Why Successful People Choose Self-Compassion Over Self-Esteem

Woman looking confidently relaxed at her work desk

For the last ten years, I’ve been fascinated by confidence – how to gain it, raise it, and maintain it. This interest comes from my own struggles with insecurity, self-compassion and learning to manage life as someone who is a deep thinker and feeler.

I began noticing a trend among my coaching clients. Despite being intelligent and successful, they shared similar doubts like:

  • “I’m not keeping up in my career.”
  • “No matter how hard I work, it never seems to be enough.”
  • “I want to start a business, but I’m scared of looking silly.”

This kind of self-doubt is common when you’re trying to go after big goals, whether in your career or personal life. It’s that inner voice telling you “you’re not good enough” or “this won’t work.”

I’ve felt this too. The voice that warns that if you stop pushing, you’ll lose everything – your status, income, and more.

Often, we’re told to ignore these doubts and just work harder. But this voice isn’t entirely wrong. Ignoring your weaknesses can lead to problems, like unrealistic overconfidence.

The great news is, you can be ambitious and find peace. This comes from developing self-compassion, rather than constantly chasing higher self-esteem.

Why Chasing Self-Esteem Doesn’t Lead to Confidence

Self-esteem is all about how you feel about yourself, both the good and the bad, and how you think others see and value you. It’s influenced by your perception of how the outside world views you.

To keep your self-esteem high, you have to constantly compare yourself to others. This endless comparison is stressful. It triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response, as though you’re under attack, but it’s all happening in your mind and emotions.

For high-achievers, there’s even more at stake. If you’ve found success, there’s pressure to keep up the image of being capable and efficient. Any mistake, setback, or imperfection can feel like a huge failure, rather than a normal part of growing. When you rely too much on achievements, approval, or compliments for your self-esteem, it becomes unstable, fluctuating up and down based on what’s happening around you.

A lot of people try to boost their confidence by being hard on themselves, thinking things like “I should be doing better” or “I need to be further along by now.” If you’re someone who sets very high standards for yourself, your self-criticism can be pretty harsh. For instance, growing up, I constantly criticized myself for not doing better than an A, always thinking “I should have gotten an A+.” This is a common issue among top students: they achieve a lot but still struggle internally. Psychologists call this the “Duck Syndrome” – looking calm on the surface but frantically trying to keep up underneath. Your achievements might look impressive to others, but inside, you’re dealing with a lot of stress.

This habit of self-criticism as a way to motivate often starts early in life, based on messages you get from school, society, or your upbringing. However, this kind of negative self-talk isn’t a great motivational tool.

In her book The Willpower Instinct, Stanford’s Kelly McGonigal highlights that a lot of research shows self-criticism usually leads to less motivation and poorer self-control. It actually puts your brain in a kind of ‘stop’ mode, making it harder to take steps towards your goals.

Also, it turns out that self-esteem might not be the great confidence booster we’ve always thought it was. After the big push for self-esteem in the 80s and 90s, a comprehensive review found no solid evidence that high self-esteem leads to better grades, career success, or healthier lives.

Seeing these negatives of self-esteem and self-criticism, psychologists began looking for a better approach. Now, more and more studies are suggesting that self-compassion could be the key to resilience and emotional strength.

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is like being a good friend to yourself. Think about a time when you supported a friend, helped a colleague, or comforted a child. You probably showed empathy, not pity, and recognized that life can be tough and imperfect. Self-compassion is about treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion at the University of Texas Austin, describes it in this way:

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings — after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

Self-compassion, as Dr. Kristin Neff explains, involves three main aspects:

1. Self-Kindness: This means being as supportive to yourself as you would be to a close friend or family member.

2. Common Humanity: This is about realizing that making mistakes and facing hardships is a normal part of life for everyone. It’s an understanding that you’re not alone in your struggles.

3. Mindfulness: This involves being aware of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It’s about being present and accepting your emotions, even the negative ones, without labeling them as good or bad.

Unlike self-esteem, which is focused on how you rate yourself positively or negatively, self-compassion is about accepting yourself as you are right now. It’s about embracing all your thoughts, emotions, and reactions without judging them. It means understanding that your inner critic is trying to help but choosing to guide your self-talk in a kind, not harsh, way.

Why should you develop more self-compassion? Because it’s effective. It leads to higher confidence, increased resilience, and genuine growth in your capabilities.

Does Self-Compassion Work?

Self-compassion offers a range of benefits for mental health and personal achievement, including:

– Reduced depression, anxiety, and overthinking.

– Better handling of tough emotions.

– Increased feelings of happiness, wisdom, and a sense of connection with others.

– More optimism.

– A higher likelihood of taking initiative.

For high-achievers, this last point is crucial: people who practice self-compassion are more likely to take action and achieve their goals. Studies have found that fostering self-compassion helps people stick to diets, quit smoking, and find genuine enjoyment in exercising.

There’s a common myth that self-compassion might dampen motivation, making people complacent or less driven. In reality, the opposite is true. Being kind to yourself is linked to emotional toughness. Self-compassionate people are less afraid of failure and more likely to pick themselves up and try again after setbacks.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

Developing more self-compassion can be a game-changer, and it’s something we can all benefit from. Here are some effective ways to enhance your self-compassion:

1. Watch how often you use words like “always,” “should,” and “never,” which often signal self-criticism. Becoming more aware of your self-talk is the first step towards creating a more balanced inner dialogue. Aim to transform negative self-talk into something more supportive, a key aspect of self-compassion that can help manage stress better.

2. Give yourself a do-over. Think about a recent situation where you were hard on yourself, like sending an email to the wrong person or making a work error. Reflect on how a self-compassionate response would look different. This process, known as cognitive reappraisal, involves considering what you’d say to a friend who made the same mistake.

3. Write a letter to yourself. Research shows that writing a compassionate letter to yourself can significantly reduce distress and boost happiness for up to six months. Focus on something you’re not happy with about yourself and write with acceptance, understanding, and encouragement. Imagine you’re a loved one who cares about you deeply – what would they say to you?

If you’re not into journaling, tools like FutureSelf can be a great alternative. They allow you to process your hopes, dreams, and fears in a kinder, more self-compassionate way. Remember, practicing self-compassion is a journey, and these steps can help you make meaningful progress.

4. Learning to stabilize your emotions is also key when working on being kinder to yourself. Neff refers to the emotional upheaval that can happen during this process as “backdrafting.” You might recall past hurts or rejections, and fears may surge. It’s crucial to avoid reverting to self-criticism as motivation. Instead, observe your reactions from a distance. Psychologist Tara Brach developed a mindfulness technique called RAIN for this purpose. According to her article in Mindful Magazine, RAIN involves:

Stabilizing also means reminding yourself to use realistic and healthy self-talk. Shift your perspective. Practice gratitude. Remember times you’ve overcome challenges. Appreciate life’s small joys, like a warm hug, a clear blue sky, or your favorite scent.

Developing Self-Compassion is a Skill

I’ve learned to reframe my thoughts as a strategy to recognize unhelpful narratives and listen to my inner voice without falling into self-judgment. But like everyone, I have my moments of struggle. Remember, being human is part of self-compassion!

While patience and understanding are crucial, self-compassion also involves responsibility and a firm yet gentle approach. It’s not about excusing yourself from accountability. It’s about realizing that accepting and understanding yourself is much more effective than self-loathing, especially when it comes to achieving big goals.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers break free from imposter syndrome and overthinking so they can find the confidence to lead effectively.


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