“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”   -Buddha

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   -The Gospel of Mark

Compassion, or the deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the desire to alleviate it, is in our nature. It is hard-wired into the brain so that we tend to our babies when they cry, or help an elderly person cross the street, or feel sad when our family members have a bad day. It is also something that can be consciously developed. All the world religions encourage us to be more loving–even to our enemies–and to practice kindness through acts of service.

Most of us have been taught far less about the importance of having compassion for ourselves. A newly emerging set of research studies have demonstrated that having self-compassion has many benefits. These include reducing self-criticism, lowering stress hormones, increasing our capacity to comfort ourselves, increasing our resiliency in the face of life’s challenges, and helping us heal from difficult childhoods.

A person high in self-compassion sees his or her problems, weaknesses, and shortcomings accurately, yet reacts with kindness and compassion rather than with harsh judgment. What exactly is self-compassion and how is it different from self-esteem?

First, in order to have self-compassion, you need to start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly. Are you aware of what you are thinking, feeling and doing at any given time? Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Do you know how others see you and would describe you? People with high levels of self-compassion are not full of themselves. They are aware of the parts of themselves that they value as well as the parts of themselves that they don’t like as much.

Self-compassion is not simply high self-esteem and, in fact, has some crucial differences. The field of psychology has recently awakened to the realization that simply increasing our kids self-esteem through constant praise has actually created some serious problems in our culture.

Baumeister and colleagues summarized what are now considered the myths of self-esteem’s benefits. High self-esteem does not improve school or job performance, increase leadership skills or prevent kids from smoking, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in early sex. In fact, bullies are just as likely to have high self-esteem as others.

The other difference between self-compassion and self-esteem is that self-compassion makes us feel connected and empathic with other people, whereas self-esteem is often achieved by inaccurate comparisons of ourselves with others. If we see ourselves as better than everyone else, this tends to create interpersonal distance and separation that undermines feeling connected. Those with self-esteem without compassion need to feel superior to others just to feel okay about themselves.

Research shows that people with high self-esteem often judge themselves as funnier, more talented, better looking, nicer, or more intelligent than others. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, speaks eloquently to the rise of narcissism among American kids today, arguing that the emphasis placed on self-esteem was the responsible culprit.

Self-compassion means that you are kind to yourself especially in the face of defeat or suffering. Instead of doing the tough grin-and-bear-it routine, you can be gentle with yourself. You don’t call yourself bad names, put yourself down, or obsess about what you would have, should have or could have done. Self-compassion is associated with keeping the situation in perspective, rather than believing that you are a loser or bad person when you believe that you might have handled the situation better.

Part of self-compassion is the ability to see yourself as a fallible human being who is not, in the final analysis, very different from anyone else on the planet. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes and suffers failures. Just as every child falls off their bike a hundred times while learning, everyone has both strengths and weaknesses. We are not alone in our ineptitude. This awareness gives us a better perspective about our personal shortcomings.

People with self-compassion are able to accept responsibility for their role in negative events. At the same time, they are less likely to keep obsessing about mistakes or to feel terrible or get defensive when confronted with their shortcomings.

Do you wish that you could cultivate more compassion for yourself and for others? Do you want to teach your kids about compassion? More on the “how to” will follow…