pm

    Thank you Kristin Neff. This is a beautiful message. It's wonderful you're helping more people learn this.

  13. king nick

    April 23, 2018 8:18 am

    Ha! Speak for yourself. Lol my self esteem was crushed all the way threw high school. Not until 11th grade did I actually start to develop some self worth. However it was only because I lost weight and got a GF

  14. Clifton Torrence

    May 3, 2018 5:09 pm

    OK? OK? OK?? stop saying OK? asking OK? rhetorically is bargaining for unnecessary agreement. You Are Beautiful !

  15. Maria Laura Martina

    June 11, 2018 9:32 pm

    Thank you very much for this life enriching conference. Blessings from Argentina.

  16. Maria Panteli

    June 16, 2018 11:38 am

    To whom this may concern, can I translate the video from English to Greek? I am PhD student in Clinical Psychology.

  17. Kanako Premma

    August 12, 2018 6:37 am

    very nice !! I learn yoga for eating disorders. this idea is really good for body images and treating heart. Thank you Kristin.

  18. Abby Koop

    August 13, 2018 3:10 am

    Although there was a lot of great information here, I think she maybe isn't quite clear on what self-esteem really is. It has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else and certainly nothing to do with comparisons. Self-esteem is simply feeling good about yourself…no matter what. And it comes from SELF….not anyone else, and absolutely not from putting others down. In fact I thought it a bit ironic that to promote her idea of self-compassion, she felt a need to put down self-esteem. Both can work hand in hand.

  19. Ling Jin

    August 28, 2018 12:11 am

    Amazing talk, thank you Kristin! I am experiencing the problems you describe about self esteem and I am so glad to be aware enough to spot the scrip that has been unconsciously running in my head over the last few days! Your book is on my way and can't wait to read it. Thank you for your work, for sharing and for connecting us in the world x

  20. Ian Winter

    August 28, 2018 5:34 pm

    This cleared a lot of old fears for me. I realize the most important thing that I have never given myself or others at times is compassion. Thank you so much I love this video!

  21. Elhadj Diallo

    September 7, 2018 12:39 am

    to be frank with you , your episode sound Radical and phenomenal …. I wish you all the best in life …. will you marry baby even thought I don't know you ….

  22. Kaien Dragon

    September 21, 2018 3:19 pm

    That was seriously the best talk I've ever heard from TED Talks, really changed my perspective on self esteem and self compassion! Thank you Kristin!

  23. Aldo Gama

    October 11, 2018 9:12 am

    Watching again…and I Will watching How manuais times necessary. The concept of Self compassion it's Just magic

  24. Aldo Gama

    October 11, 2018 9:27 am

    Even on comments we can see the concept of focus on negative…With so many amazing concepts said, we focus un the whispering on background. Not judging, I swear ahaba Just observing

  25. Suzy Pyne

    November 1, 2018 7:53 pm

    Self-esteem is contingent on success.
    Self-compassion requires:
    Being as kind, gentle and encouraging to yourself as you would be to a good friend.
    Finding the common humanity – how am I the same as others?
    Mindfulness – acknowledge & validate what is there in the present moment.

    Self-criticism undermines motivation & may result in shutting down. However when we show ourselves compassion, when we feel safe & comforted we can find ourselves in the optimal mind state to do our best.
    Self-compassion is not self indulgent; the more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give to others.
    Thank you, Kristin.

  26. Curious Carpenter

    March 22, 2019 12:21 pm

    The critical voice in our heads comes from our immediate caregivers. We internalize the critical parent when we are very young… just because you have kids doesn't mean you're a good parent.

  27. Elaine L. Rosas

    April 7, 2019 6:51 pm

    I love this! I watch this over and over and every time I learn something new! Thank you so much for your research

  28. Jennifer Higgins

    April 8, 2019 3:07 am

    I can't get past the clicking and popping (like Rice Krispies) of whatever dentures or dry mouth issue she has. I'm missing out on the important message and much-needed information!!!!

  29. Doe 82

    April 30, 2019 5:17 am

    I recently self-harmed, and I knew I had to tell somebody, so I told my guidance counselor, and she told my dad. He was so supportive and kind about it, and didn't press too hard, but he gave me a book and told me about this video because I do have the toxic thoughts that I'm not good enough. I hope so badly this helps

  30. CG Berry

    May 10, 2019 10:10 pm

    I recommend this talk to many of my clients. Such an important concept in mental and physical health and happiness.

  31. Ave S

    May 17, 2019 7:18 pm

    My Psychologist suggested this. I am so grateful for your discussion. Compassion is so important. Thank you 💚✨

  32. D P

    May 25, 2019 9:34 am

    She's like Charlotte (sitc) crossed with Aunt Becky (full house) and this was everything that I needed to hear rn

  33. mrpopsful

    June 5, 2019 4:30 pm

    I would love to hear more about how the levels of narcissism in grads are being measured.

  34. Maggie Hess

    June 20, 2019 4:32 pm

    I didn't know there was an epidemic of narcissism. Wondering if narcissism frequently is found in the same person as low self esteem?

  35. figueiradafozzz

    June 21, 2019 7:40 am

    What if you know that your son's failing math rate is due to his choice to study very little and go out playing, against your suggestion?
    And: she's a very nice person and I thank her for such an important talk but seems to me she is quite stressed (very dry mouth), isn't she able to apply self-compassion in the first place? So how can we hope to be able to do it??? The theory is wonderful but how to really apply it?

  36. BlueHaze

    June 27, 2019 4:35 pm

    Luckily, we aren't just reptiles audience stares and starts to clap silently
    Um, editor? Are you okay?

  37. TSG

    August 4, 2019 3:35 pm

    She clearly doesn't understand the meaning of the word compassion. -Understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.
    How can you have "self-compassion" when there is no one else in the equation? 17:59 it is self-indulgent and selfish. Humility and accepting help and compassion from others is how we receive the help we need. If you are depleted you can't self generate any of the things needed. The prayer is, "give us this day our daily bread". It's asking for it from the Creator. That "daily bread" cannot come from our self.


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