Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the New England Transcendentalists, was very influential for me as a teenager. I have found many of his essays and aphorisms to be very useful, both personally and professionally. The one pearl I have gotten the most mileage out of is from his essay Love, written in 1841: “Each man sees over his own experience a stain of error, whilst that of other men looks fair and ideal.”
When we compare ourselves to others, we may feel better or worse. It may be more useful to minimize comparison and instead consider our connections to one another and all life forms on the planet if we are working toward building a healthier relationship to the self.
High self-esteem may be a detriment in some situations, leading to feelings of superiority, entitlement, and control over others. Conversely, many of us have a tendency to assess ourselves with the “stain of error” omnipresent, feeling somehow uniquely deficient and partnered with struggle more so than others.
It may also be useful to consider self-esteem as the moving target that it is. An individual may feel competent and worthy one day, and then have a shame and inferiority attack the next.
Self-compassion and self-acceptance may be more important stances for optimal living, more essential and useful than high self-esteem. Current research supports this orientation, notably that of Kristen Neff at the University of Texas at Austin and Juliana Breines and Serena Chen from the University of California at Berkeley.
The roots of self-compassion may lie in early parental/caregiver interaction and treatment. Many clients who have experienced abuse, abandonment, and neglect have asked me how they will effectively cope with life’s challenges, when they are missing the important building block of compassion from their caregivers and have had their personhood violated in some way.
If your childhood did not produce conditions for healthy self-regard and self-acceptance to take root, consider the opportunities to parent yourself in a nurturing way. A skilled psychotherapist or life coach can be extremely useful as a guide in this endeavor. One of the beauties of modern psychotherapy is a skills-based approach to many of life’s thorniest issues. The ability actually to resculpt the brain through focused attention and practice is a beacon of hope for all of us, including those who have suffered childhood abuse and neglect.
Building a healthier sense of self-acceptance and compassion is a work in progress. Cultivating awareness is the first step in any process of human evolution. Simply labeling thoughts and emotions may provide a layer of detachment that lowers reactivity. A receptive and non-judgmental attitude may assist in cultivating a neutral stance of self-acceptance. Directing your attention to the present moment helps keep you out of time travel, with its attendant anxiety for the future and regret about the past.
Adaptation to individual needs is essential when formulating productive strategies for change. Someone with a higher sense of self-esteem may feel empowered and strengthened by repeating positive affirmations, and someone starting with a lower self-esteem may feel worse.
Since compassion is a state of empathic connection with others’ suffering, self-compassion puts you in a state of empathy with your own suffering and challenges. You assist yourself the same way you would another person.
Kristen Neff has a self-compassion test on her website which can provide some clarity if you are wanting to explore the concept in a more personal way.
Self-compassion is not pity. Pity generally is compassion minus the motivation to take action and assist. Some people believe that having compassion for themselves will make them slackers, giving themselves a free pass for every error or perceived transgression. Breines’ and Chen’s research suggests that having self-compassion does not make one less motivated, but actually enhances motivation to improve.
Another important element in the journey of self-acceptance and compassion may be considering a larger perspective than your own personal culture, family of origin, history, and experiences. Intrinsic worth is a useful concept to consider, particularly when our culture often puts a price tag on worth.
The world’s religions and spiritual philosophies all contain some version of the concept of intrinsic worth. This worth is not based on external circumstances. It does not have to be earned or won. It exists in your core.
Another way to consider the premise may be that one is worthy by nature of being born on the planet and having a right to a place or seat for that time on Earth. Whatever works for the individual is key. Factoring in the concept of being worthy as a human being provides potential fuel for greater self-acceptance and worth.
Max Ehrmann wrote the poem Desiderata in 1927, and it became popular in the early 1970s in the United States. Consider the concept of intrinsic worth in the following verse:
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
In times of struggle, in addition to practicing self-acceptance and compassion, challenge yourself to check in with the concept of intrinsic worth. Claim your right to be here, to be the authentic you, with all your strengths, flaws, and shared humanity. The stain of error doesn’t stand a chance.
Emerson, R. W. (1854). Essays: First Series. Phillips, Sampson.
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.
Ehrmann, M. (1948). The desiderata of happiness: A collection of philosophical poems.