You Don't Need High Self-Esteem. You Need High Self-Compassion. No, they're not the same. Self-esteem is finicky. Self-compassion is not.
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Say you're unveiling a new product to a group of investors. Meeting-wise, it's as important as they get. Your team has been prepping this launch for months, and now, it's go-time. Things are going pretty well, until suddenly, you space on a key metric — one you know you know; one you've always recalled with ease. But now, when it matters, it's nowhere to be found. You can feel the investors' judgment, and panic starts to well up in your chest. No two ways around it: You are blowing this.
You soldier on, but once it's over, you know the meeting did not go well. Time passes. A week later, you think about the meeting again. How do you feel? Are you right back in that meeting, reddening with shame all over? Beating yourself up for what a colossal, idiotic failure you are? Or do you accept that what happened was human? A lapse in memory that happens to even the best of us?
The latter response is an example of self-compassion. Unfortunately for many people, this isn't their go-to way of handling failures or setbacks. Far more common is the first response: Relentlessly reliving the scene in your mind until shame has driven you to curl up on the floor.
A lot of people were raised on the idea that we need high self-esteem to be happy and successful. But what if instead, we focused on self-compassion? Let's look at the difference between the two, and what either has to do with being an entrepreneur.
What is self-esteem?
According to psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self-esteem is defined by "our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves." Research on self-esteem tends to ask participants to rank statements like "I feel that I'm a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others."
The problem with regarding yourself in relation to others is that it creates a sense of self that's incredibly fragile. "Self-esteem is contingent on success and people liking you, so it is not very stable — you could have it on a good day but lose it on a bad day," Neff tells BBC Worklife.
Having low self-esteem creates obvious problems, like depression and low motivation. But high-self esteem can be just as toxic. Neff points out that in Western culture, we stake much of our identities on standing out or being perceived as special. Because being average is tantamount to failure, people with high self-esteem tend to lash out when their confidence is threatened, which it inevitably is at some point. They are also prone to ignoring or distorting their shortcomings, which makes personal growth unlikely.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion, in contrast, has nothing to do with other people or how you compare to them. Unlike self-esteem, it's about treating yourself the same way you'd treat anyone else you care about — which is to say, with understanding and kindness.
As Neff puts it, "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?"
Not only is no one supposed to be perfect, no one is perfect. And more importantly, no one ever will be. Bearing that in mind, here are three essential components of self-compassion:
Self-compassion means being understanding toward ourselves when we hit an obstacle. Being imperfect and failing is inevitable. Reacting with kindness in the face of disappointment means you'll approach setbacks with a sense of mental calm, rather than with anger and frustration.
As much as it feels like failure is personal, it's a completely universal experience. Embracing a sense of humanity means understanding that suffering and feeling less-than is something we all go through. You're not alone.
When negative emotions arise, it helps to try to have some perspective. Mindfulness allows you to look at these thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, observing them without judgment. This makes it easier to separate yourself from your emotions, which keeps you from getting swept up in them.
How does this apply to entrepreneurs?
The stereotypical entrepreneur rises early, grinds endlessly and is propelled to the top of Techcrunch on a geyser of caffeine and high blood pressure. Being hard on ourselves is the only way to accomplish what we need to, we think.
But being overly self-critical does more harm than good. As Alice Boyes writes in Harvard Business Review, "We wrongly assume that criticism will motivate us to do better." On the contrary, research shows that self-criticism causes the brain to enter a state of inhibition, leading to decreased motivation and lower self-control. By encouraging our inner drill sergeants, "we raise our standards for our behavior as a defense against our feelings of doubt, anxiety, or frustration," Boyes says.
High-achievers often find themselves in a precarious position, writes author and social worker Melody Wilding, because they "may perceive any mistake, setback, or flaw as a failure, rather than a natural consequence of growth."
At least, that's the hazard when you tie your sense of worth to your self-esteem. There's a common misconception that self-compassion is the enemy of motivation; that showing yourself kindness and gentleness will make you lazy and kill your competitive edge.
But that's not true, explains Wilding, writing that "self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional resilience. Self-compassionate people fear failure less, and when they do face setbacks, they are more likely to try again." Self-compassionate people are also more likely to reach their goals. One study found that practicing self-compassion helps people stick to diets, quit smoking and find exercising for fun motivating.
It's not easy to rewire the way we regard ourselves. I've been CEO of Jotform for years, and for the majority of that time, I've approached my goals with an "all or nothing" mindset. But recently, I've been working on trying to be more accepting. Rather than berating myself for an awkward Zoom call, I remind myself that everyone is awkward on Zoom. If I'm stressing over whether I gave the right feedback, I reframe: I gave the best feedback that I could with the information that I had.
If the goal is to be the best and most successful version of ourselves we can be, the way to get there isn't through a constant barrage of self-flagellation. It's by giving ourselves the same acceptance, grace and room to grow that we would extend to anyone else.