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Grace is the Word
Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem
Grace. It’s not a word that I’ve used much in life. Sure, I have used expressions like “The ballerina danced gracefully”, and read “He remained in good graces with the authorities”. I also had a colleague once named Grace. But beyond that, nada. Zilch.
And then, sometime in October, I remember hearing the expression, “I gave myself some grace…” It was uttered by Catherine, a coaching colleague of mine.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Grace is the space,” she began, kindly explaining, “to give yourself permission to be less than your ideal self.” Whoa! Indeed, my life would have been very different had grace been an active part of my vocabulary in that manner. In a sense, grace is self-forgiveness. Others might call it self-compassion.
It is something worth cultivating within each of us. Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading researchers in self-compassion, explains why: “In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves?”1 One might also add, “In this incredibly competitive and individualistic society…” We often have the need to stand out, because if we aren’t standing out in some excellent way, we feel our lives lack meaning. We lack self-worth.
This tendency can cause us to become extremely sensitive to even the slightest criticism. It may tempt us to find fault in others in order to mask our own. Or, should we come face-to-face with our own faults, we may drown in a sea of self-criticism, self-pity, and self-flagellation. This toxic stew, which many of us have known from a young age, does the opposite of what we think it does. Believing it to be the corrective force necessary to right our sinking ship, it actually serves to plunge it further into the abyss. Our self-criticism leads us to feel more inadequate, and we become more sensitive to any future situations in which our self-worth may be questioned.
And question it we will. Proving one’s self-worth in a competitive and individualistic society leaves us depending on external circumstances, often far beyond our control. It turns colleagues into competition. Heck, it will introduce jealousy and insecurity into otherwise seemingly stable marriages. We need to come out on top, all in an effort to boost our self-esteem. This is why self-esteem has fallen from favor in recent years amongst scholars.
Self-compassion, Neff says, “is the perfect alternative”.2 It can be defined as the art of being ok with our own imperfections. It, too, protects our self-worth while having none of the drawbacks of self-esteem. With self-compassion, we need not wage a war of comparison between ourselves and others. We do not need to come out as equal or better. This frees us from so much insecurity, defensiveness, and hostility. As such, it promotes improved relationships with others. It enables us to accept ourselves as imperfect beings, which ironically is the first step towards becoming the better self we long to be. Therefore, the practice of self-compassion is one that benefits ourselves, as well as all who come into contact with us.
For this reason, it is a skill well worth developing. Therefore, I am quite happy to spend these next few weeks exploring it with you. If you are curious, Dr. Neff has created a self-assessment, so you can get a feel for where your present level of self-compassion stands. And should you find your score not where you’d hoped it would be, remember that word grace, and take the opportunity to give some to yourself. You’ll be starting our discussion on the right foot. And as Catherine would also say, “Yay, you!”
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff