Self-compassion is currently enjoying rising popularity as a useful way to respond to client suffering. It certainly sounds nice, and harmless. However I believe it is a method that treats the symptom rather than the cause, so it doesn’t result in full resolution. I will explore why this is true, and present an alternative that does.

In her article, “The Five Myths of Self-Compassion: What Keeps us from Being Kinder to Ourselves?” (Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2015) Kristin Neff recounts a personal incident that illustrates a surprising number of very important distinctions that could make therapy much easier, faster, and more effective if they were more widely recognized and understood.

“Self-esteem is inherently fragile, bouncing up and down according to our latest success or failure. I remember a time my self-esteem soared and then crashed within about five seconds. I was visiting an equestrian stable with friends, and the old Spanish riding instructor apparently liked my Mediterranean looks. ‘You are veeerrrry beautiful,’ he told me, and I felt myself glow with pleasure. Then he added, ‘Don’t ever shave your mooostache.” Self-esteem is a fair-weather friend, there for us in good times, deserting us when our luck heads south.” (p. 34)

(I offered Neff the opportunity to post a response to this article, but she declined, due to lack of time, adding, “I certainly don’t mind you discussing the Spanish riding instructor example.  Just remember that I tell the story largely as a humorous aside, and that it’s probably best not to take it too seriously.”)

All of us have soared and crashed as Neff did at some time in our lives, and some ride that roller-coaster daily—or even hourly. The crashing is certainly unpleasant, and even the soaring has an insubstantial “too good to be true” quality. Neff’s vignette is a microcosm in which we can explore how many different colored threads of confusion and misunderstanding are woven together into a tapestry of vulnerability. Please be patient as I pull one thread a little here, loosen another there, in order to reveal how they interact, because the processes and principles embedded in this example—even if it is a “humorous aside”—have very important applications to a wide range of human problems. I need to first describe some fundamental understandings about the self, and self-esteem. Then I’ll go on to explore how comparisons and judgments separate us from our experience, and how to heal this separation.


Self-concept and Self-esteem

Although self-concept and self-esteem are words that many people use interchangeably, they are very different experiences. Self-concept is who you think you are; self-esteem (sometimes called “self-worth” or “self-love”) is your satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with who you think you are. When your self-concept is aligned with your values, you are pleased with how you naturally respond and behave, and the automatic result is that you will have high self-esteem.

When someone has “low” self-esteem, that indicates that their self-concept doesn’t fit with their values. If they want higher self-esteem (and who doesn’t?) they can use this discrepancy as a signal to either change their self-concept to align with their values, or change their values to align with their self-concept (or change both) so that they are congruent.

A variety of “values clarification” methods can be used to elicit a client’s values. Once these values are clear, a wide variety of methods can be used to alter behaviors and attitudes so that they are aligned with these values. At other times, values need to be reexamined and adjusted to align with the behaviors that are evident in the self-concept. “I guess personal integrity is actually more important to me than loyalty, or being polite.”

Since low self-esteem is the result of incongruence, any attempt to change self-esteem directly is doomed to failure, because the cause, the discrepancy between self-concept and values, will continue to elicit low self-esteem. Trying to change self-esteem without resolving this discrepancy is an example of trying to change the symptom or effect, rather than the root cause. It is only appropriate to do that when there really is no way to change the cause, such as an untreatable terminal illness or disease.



Your self-concept is a collection of all the images you have about yourself. It isn’t a single thing; it is composed of a number of different behaviors and qualities, ranging from very specific behaviors like driving a car to very general beliefs about our place in the universe. In between these extremes are pervasive personal qualities, such as honesty, sensitivity to others, dependability, spontaneity, loyalty, etc. Like all your other ideas about the world around you—such as your concept of what a chair or a dog is—it is a simplified representation of reality. A map of a town is also a very simplified representation that leaves out a lot of detail, and this simplicity is exactly what makes it useful. A map that included all the details of a town would be as huge, unwieldy and confusing as the real town itself.

A well-constructed self-concept is a broad generalization that is generally a good predictor of what you can do and how you will respond to events. If you think of yourself as persistent or tenacious, that means that in most circumstances you will continue to pursue goals despite difficulties or obstacles. However, there will be times when you abandon a project after little effort when it becomes apparent that the project is unattainable, or not worth the effort required.

There will also be times when one of your qualities is in conflict with another. In a given situation you may be faced with a choice between being honest and being sensitive to others, or between being spontaneous and being predictable, etc. In these situations you will usually either follow the more important quality (negating the less important one) or find some compromise that doesn’t fully satisfy either one.

Despite these inescapable limitations, your self-concept provides a good internal guide to how you will behave in most situations. You know pretty well how you will respond to events and difficulties, giving you a sense of stability and continuity through time and across contexts. You can use this self-knowledge to make commitments to others—and also to yourself—that you will usually be able to keep. Your self-concept is like the keel of a boat, providing stability and direction in the face of shifting winds and currents.


No Self?

A number of spiritual teachings say that you should attempt to be self-less, to not have a sense of self. I think the goal of this teaching was to avoid the difficulties posed by egotism, or inflated self-importance. However without a self-concept you would have no way to apply your memories of the past to plan a future that is satisfying to you. Without any idea of what you are capable of, even tiny tasks would seem insurmountable, and you would often be disappointed by attempting things that are far beyond your ability. Like a boat without a rudder or GPS, you would have no direction, drifting here and there, completely at the mercy of winds, currents, and other external forces. Someone’s self-concept may be too rigid, out of date, limited, or grandiose, but these are flaws that can be corrected fairly easily.

Trying to eliminate the sense of self is one of those simplistic all-or-none solutions that would create far more problems than the one it is intended to solve. Attempting to eliminate the self is doomed to failure, and if it were successful, it would be disastrous. Trying to eliminate the self-concept only leads to a paradoxical and self-deceiving sense of self, based on not having a self. “I am someone who doesn’t have a sense of self” (usually said in a voice tone of superiority to ordinary mortals who are trapped in a limiting sense of self). Having a sense of self has inevitable limitations, but they are far overshadowed by the limitations of not having one at all, or quixotically trying not to.


Self-esteem and Other-esteem

Another fundamental mistake is to confuse self-esteem—your own valuing something about yourself—with other-esteem—other peoples’ valuing of something about yourself. Since people’s values differ, other-esteem can vary widely from one person to another, and from one context to another. Whenever self-esteem is confused with other-esteem, Neff’s statement that it “is inherently fragile, bouncing up and down according to our latest success or failure” is certainly true. Let’s examine how this plays out in her example.

The riding instructor’s first statement was an expression of his liking her looks, and she “glowed with pleasure.” This is clearly other esteem; the riding instructor liked her Mediterranean looks—and presumably Neff does too. Someone else who preferred Nordic blondes, Dark chocolate, or Asian looks would not have complimented her, and she would not have had her glow of pleasure.

Then something very curious happened with the riding instructor’s second comment implying that he also liked her “mooostache.” Rather than glow with even more pleasure at this additional other-esteem, Neff switched to self-esteem, responding to her own values rather than his. Her values (probably something like, “A moustache looks gross on a woman.”) transformed the instructor’s appreciation into a criticism, and she “crashed” emotionally. To summarize, when the riding instructor’s view agreed with her own, she soared, but when it didn’t, she crashed.


The Primacy of Self-esteem

There is a very important lesson here. If there is a discrepancy between other-esteem and self-esteem, self-esteem always wins “hands down”—it’s not even a contest. If you have ever tried to reassure someone who thinks that they are not pretty, or intelligent, or successful (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t tried to do this at some time in their life) you know how futile that is. Try telling an anorexic that she is already too skinny, and see how far you get! If someone has had forty compliments and then receives one criticism, that one almost always easily overrides the forty.

It is useful to be aware of what someone else likes (or dislikes) about me and include that as a part of my idea of who I am, but if it’s the sole basis for my self-concept and resulting self-esteem, that leaves me completely vulnerable to others’ preferences and opinions. This is something that is particularly evident in clients with “boundary” problems—it is hard for them to distinguish between their own values and others.’

Many well-meaning parents try to build their cheldren’s self-esteem by providing praise, rewards, approval, and other indications of other-esteem, and many therapists do the same. The “self-esteem” movement of the 1970s (mis-named and ill-fated) was actually based on providing esteem from others, so its failure could have been predicted in advance.

Self-esteem and other-esteem are two entirely different things. Self-esteem is my own liking of who I am; other-esteem is others’ liking of who I am. You can’t substitute one for the other, or use one to create the other. Trying to do that is worse than wasted effort, because it is not just useless, it is counter-productive. Research shows that parents who praise their children indiscriminately increase their children’s narcissism scores—they learn to think that they are superior to others without having any basis for that in reality. Surely the world doesn’t need more people who believe that they are entitled to more than anyone else on the planet! Understanding this very simple and fundamental distinction between self-esteem and other-esteem would save parents and therapists millions of hours of wasted effort and frustration annually.

