Written by: Samantha Durfy, MA, MSW, RSW - Counsellor at the University of Guelph and Social Worker in private practice in Downtown Guelph
While training to become a social worker I was taught that low self-esteem was a defining feature of an eating disorder. Naturally, as I pursued my clinical career, I frequently targeted self-esteem in therapy; albeit with mixed results. Although low self-esteem is a part of many individuals’ eating disorders, the difficulty in targeting self-esteem in treatment is that self-esteem is often defined as seeing oneself positively, sometimes even defining oneself as special (Neff, 2011). For many folks with an eating disorder, they struggle to define themselves as unique or special outside of their eating disorder. Self-esteem is known to be related to positive psychological well-being; however, for individuals with eating disorders, the concept of defining oneself as “the best” directly contrasts how they view themselves. And for many of my clients, their strong feelings of shame impacts their ability to improve their self-definition as anything positive.
Due to the mixed results in therapy when attempting to target self-esteem, I began to encourage clients to pursue self-compassion instead of self-esteem. In contrast to self-esteem, “self‐compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one's shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself” (Neff and Vonk, 2008; Neff 2011). Self‐compassion does not entail self‐evaluation or comparisons with others, as the development of self-esteem often does. “Rather, self-compassion is a kind, connected, and clear‐sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection” (Neff 2011). Self-compassion acknowledges the human factor in all of us – that we make mistakes and that we are not perfect.
As outlined by Kristin Neff, an expert in the field, self-compassion entails three main components: “(a) self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical, (b) common humanity—perceiving one's experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them” (2010). Neff’s research demonstrates that self-compassion is an emotionally positive self-attitude that is known to protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination; all common struggles in the world of eating disorders. Research informs us that demonstrating acts of self-compassion is effective in improving self-worth. Self-compassion is known to be non-evaluative and interconnected in nature and therefore avoids tendencies towards narcissism, self-centeredness, and downward social comparison that have been associated with attempts to improving or maintaining self-esteem (Neff, 2010). “Self‐compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self‐esteem, but involves less self‐evaluation, ego‐defensiveness, and self‐enhancement than self‐esteem” (Neff, 2011).
As a therapist, one of my favourite self-compassion tools is to use the “best-friend technique”. This tool asks clients to offer compassion or kindness to a close friend or family member who may be going through something similar as them. I ask my clients to imagine themselves offering compassionate statements to their loved-ones. The next challenge is to transfer this compassion to themselves. Clients often find it easier to offer compassion to loved-ones, even strangers, versus to themselves. When a client struggles to transfer the compassionate statements they offered to their best-friend, we brainstorm the barriers or the blocks that prevent them from being compassionate to themselves. Often clients apply a different set of rules for themselves than for others, a higher set of standards, or they have developed such strong core-beliefs about themselves that the very act of being kind and compassionate feels wrong or uncomfortable. Together we process these blocks and help move the client to a closer space where they can be more kind. I frequently remind my clients that they are in fact human, which means that they will falter at times. Self-compassion helps us remember that to make mistakes does not condemn us to a life of less kindness or less love.
For anyone interested in learning more about self-compassion, I highly recommend the work of Kristin Neff. http://self-compassion.org/
Neff, Kristin D. September 2010. Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Health Attitude Toward Oneself. Journal of Self and Identity. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032
Neff, Kristin D. January 2011. Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Campus. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x
Neff, Kristin D. & Roos Vonk. December 2008. Self-Compassion Versus Global Self-Esteem: Two Different Ways of Relating to Oneself. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00537.x