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April 18, 2024

An embodied understanding of self-esteem vs self-compassion is something we can arrive at through awareness and mindfulness practice. Discerning between the two is key to living with genuine confidence and peace of mind.

We are indeed our biggest critics. The human mind, genetically predisposed to noticing problems, tends to be very self-critical. On one level, this serves us by helping us grow. However, constant self-judgment does more harm than good.

Typically, we correct for low confidence by trying to boost our self-esteem. Keep reading and you’ll learn why self-compassion is actually far more effective when it comes to perceiving ourselves as worthy of loving-kindness. 

self compassion vs self esteem, Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion: Understanding the Difference

What is Self-Compassion?

When it comes to differentiating self-compassion from self-esteem, it helps to understand what self-compassion actually is. It is not self-care or self-love, although those may be involved in the expression of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the act of tending to our own suffering with care. Sometimes, it’s easier for us to understand compassion as it relates to another. When we see someone hurting, a compassionate response includes wishing them to be free from their pain, or acting in ways that make it so. It’s compassionate to want others to feel better. We can do the same for ourselves.

Offering ourselves self-compassion requires three important components. First, we must be mindful of our own discomfort, pain or suffering. Secondly, we recognize this pain is not ours alone because we are bad or unworthy. Rather, it is a shared human condition. Finally, we extend loving-kindness to ourselves, the same way we might to another.

  • Mindfulness: I notice this as a moment of pain
  • Common Humanity: I recognize this as a human pain that is also shared by others
  • Loving-Kindness: I offer myself loving kindness in my moment of pain

The Importance of Self-Compassion

Most of us are habituated to being hard on ourselves, especially in our most challenging moments. When faced with discomfort or pain, we may feel guilt or shame. We may speak to ourselves harshly with words of self-blame, self-criticism or self-judgment. Responding to hurt in this manner, however, only makes us feel worse. 

Do this repeatedly, and it can lead to deep self-loathing, depression, and anxiety around making mistakes or not being liked. We can turn this around by learning to replace our self-punishing behavior with genuine self-compassion. With practice, self-compassion changes our lives for the better. 

Research supports the notion that there is a strong link between self-compassion and well-being. Those who rank high in self-compassion experience less depression, anxiety, stress, and suicidal ideation.

self compassion vs self esteem, Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion: Understanding the Difference

What is Self-Esteem?

Researchers generally define self-esteem as “an overall feeling of self-worth.” It is “the degree to which the self is judged to be competent in life domains deemed important.” High self-esteem was once considered a measure of psychological well-being, but researchers today are not so sure. The cons of pursuing high self-esteem may outweigh the pros. 

Self-esteem differs from self-compassion in that it is dependent on the stories and beliefs we hold about ourselves, which may or may not be true. What’s more, to manifest such feelings of worthiness, we may rely on avoidance, external circumstances, and comparison to others.

For example, to protect our feelings of worthiness, we may dismiss constructive negative feedback. We may get angry at those who dare point out our flaws or how we may have hurt them. When we resist taking responsibility for our actions, it only leads to more harm, hindering personal growth and change.

Self-esteem not only arises based on how we see ourselves, but can go up or down based on how we perceive, and compare ourselves to, others. This too, perpetuates harm. It keeps us in a paradigm in which we are separate from others, and must be seen as better than, to maintain a sense of confidence and worthiness.      

Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem

According to mindfulness and self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self-esteem vs self-compassion poses a clear distinction. Self-esteem is positively associated with public self-consciousness, social comparison, anger, self-rumination, and even narcissism. Self-compassion, on the other hand, has a stronger negative association with each of these traits.

Self-esteem is unstable. It is dependent on our thought patterns and beliefs regarding external conditions. So, maintaining high self-esteem is challenging. Self-compassion can be stabilized with practice. It is not dependent on us feeling unique or better than others. With self-compassion, we can be a flawed human being, just like everyone else, and still feel good about ourselves.