What a parent (or therapist) can do, is make a clear distinction between their likes and the child’s that is very specific, so the child can consider whether it fits for them or not. “I really like the way you helped your brother when he fell off his bike; that was a kind thing to do; what do you think?” An external comment like this is like food; it can be useful, but only if it is fully digested and made a part of the self.



In the paragraph just before describing the “mooostache” incident, Neff writes, “Self-esteem requires feeling better than others, whereas self-compassion requires acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection.” “Feeling better than others” and “acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection,” both involve a comparison between the self and others. Only the result of the comparison is different—noticing differences “feeling better than” (or feeling worse than), or noticing similarities, sharing “the human condition of imperfection.”

Thinking that self-esteem results from a self/other comparison is another fundamental mistake on two different levels. First, as I have already pointed out, self-esteem is simply the pleasure of knowing that my behavior and responses are congruent with my own values. This compares my self-concept to my behavior, and any discrepancy provides useful corrective feedback on the accuracy of my self-concept.

This self-appraisal doesn’t need any comparison with others. If I like cilantro, or misty rain, or a quick smile, or anything else, that is simply my response to an experience that gives me pleasure. We all make perceptual distinctions, and we all have many different preferences about what gives us pleasure and what doesn’t. It is totally irrelevant (as well as impossible) to compare my subjective pleasure responses to those of anyone else. The same is true of my pleasure in finding that my self-concept is congruent with my values—or my displeasure in discovering that they don’t match, which can motivate me to resolve the discrepancy.

Though it’s often true that someone’s self-concept is based largely on comparisons with others, that’s not necessary. I can know I’m honest, or tenacious, or timid, simply by remembering my behavior in a variety of situations, without making any comparisons with others who act differently. Making comparisons with others can be very useful if I’m not satisfied with how I respond, and I want to discover what else might be possible for me. But comparisons are not a useful basis for my self-concept and self-esteem.

Second, whenever I compare myself with others, there will always be others who are better than, and worse than, I am in regard to a given behavior, ability, or quality. Depending on what I attend to, I can feel pride or shame, or oscillate between the two. If I primarily pay attention to how I’m better than others I can easily become a narcissist who takes the credit for all successes, and blames others when things go badly. If I primarily attend to how I’m worse than others, I can view myself as a victim, criticizing myself harshly, and accept blame for events that I had little or no control over, and that I wasn’t responsible for.

Comparisons between the self and others are usually used to determine our relative status with respect to others. This appears to be a fairly “hard-wired” behavior that we share with other animals—at least as far down the evolutionary tree as the “pecking order” in a flock of chickens. If you are in the military, or in some other social hierarchy, it is useful to be aware of your place in it, but that’s not a substitute for self-esteem. If your status is determined by your money, the color of your skin, or where you live, that is something that’s usually completely irrelevant to who you are as a person. And since your status is dependent on external events, that is always vulnerable to any changes in those events.

The simplest solution is to avoid comparisons altogether—just redirect your attention to your own experience of yourself and notice to what extent you are satisfied with it. You don’t need to make any comparisons with others in order to do that. In fact, when you compare yourself with someone else, you will be attending to them as well as yourself. Since you have only a finite amount of attention, when some of it is used to attend to someone else, that will inevitably reduce the amount of attention you have available to notice your own experience. This actually reduces your sense of who you are.

However, like a lot of other simple solutions, many people find it very difficult to avoid making comparisons. Trying to not make comparisons—like any other attempt to negate—usually brings them even more into the foreground of attention. Fortunately there is an alternative that is almost as good as not making comparisons, and that most people find much easier to do. Rather than trying not to make comparisons, you can continue to make them, but reduce their importance by changing how you represent a comparison.

For example, think of a comparison that you make, and that you recognize has results that are less than satisfying to you. Pause to notice what image(s) or voice(s) occur as you make this comparison? . . .

Then change any image to be less real by making it transparent, smaller, dimmer, flatter, farther away, lower in space, behind you instead of in front of you, etc. Change any voice to be less real by making it quieter, more distant, speed up or slow the tempo, give it a recorded “tinny” tonality or a foreign accent, etc.

If you do this thoroughly, it won’t eliminate the comparison, but it will become unimportant to you. Like so many other things and events in the world that are not important to you, it will only be a faint shadowy background to what is important. You can easily notice your own degree of satisfaction with yourself, which will be stable and durable, based on internally generated self-esteem, independent of other-esteem, and other external events.


