- Self-esteem and self-compassion play roles in well-being.
- Self-esteem builds from achieving rewards and avoiding punishments.
- Self-compassion involves self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
If you want to feel better about yourself, should you try improving your self-esteem or self-compassion? A journal article published on August 3, 2023, "A Narrative Review and Meta-Analysis on Their Links to Psychological Problems and Well-Being," can help answer that question.
Both self-concepts are assumed to play roles in well-being, which research supports. And both can be seen as relationships with the self.
History shows that the concept is complex. The authors, Muris and Otgaar, highlight existing perspectives regarding the function of self-esteem. For example:
- Self-value already exists within and that prompts motivation to meet full potential.
- Self-esteem builds from achieving rewards and avoiding punishments (basically earning it as you go).
- Self-esteem is driven by building our place within our worldview that calms fears about not existing. (Think about “leaving a legacy”).
- Self-esteem evolves as social value is reflected (e.g., signs of social rejection and acceptance from others).
Yet “whether conceiving self-esteem as a vehicle of motivation, a buffer against the fear of death, or a social thermometer, all these functional accounts align with the notion that the construct has a positive nature and hence may promote psychological well-being and protect against mental health problems.” The effects of higher (positive) and low (negative) self-esteem have been well-researched throughout the years.
On a day-to-day basis, many of us likely feel our self-esteem wavers. Yet according to the authors, we can probably relax about variations in self-esteem. There’s a steadiness when viewed over time.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion can be conceptualized as how a person relates to themselves while experiencing personal challenges. Per Neff, the leader of self-compassion science, it’s comprised of three elements (2011). Quotes from selfcompassion.org follow:
- Self-kindness vs. Self-Judgment. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.
- Common Humanity vs. Isolation. Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than something that happens to “me” alone.
- Mindfulness vs. Overidentification. Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.
According to Muris and Otgaar’s research, the function is likely complicated. For example, self-compassion may stem from something evolutionary. Compassion for others elicits bonding and survival of the species. Self-reflection allows for self-compassion in times of strife. Also, self-compassion enables people “to effectively cope with such emotional dysregulation, ensuring their full participation in social life.”
- Both self-esteem and self-compassion have significant research backing the positive benefits of healthy amounts. (Though self-esteem has more research than self-compassion at this time.)
- Both can feel fluid–easier or harder–at different times. Yet self-esteem and self-compassion are likely steady—like traits—when viewed over time.
- There’s considerable overlap in the nuances of the two concepts and they may be considered complementary to each other (one adds to the other or boosts the other, and so on).
- Pursuing either can have a positive impact on a person’s well-being.
Self-esteem interventions can involve thinking positively about oneself, which can be especially difficult for some people. Self-compassion targets kindness, humanity, and mindfulness. Though also tricky for many, these can be more easily achievable than what can feel like self-praise. A study by Barbau and colleagues (2022) supports that phenomenon.
To me, self-esteem focuses on an intrinsic sense or the results of self-assessment, meaning “my evaluation of my worth as a human being.” And self-compassion seems inherently action-oriented, meaning “I could utilize whatever compassion I have to get through this.”
Finally, one of the two is commonly perceived to hold risk. Concern about attaining “too much” self-esteem and becoming narcissistic exists. However, Muris and Otgaar address this and assure readers that this is not typically a realistic risk.
Which is Better?
In their research, the authors theoretically explored both concepts and analyzed 76 articles. They concluded that “no evidence was obtained to support the claim that self-compassion has more potential as a positive-protective variable than self-esteem.” So it seems that which is better for you might be personal.
- Which appeals to you most
- Which you are more deficient in
- Which is easiest for you
- Which you want more of
Maybe ask yourself how you value or rate yourself. Then ask yourself how much compassion you give to yourself for your weaknesses. This exercise might point to which can serve your well-being the most.
What Can I Do to Increase Either?
It's important to know what science says. It’s equally (or perhaps more) important to understand how to bring research and academics into practical reality. That said, Muris and Otgaar's article provides an informative list of approaches that offer promise, have research behind them, or are considered evidence-based.
For targeting self-esteem:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Reminiscence-based therapy
- Evaluative conditioning
- Support groups
- Art therapy
- Positive psychology
For targeting self-compassion:
- Compassion-focused therapy
- Mindful self-compassion
- Cognitively based compassion training
Instead of "Which is better, self-esteem or self-compassion?" it might be strongest to ask, "Which is better for me?" If you feel low in either self-compassion or self-esteem, there’s always hope and ways to grow. Try either and see how you feel. Since they seem to build and bounce off each other, start with which appears the most realistically achievable to and for you.
Finally, and on a selfish note, I must introduce self-acceptance here. It’s another self-concept that could someday, I believe, compete with these others in helping people to live the contented, fulfilling lives they want. But at this time, there’s not a lot of scientific research on it. To read more about how it might boost well-being, please see "For Higher Well-Being, Try Self-Acceptance" and "Poor Self-Esteem? Try Self-Acceptance."
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Barbeau, K., Guertin, C., Boileau, K., & Pelletier, L. (2022). The Effects of Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem Writing Interventions on Women’s Valuation of Weight Management Goals, Body Appreciation, and Eating Behaviors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 46(1), 82–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/03616843211013465
Muris, P., & Otgaar, H. (2023). Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion: A Narrative Review and Meta-Analysis on Their Links to Psychological Problems and Well-Being. Psychology research and behavior management, 16, 2961–2975. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S402455
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. HarperCollins.