Watch and read the full transcript of Professor Kristin Neff’s TEDx Talk: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion at TEDxCentennialParkWomen conference.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Kristin Neff – Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin
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 10 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’ve 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. And I was going through a really hard time. I had just gotten out of a very messy divorce, was feeling a lot of shame and self judgment. I was feeling a lot of stress: would I finish my PhD and then 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 to 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, the self-esteem didn’t.
All right. So 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 am I bad a 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, right? So in American culture to have high self-esteem we have to feel special and above average. OK, if I told anyone of you, your work performance, oh it’s average, or you’re an average mother, or if you told me afterwards that this talk was average, I’d be crashed, right? It’s not OK 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 to you, right? OK, so what happens if we all have to feel above average as we start playing these little games, we start suddenly finding ways to puff ourselves up and to put others down, so you 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. Well, 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 – it’s contingent on success. We only feel good about ourselves when we succeed in those domains of life that are important to us. Well, 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? Right? Our perception of how attractive we are, and the standards for women are so high — how can we feel above average in looks when looking at all these super models? Even the supermodels feel insecure compared to other supermodels, right?
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. And 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, the perception of how attractive they are and therefore their self-esteem starts to take a nosedive. OK, starts very young.