Compassion and Self-compassion

Compassion (originally “to suffer with,” or “to suffer together”) is a feeling response, variously described as sympathy (“feeling the same as”), or concern for the suffering of others. Synonyms are kindness, tenderness, and often include a wish to alleviate the suffering. Empathy is a much broader term that includes the ability to experience someone else’s positive feelings—their joys, pleasures, and satisfactions as well as their suffering. So the first difficulty with compassion is that it is only directed toward someone’s suffering. Since compassion ignores someone’s more positive experiences, it is inherently unbalanced.

Despite some differences in flavor, all descriptions of compassion presuppose at least two separate people, one who suffers, and one who feels compassionate toward the sufferer. Although the emphasis is on the joining (“with” or “together”) it presupposes a separation that compassion attempts to bridge.

When you feel compassion for yourself, that also presupposes a separation or division, so it is reasonable to ask, “Who is the sufferer, and who feels compassionate toward them, and what has created the separation between them?” The lessons we can learn from this will be useful in understanding how we split ourselves into separate—and often warring—parts. That will also point the way toward how to heal the inner conflicts that torment us, in order to reach re-integration and become whole again.


Criticism and Self-judgment

Neff’s article describes self-compassion as an antidote to the bad feelings created by a troublesome internal voice, variously described as, “harsh self-judgment,” “self-judgment,” “self-attack,” and “relentless self-criticism”—descriptions that are amplified by illustrations of frowning balloon faces for each of the five myths she discusses. Many other writers say the same, including Richard Schwartz in his article in the same issue of the Networker, “Facing our Dark Sides.” Although there are other causes of suffering (physical pain or illness, disappointments, the grief resulting from a death or other loss, etc.) I want to focus on self-judgment, both because Neff (and Schwartz) does, and also because it offers a clear path to understanding the dynamics of the internal separation that self-compassion attempts to bridge.


Congruence or Wholeness

Infants have no language that they could use to criticize themselves—and even less inclination to do it if they did. They cry when hungry, gurgle and smile when happy, get angry when frustrated, and pee and poop when and where they feel like it—unaffected by the views or judgments of others. They don’t question their perceptions, they are fully in touch with their own feelings, and they do what they please. They express themselves wholly and congruently, so they don’t experience any separated experience (no “dark sides” of the self) that they could be compassionate toward. Since they are totally immersed in their own experience, if they could understand the idea of self-compassion, it would be totally meaningless and irrelevant to them.

When we begin to understand words, all this changes. Language provides a useful and efficient way to learn the culture’s accumulated knowledge of how the world works, and how to communicate with others. We could call all this, “the knowledge of what is”; it may be imperfect, incomplete, or out-of-date, but it is grounded in observation, testing, and corrective feedback.

However, language also conveys what we could call “the knowledge of what should be,” the judgments of others about what is good and bad, rules about what we should and shouldn’t think, or feel, or do—variously described as “morals,” “conscience,” or “culture.” Some of these, like rules about sanitation and health, may have some basis in reality, while many others—like what to wear, or dietary rules and restrictions—are mostly completely arbitrary historical artifacts. Most members of a culture take in and accept these judgments as their own, internalizing the critical voices of caregivers, peers, and other members of the social group—what used to be called “introjection.”

The subtitle of Neff’s article is, “What Keeps us from Being Kinder to Ourselves?” By now the answer to that question should be abundantly clear; it is the unkindness of self-judgment, which is very different from preference. We all prefer some experiences to others, and we also often differ from others in what we like or dislike. But when we make a leap from the individual, “I like this,” to the universal, “Everyone should like this,” we jump from individual preferences to universal judgments of good and bad, or right or wrong, something I explored in detail years ago in an article, “Escaping the Black Hole of Judgment.”

Whenever we judge our perceptions, feelings or behaviors, we separate ourselves from them, something you can easily verify in your own experience. Take a moment to think of any aspect of yourself that you judge, and you can easily recognize a separation between a part of you that judges, and an image or verbal description of what is judged. Judgment is a transitive verb, requiring both a subject and an object, and presupposing a separation between the two. This is usually a reflection of an external situation in which someone else judged us, either verbally or nonverbally.

