Identity, Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion

Developing self-compassion is helpful to good mental health and contributes to a stable sense of identity.

Your sense of identity has to do with who you think you are and how you perceive yourself. It’s about how you define yourself.

Self-esteem is how you value yourself. It has to do with your sense of self-worth and is often based on comparisons with others.

Self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself with kindness, even when things are going badly and you’re not performing so well. It gives you resilience and flexibility.

Research indicates that self-compassion is an effective tool for mental wellbeing, more so than self-esteem. You can read more about self-compassion.

The Difficulty With Low Self-Esteem

People with low self-esteem tend to depend on others for cues that they are OK. They are more likely to be influenced by others. If someone rejects them in some way or criticizes them, they react more strongly, tend to take things more personally and are hurt more deeply.

It’s normal to be affected to a degree by the way others treat us. Learn to practice self-compassion, as this allows your hurt feelings to pass while you maintain a strong sense of self.

Should You Boost Your Self-Esteem?

Current wisdom is that self-compassion works better than trying to boost self-esteem. For years we were under the impression that the antidote to a nasty internal voice was a big ego. I have the curliest eyelashes… I am a better parent than the slobs next door… I beat all the other idiots for the ‘most caring person’ award! I am good at crochet!

Propping up your self-esteem in this way doesn’t work so well, as you’ll know if you crave ever more ‘likes’ and ‘friends’ on your social networks. Your nervous system knows you’re kidding yourself when you assure the world you’re great. When you have to be better than others, your ‘comparing mind’ goes in overdrive and you miss out on a genuine connection with fellow humans. Any benefits you reap from an ego boost are fragile and short-lived. Even Olympic champions eventually get beaten by another Olympic champion. We all need more to life than performance.

With self-compassion, your kindness to yourself is a given. It doesn’t rely on your last extraordinary accomplishment. You don’t have to justify your existence. You are a lovable person when you have excelled, and you are the same lovable person when you encounter failures. This means you don’t need to constantly do better than others, or better than your last best, in order to feel good.

What to do About Low Self-Esteem and Low Mental Wellbeing

If you have depression, body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, you will benefit from learning to practice self-compassion. At the same time, attend to your body’s needs, as these are crucial to your mental health. If you have an eating disorder, you most probably need the support of a specialist to help you with this. Malnutrition, insufficient body weight, disordered eating and weight loss are likely to make you emotionally vulnerable, depressed, anxious and down on yourself. With therapies that prioritize nutritional restoration, such as family-based treatment, mood and wellbeing rise even before any particular focus on psychotherapy.

In short, if you have an eating disorder and suffer from a poor sense of identity, poor self-esteem and poor mental health, seek expert help to:

  • Get restored nutritionally
  • Learn self-compassion practices


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Additional Reading:

Kristin Neff has led the main research on self-compassion. Read “Why We Should Stop Chasing Self-Esteem and Start Developing Self-Compassion.”  Or watch the video “Stop chasing self-esteem & just be self-compassionate.”

More on the psychological improvements from nutritional restoration: Sarah Ravin: “Weight Gain Predicts Psychological Improvement in Anorexia Nervosa

Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery: Dealing with that Pesky Internal Critic

Updated – 2019