The worst enemy lies within yourself.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Why am I so harsh on myself?
I’m asked this question way too often from both readers and people who attend my workshops — self-reflection makes them realize they are ruthless on themselves.
From leadership gurus to the media – even dentists – everyone tries to trick us into this confidence nonsense. You have to look good and feel good to conquer the world, they tell you.
What’s driving everyone anxious is this: no matter how hard you try, no matter how successful you are, no matter how good you are — it’s never enough.
The “be more confident” advice is hurting us — the more we try to boost our confidence, the more damage we cause.
Stretching beyond your comfort zone is one thing; being harsh on yourself is another. Not understanding the difference between the two hinders your potential as well as your relationships.
The Self-esteem Trap Is Dangerous
Our culture is rooted in high self-esteem — you have to be special, unique, and above average.
This pressure is false pretentious. By trying to become special in the eyes of others, we turn acceptance into a moving target. We never fulfill other people’s expectations, neither our own.
Self-esteem is a deceiving trap — once you get caught, it’s almost impossible to set yourself free.
We are experiencing a narcissism epidemic — we are rewarding and promoting vanity more than ever. American academics Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell found that narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present.
It’s not surprising that selfies have become mainstream — people prefer to see themselves that the place they are visiting. Who cares about the Taj Mahal? We want to make sure our faces are visible to others.
There’s nothing wrong about selfies — the narcissistic trap is the problem.
People used to take pictures to remember what they saw. Today, most take selfies to remember how they looked in others’ eyes — they want reassurance that someone was paying attention to them.
A culture that encourages narcissistic self-confidence does anything but help us succeed. The need to win at all costs pushes people to cheat at school, sports, or work — they end up deceiving themselves too.
Overconfidence is the most dangerous consequence of the confidence trap.
It forces you to compare to others: instead of becoming your own standard, you let others define what you should care about. Continuous comparisons create the two most poisonous emotions: envy and jealousy.
It blinds you: when we feel overconfident, we stop listening to other points of view — our perspective is the only one we pay attention to.
You overestimate your abilities: the desire to overpower others takes over. Arrogance is a punch you don’t see coming — it unexpectedly knocks you out.
You measure yourself by your appearance: the ‘me-ness’ cult makes us focus on the outside. We believe that looking good will make us feel more confident. Research shows that self-appreciation is directly linked to one’s beauty, especially among women.
The worst part? Self-esteem is contingent on success — when things go wrong, you feel miserable.
The pressure is way too hard —most people believe they need permission to be kind and compassionate to themselves.
Self-compassion Beats Self-confidence Anytime
“Kindness is not just about how you treat others; it’s rooted in how you treat yourself.” — Londro Rinzler
Pursuing self-esteem is directly linked to anxiety and depression disorders.
Research shows that we tend to see ourselves through others’ eyes — especially when we are teenagers. A study by psychologist and educator David Elkind describes how the ‘imaginary audience’ reflects adolescents’ limited abilities to differentiate between their own thoughts about themselves and what other people think about them— they often imagine an engrossed audience observing them.
This exaggerated sense of being ‘on stage’ all the time results in heightened self-consciousness and harsher self-criticism. This pressure leads to a sense of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
Self-esteem is about comparing one’s abilities with others, resulting in an evaluation or judgment (often negative). Self-compassion is about being open and moved by one’s experiences and feelings — it’s a nonjudgmental view of our ‘self’ (both our wins and failures).
Self-confidence arises out of fear — we create a perfect mask to protect ourselves from others. Self-compassion appears out of love — we appreciate who we indeed are.
Self-compassion is anything but being weak.
Research led by Madeleine Ferrari from the Australian Catholic University in Sydney discovered that self-compassion protects perfectionists from depression.
Conversely, “study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control,” says Kelly McGonigal. It shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, preventing us from taking action to reach our goals, the Stanford professor explains in her book The Willpower Instinct.
Being harsh on oneself is cowardice — it’s easier to punish yourself than to learn to accept your whole self (flaws included).
There is a need within our culture to understand, study, and cultivate self-acceptance and kindness. Our lack of self-compassion is “not our fault,” according to Paul Gilbert. In his book The Compassionate Mind, he explains how our compassionate skills are biological, inherited, conditioned, and learned.
Thousands of years ago, people had to be on guard for threats and danger — their brains were hard-wired for alertness and self-protection. How you’ve been raised determines your relationship with self-compassion too. The author discusses how traumatic experiences and earlier developmental life challenges also affect our brain functions.