Without internal critical voices, we would all be just as in touch with our own experiencing as an infant or small child, and we wouldn’t experience the conflicts that result from self-judgment. Recognizing the troubles that critical voices cause, some spiritual traditions have tried to silence “the chattering monkey mind.” As I have already mentioned, this is an all-or-none solution that would throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you try planning your day without internal auditory dialogue, you will quickly find out how useful it is. The solution to critical internal voices is to educate and transform them so that they are no longer enemies, but become trusted friends and supportive allies.

Self-compassion is much better than self-judgment—and it can be a useful first step toward healing the separation by eliciting a tenderness that many only express toward others, and redirect it toward the suffering self. Self-judgment is the negation of, and separation from, certain aspects of our experience; self-compassion is an attempt to heal that separation by negating the negation. Even the most heartfelt and sincere self-compassion doesn’t resolve the self-judgment that separates, so it is a symptomatic treatment, not a lasting solution directed at the cause. If the judgment and resulting separation didn’t exist, there would be no need for self-compassion.

Self-compassion also has a bias that is not widely recognized, and can cause problems. Self-compassion is “feeling with the suffering” of self, implicitly diverting attention away from “feeling with” joys and satisfactions. Far too many people already ignore their pleasurable experiences in their problem-centered tunnel vision focus on what isn’t satisfactory. This creates an imbalance that elicits feelings of being a helpless victim, which is not helpful in understanding a situation, or in taking corrective action.

Empathy is a similar, but much more inclusive word that describes feeling with all the feelings of the other person, both positive and negative. Although self-empathy is much more inclusive, resulting in a much more balanced experience, it still presupposes a separation between self and empathizer.


Treating the Cause

Why not treat the cause, rather than the symptom? There are many different rapid and effective processes for working with internal critical voices in order to transform them from harsh critics into valued and trusted parts of the self, re-integrating them into a smoothly functioning whole. Many of these are set forth in my two books about transforming negative self-talk. When integration has been accomplished, the separation no longer exists, and there is no need to try to bridge it with self-compassion or self-empathy.



Your self-concept is how you think of yourself, a generally accurate and reliable guide to how you respond. Even when well-constructed, it will still have imperfections, but the limitations of not having a self are far worse.

Your self-concept doesn’t need to have any comparisons with others, or with any standards or external authority, and it will be much more durable and useful without them.

When your self-concept is aligned with your values, you will be pleased, and enjoy what has been called “high self-esteem.”

If you have “low self-esteem” that signals that your self-concept is not aligned with your values, and you need to change either your self-concept or your values (or both) to bring them back into alignment.

Other-esteem applies the values of others to your self-concept, but that is different from, and no substitute for, self-esteem.

Judgment results in separating ourselves from whatever is judged, the cause of a great deal of suffering.

Just as compassion is a relationship between a sufferer and someone else who is compassionate, self-compassion is between two separate aspects of the self.

Self-compassion focuses on suffering, creating a bias and imbalance; self-empathy includes feeling with positive as well as negative experiences, but still presupposes a division between the self and the empathizer.

Self-compassion (or self-empathy) may reduce self-judgment, but the real and lasting solution is to resolve self-judgment, in order to return to a unified congruent experience of wholeness in the present moment. When that has been accomplished, there is no separation, and no need for self-compassion (or self-empathy) to bridge it.



Now let’s revisit Neff’s encounter with the riding instructor to see how she would have responded if all these distinctions and understandings had been in place at that time. She would have a solid knowing of who she is that is congruent with her values, one that isn’t based on comparing herself to others. Any criticism would be evaluated for accuracy and relevance, and used as corrective feedback to keep her sense of self firmly rooted in reality. Since her behavior and responses are aligned with her values she can enjoy high self-esteem.

With this solid foundation of internal knowing she can still enjoy the compliment about her beauty, but she wouldn’t have confused self-esteem with other-esteem, and she wouldn’t have “soared.” She can equally enjoy his compliment about her “mooostache,” even if the peach fuzz on her upper lip wasn’t the part of her that she liked best. “Oh, that’s interesting; he likes my moustache, too.” By making a clear distinction between what he likes and what she likes, she wouldn’t have turned it into a criticism, and she wouldn’t have “crashed.”

Long ago, Fritz Perls said, “Contact (between people) is the appreciation of differences” (not the attempt to erase those differences through judgment, denial, demands, or condemnation.) In a similar vein, Virginia Satir said, “Peace comes through understanding, not agreement.” The same is true of our internal “self-relations,” a key part in many of the problems we all face.

I hope the distinctions and principles in this article are useful to you on this difficult journey for which we are all so poorly prepared. For a much more complete exploration of many of these distinctions, see my book, Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be.