To understand what makes self-compassion so different from self-esteem, we can look again at what defines self-compassion. The following is based on Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion vs self-esteem research.

Mindfulness vs Overidentification:

Self-compassion is rooted in our willingness to accept the truth of this moment, even if painful. Self-esteem, however, relies on us identifying with our beliefs about ourselves. Overidentification encourages us to look away when reality challenges those beliefs. It keeps us closed minded and often unwilling to grow.

Common Humanity vs Isolation:

Self-compassion reminds us our hardships are never ours to bear alone. As humans, we are each perfectly imperfect, and it’s perfectly ok to make mistakes. Self-esteem relies on us feeling separate and special, which can keep us feeling alone. Measuring our worth in relation to others is also a recipe for hurt.

Loving-Kindness vs Self-Judgment:

Self-compassion invites us to practice self-kindness. We try giving ourselves grace, speaking kind words to ourselves, and tending to our pain. Self-esteem, on the other hand, necessitates continual self-judgment. We become more likely to get stuck in self-rumination as our constant self-evaluation becomes pathological.  

self compassion vs self esteem, Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion: Understanding the Difference

The Role of Self-Compassion vs Self Esteem  in Relationships

The wonderful thing about compassion is that it is omnidirectional. The more we practice self-compassion, the more capable we become of extending compassion to others, and vice versa. Self-compassion can help improve our relationships by fostering greater empathy and deeper, more meaningful connections with others.

A 2021 meta-review of 72 research articles on self-compassion and relationships found those with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to experience secure attachment. Higher self-compassion is associated with healthier friendships, family, and romantic relationships, in which conflict is constructive and repairable. 

Within families, evidence suggests self-compassionate parents are more willing to change their parenting behaviors according to their child’s needs. Their children are more likely to exemplify self-compassion too.

Kristin Neff About Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem

Kristin Neff is a mindful self-compassion researcher. Currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Neff has a BA in communications from the University of California at Los Angeles (1988) and a PhD in moral development from the University of California at Berkeley (1997). 

In 1997, Neff began practicing meditation in the Buddhist tradition.She decided to research self-compassion – a central construct in Buddhist psychology and one that had not yet been examined empirically.

In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she has developed an 8-week program to teach self-compassion skills. The program, co-created with her colleague Chris Germer, a guest teacher in the Mindfulness Exercises Teacher Certification Program, is called Mindful Self-Compassion. Her book, Self-Compassion, was published by William Morrow in April, 2011.

In the following video by Kristin Neff, self-compassion vs self-esteem takes a front seat. Neff explains why we might prefer to practice the former.

Overcoming Challenges to Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem

For many of us, self-compassion warrants practice and cultivation. In the process, it’s common to face obstacles and challenges. We can overcome obstacles to self-compassion by reminding ourselves that this too, need not be done perfectly, or all at once. 

The first step in cultivating self-compassion is to accept that we are hurting, that there is a pain to be addressed. This alone is understandably quite difficult for some. With a loving awareness, we can begin to bring mindfulness to the ways in which we suffer.

It may help to remember there’s no need to be happy all the time, and that suffering is part of being human. What’s more, we need not face our suffering head on. We can baby-step our way to accepting our condition, addressing what we’re feeling little by little, or by titrating in and out of our practice.

Practicing Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem

Let the following resources help you cultivate self-compassion, versus self-esteem. May they help you to offer yourself grace in times of hardship.

Listen to podcasts and audio meditations on self-compassion

Use a self-compassion meditation script to guide your own practice

Use a mindfulness worksheet to guide a self-compassion exercise

Deepen your understanding by teaching others self-compassion 


We can boost genuine self-esteem by taking esteemable action, such as telling the truth, fulfilling our commitments, or being of service to others. However, the research shows that to feel good about ourselves, worthy and cared for, it’s less effective to cultivate self-esteem vs self-compassion. When self-compassion is high, we are far more capable of maintaining a steady, positive view of our inherent worthiness.

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About the author 

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]