Psychology’s unique contribution to your Compassion and Self-Esteem

One of the biggest myths about self-esteem: someone with high self-esteem feels themselves superior to others.

But that is simply not true: you must have seen it for yourself. Those who feel superior to others hide a shame, a fear, of insecurity.

What, then, is self-esteem? Love for oneself. Compassion for yourself, for your past; a feeling that you are enough. Just you, and you alone. Why bring others into it?

You shouldn’t – at least, not at the start. But the moment you accept and understand yourself, there lies the possibility you accept and understand others. And what then? When you see their human glories and frailties – when you see them as they are, not as better, not as worse – when you see yourself in them! That is self-esteem.

Compassion for Oneself

And so it has to begin with compassion for oneself, stopping our self-violence in our actions and our thoughts. In the Flower of Love, we discussed one of the greatest fuels for the fire of our self-hatred: the uncontrollable little voice in our head; the little images and feelings it produces.

Eckhart Tollecalls it the ego, psychologists call the pathological, inner critic. They refer to the same thing: the little voice that says “I can’t do it!” “I hate him!” “I can’t forgive myself!” “I am too fat, too stupid!” “She’s too young for me!”

And there are so many ways to disarm that critic. Many have been discussed in this blog, and many more will be coming, but today we’ll focus on one of the most potent: self-compassion. Or to be more accurate: a booster technique to the Love and compassion we have been discussing in this series. It provides a psychological perspective on what is normally thought to be a spiritual subject.

This is also a response to the readers who have emailed me. They see the value of loving, of accepting and forgiving themselves. But their pain was so deep that they couldn’t even do that. Some found it hard to talk to themselves kindly; others found it impossible to bring up a loving energy. Whatever it was: a part of their identity, themselves, or their history – they hated it so much that they cannot even find forgiveness or acceptance. It was humbling to read their emails; I had been there once, but it was so long ago that I had forgotten how hard it can be, and I apologise for making self-love sound so easy.

I had to go back to my old journals and diaries to remember how I came out of it I also researched some of the principles that my counsellor had used on me. This was what I found, and I hope they can be of some small help.

The Emotional Level

The first thing is to see the two levels of our inner being: our emotions and our thoughts. They exist in a cycle: thoughts feed emotions, and emotions feed thoughts.

The emotions, the heart I’ve turned to the ancient tradition of Buddhism. The entire emotional mastery series up to this point has been collected in the articles page. Please digest them and apply them; they represent a year of inner experimentation, research, and meditation, and I hope they can help. And one that is especially useful to those who seek self-Love would be the tonglen meditation.

The Mental Level

For the level of the mind, one has to turn to the modern sciences the young discipline of cognitive psychology.

As I released and healed my emotions, I began to notice something beautiful. I had ceased to work on my thoughts for many months – but still they became quieter, clearer, more positive. No longer were they distorted. And the gifts of understanding and acceptance – they came so naturally.

And I was surprised to find these ways of thinking were exactly what the cognitive psychologists had been espousing.

Wouldn’t it be faster, then, if we changed our thoughts at the same time? A double dosage? And perhaps the one push that could tip some of my readers over the line into courage?

So: what are these mental techniques? The psychologists say the three steps are: Understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness.

The First Stage Understanding

Understanding is the first step towards compassion towards yourself and others. This step can make a huge shift in your feelings and attitudes; it was the turning point for me.

I am a sensitive person; little things would upset me, and make me withdraw. In comparison, my brother was loud, proud, and strong in character. He brushed off relationship troubles in a matter of hours; my heartaches lasted months. It always made me feel like there was something wrong with me. When I found out I was a Highly Sensitive Person – reading the psychological research on the character and biological trait – I cannot describe how healing it was to my self-esteem. Understanding and realising there was nothing wrong with me – it was just a character trait, one the world had shunned.

How about the other aspects of my life? I have mentioned many times before, how I suffered from rage and depression. It showed up as extreme verbal abuse. And when I admitted that to myself, then came the shame, and the regret, and the self-hatred. Why was I like so angry? I always thought I was a good person – was it all a façade? Was there something wrong with me, was I insane?

When I found my counsellor – a beautiful old woman, so gentle – she gave me one of the biggest gifts anyone has ever given me. Understanding – uncovering and showing me why I had acted the way I did.

All that pent-up anger, all those frustrations. All the sorrow from the abuse I had suffered; pressed down by sheer force of will. All my fears, all the vulnerabilities I had hidden behind my wall of anger.

That was the first step, the most vital step in giving me the courage to move out of my depression. I remember a feeling of shock and relief, slowly dawning on me over days. I wasn’t innately evil. To see that I had done the best I could have done, in my circumstances. And that gave me the courage to stop my blame, my hatred, all that silliness.

And the one thing one has to remember is that understanding – in fact, all of compassion and forgiveness – is not approval. It doesn’t mean – ever – that I was right to have yelled, screamed, or hurt those around me. It was merely the first step in allowing myself to right my wrongs.

Watch and Listen: The Miracle of Mindfulness

But do we find this understanding? There are so many ways – the entire field of psychology has been battling to find the supreme way; so much that entire buildings have been filled with their volumes.