The good news is that we can train and rewire our brains to be more self-compassionate.
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
“When you’re in the trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?” — Kristin Neff
Most everyone desires to possess high self-esteem — they believe their happiness depends on it. Self-esteem is the enemy within; it encourages you to see yourself in terms of good or bad.
We wrongfully think that self-criticism will drive us into action. However, when we are harsh on ourselves, we become both the attacker and the attacked, as Dr. Kristin Neff explains. The ‘self-compassion’ expert believes that having a more objective reality is more effective.
As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said: “Acknowledging the problems and coming to terms with them is often the foundation for a long-term friendship. Since you know all the negative aspects, you don’t have to hide from that side of the relationship (with yourself).”
Compassion is your ally, especially during harsh times.
Researchers at UC Berkeley wanted to see how self-compassion would affect students’ behaviors after poorly performing a test. Each student was allowed to study as long as they wanted. Before they received the materials, one group was given a message purposefully crafted to encourage a compassionate mindset.
The ‘self-compassionate’ group studied 33.3% longer than the other groups and performed much better when retaking the test.
Being self-compassionate is like fresh oxygen to your mind.
Dr. Neff’s research shows that compassionate acts towards ourselves or others release the ‘feel-good’ hormones. Increased levels of oxytocin strongly trigger feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness.
To take care of others, you have to put on your oxygen mask first — you can’t truly love other people if you don’t love yourself.
How to Build Self-Compassion
“Compassion constitutes the base of human survival, it’s what makes human lives valuable and meaningful.” — Dalai Lama
Compassion is the integration of the mind-made evident. When you are kind to yourself, all the pieces fall in the right place.
Embrace ‘unconditional self-acceptance:’
Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, coined this term to refer to a basic yet often missed truth — we are less than perfect. Accepting that you are a fallible human being is the first step towards coming to terms with yourself.
Unconditional self-acceptance is not the easy way out; it’s the first step to healthily pursuing self-betterment.
Accept that sometimes you’ll perform well, but you will also err and fail. You are the sum of all your parts — not just the bad or good ones. Unconditionally embrace your entire self without being judgmental.
Love yourself, especially during harsh times:
Compassion is not feeling pity — it’s feeling love. It’s easy to like your perfect image on Instagram when everything feels and looks good. However, it’s during hard times that you need to be more compassionate with yourself.
Own your mistakes without attacking you because you’ve erred.
Psychologists say that mother’s love is (the only) unconditional — no matter what their children do, they will always profoundly care for them. Shouldn’t you love yourself the same way?
Reframe extreme self-criticism:
When your inner voice is making critical judgments, moderate those thoughts by making them conscious. If you think “I am useless,” say to yourself: “Not everything I do happens the way I’d like.” If you think, “I’m not smart,” say to yourself: “I need to continue learning and improving my game.”
Reframe your judgmental words into positive ones.
The above are just examples; use your own words. Find a way to observe yourself through a kinder lens. The idea is not to lower your bar but instead focus on what you can improve — criticism will only get you stuck.
The practice of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment opens up your mind and heart — compassion needs space to grow. Meditation can improve compassion and altruistic behavior, according to a study from Harvard and Northeastern University.
Empathy can be cultivated by exercising the brain with loving-kindness meditation.
Monks were asked to meditate on unconditional loving-kindness and compassion. Their brains generated powerful Gamma waves that may indicate a compassionate state of mind, as Wired reported.
Be compassionate to others:
The innate desire to lessen others’ suffering is deeply ingrained in Buddhism — it’s a natural state. When you observe a dog being hit by a car, you don’t judge the dog’s action; you feel pity for the animal. But, when someone (you included) makes a mistake, we judge the behavior —we make him/her look stupid rather than provide support.
Being compassionate to others requires training our mind — overcoming our judgmental mentality is a habit that we must build.
Neuroscience is starting to understand the profound impact mindfulness and compassion have on the brain.
Compassion is not just a religious thing. As Dalai Lama said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”
Being kind to yourself is anything but being weak. It takes a strong character to confront your objective reality — you are vulnerable and perfectly imperfect.
Compassion is a mental state — it’s non-violent and doesn’t cause harm. It’s about wishing good things for yourself and others. You don’t want people to suffer (you included).
Forgiveness, self-compassion, and compassion go hand-in-hand. It isn’t easy to be compassionate if you are not willing to forgive others or yourself.
Remember, put on your oxygen mask first. Only then can you help others.
Train your mind to be more kind, tolerant, and self-compassionate (more exercises here). You don’t need permission for that.