But here’s my favourite – just watch your thoughts. Drop your masks, ideals, denials and beliefs. Be vulnerable, and watch what comes out. This is what Buddhists call mindfulness – being conscious, watching, being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and your body all the time.

And just watch, listen Notice the thoughts, listen to them. Write them down in a journal – you can even set time aside to find your core pains.

Even better, do it intensively for an entire week. I know this will seem like much work; but you are worth it. Please, try it. Carry a notebook around for a week, write down every painful and negative thought or feeling you have. Once you have done that, it will be easier to be mindful always.

Then, become a scientist of the mind. Read your journals, go deep into it. What lies underneath your thoughts? What beliefs influenced your actions, your thoughts? What is the core that produces them? The highly recommended volume, Self Esteem, suggests a few questions to aid you in this phase:

  • What needs did I / they try to meet?
  • What beliefs or awarenesses influenced my / their behaviour?
  • What pains, hurts, or feelings influenced my / their behaviour?

Perhaps it is easier to judge others first, so use me as practice. Can you apply these questions to my verbal abuse story, and see if you can answer them? Then move on to yourself.

The deeper your sorrows, the higher your compassion

This understanding doesn’t always come easy. It can take so much work, so let it be part of your own journey – to go into yourself, into your aloneness, and let yourself see what lies inside you.

But once you find this understanding – that is when compassion begins to flow. A man of understanding, a woman who has been through the fire – they are different. When they look into your heart, they don’t display a fake empathy. They truly know how you feel, for they have been there. When they smile at you, speak to you to ease your pain – their words are genuine, their actions are based on truth. The smiles and words of others – they are mere parrots. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but parrots nonetheless.

I have a friend who was chronically depressed; he had even attempted suicide several times. One day, he was pouring out all his sorrows to me. His pain and despair was palpable, but we were making the journey out of suffering together. That day I didn’t know what else I could say. I just looked at him and told him he was halfway to becoming a great Zen master. He laughed heartily, thinking that I was trying to cheer him up. But I wasn’t. He had made half the journey – the slide downwards. When you have fallen to the very bottom – there is no sorrow you haven’t seen. And when you rise to the top once more – there is no compassion deeper than yours.

Find that understanding – then you’ll no longer be a scientist of the mind. You’ll be an artist of the heart, and compassion is your paint.

The Second Stage: Acceptance

And the next step acceptance. And be aware this is not some giving up. This is not – “I’m alone, I’m heartbroken, so be it. I shall sit down and despair.” That is not what I am saying.

Acceptance means accepting the facts, without the story. Take away the story, and the suffering goes with it. You are alone. Why is that painful? Your story is – she left me, he cheated on me, broke my heart. Drop the story, and accept facts. You are alone. So? Be alone. Dance, laugh, delight in your aloneness.

You call yourself overweight. Others call you fat. Some even call you a pig. Is that true? That’s a story, that’s a label, that’s a judgement of value. Take the story out of it and face facts. You are 300 pounds, and will have a heart attack if you don’t start exercising soon. Facts are empowering; they kick you into action. Stories are disempowering; they kick you to the floor and keep you there.

With a story, you live in the past, you live in the future. With the facts, you live in the only place you truly can – the present moment. The story. The judgements. The values. The beliefs. Take them all away.

And once again, once you find that understanding in yourself – it is so much easier to see it in the others! “He is a selfish person, who doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” Face facts he refused to lend you a few hundred dollars, or perhaps he didn’t give you a lift when your car broke down. Does that really sound that bad?

Try this, in conjunction with the Love and Compassion meditation, and see if that doesn’t make the second shift towards a compassionate mind.

The Third Stage: Forgiveness

And the final step – forgiveness. Here, I differ from the psychologists – some interpretations of forgiveness are downright dangerous! A decision to forgive a forced statement, drilled into your head, positive thinking – that is repression!

So this is a fine line, one that you have to walk with caution. Decide to forgive, simply with the intention not to carry on external hostilities.

Some people cannot forgive themselves, and so externally, they indulge in alcohol, or cut themselves, or some other destructive behaviour. Some people cannot forgive those who hurt them, and so they gather their friends to break a few bones, or they slander and backstab. Make a decision that nothing is owed for this mistake. If you are in the wrong, then make amends. But that’s all. That is all external.

In the internal world – if your wounds are open, then don’t deny them! Don’t push them away with this silly mantra – “I have forgiven, I have forgiven, I have forgiven.”

Nurture your internal wounds with the emotional mastery series – hold them, love them, heal them. It is perfectly normal for things in the external world to be “fixed”, back to normal – but the wounds are still open inside you. Never – again, never – deny your inner wounds.

Forgiveness comes of its own accord when the last drop of pain and sorrow, at yourself, at everyone involved, has dissolved into nothingness. And there arises compassion.

Link Love

As I was finishing this post, I just got a few emails saying I’ve been tagged with another meme. I realised that this post is in a way a perfect response to the theme.

This meme challenges you to change your thinking about a certain topic. Great idea, if used on little things. I wonder if it might lead to repression, though, if used on emotionally charged topics, so I won’t discuss it further.

It was started by Peter, over at I will change your life.

I was also tagged by two friends and fellow personal development bloggers – Tristan L at the Synergy Institute, and Alex B at The Next 45 Years. Great people, both of them!