On the long list of wants in life—to be healthy, happy, fulfilled—feeling really, truly good about yourself likely takes a top spot for many people. And that comes with building confidence, which usually means improving your self-esteem—an internal judgment of your self-worth or “an evaluation of worthiness,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Perhaps the most talked-about method for pumping yourself up is to tip the needle in the direction you want, telling yourself to work harder, get stronger, and develop grit. But now, psych experts are poking holes in that theory, noting that while elevating your self-esteem can certainly be a pathway to more confidence, it has its pitfalls.
Self-esteem is tied to external validation, like compliments at work or likes on an IG post, so it’s fragile, says Christopher Germer, PhD, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. When things don’t go right, comparison, feelings of isolation, and criticism creep in.
Say you’re falling behind on your marathon-training plan and angry with yourself about it. You might think, I’ll try harder because I feel inadequate. In the short term, that may work, but in the long run? Nope. When you get down on yourself, you wind up doubting yourself, which makes it harder to take risks, learn, and grow. You become afraid of failure, and you’re more likely to give up than to try again.
An alternate way to a more assertive you: self-compassion, which involves showing yourself kindness when you’re struggling, failing, or noticing something you don’t love about yourself. Self-compassion isn’t about measuring up to expectations; it’s a way of relating to yourself as a human. By caring and expressing concern for yourself during hard times, you’re able to persevere and create changes.
Well, yeah, feels kind of obvious, right? Let’s go back to the training scenario to paint the picture a little more clearly: With self-compassion, you’ll think, I’m going to try because I care about myself and I don’t want to suffer. That kind of motivation “leads to more self-confidence,” Neff says. When you can sit with your pain and think through what you might need to achieve your goal—like waking up earlier for runs or scheduling them on your phone calendar—instead of spiraling over all the ways you’re failing, you’ll overcome challenges, building confidence and belief in yourself as you go. It’s a subtle change in reaction, but it makes a huge difference. “Self-compassion gives you a stable source of self-competence, as opposed to a ‘sugar high,’” Neff says.
We tend to think of self-compassion as passive, even unproductive (“If I’m easy on myself, I’ll become complacent”). But that could not be further from the truth. There are two sides to self-compassion, Neff says. The tender side embodies the idea that although you are innately flawed, you are still worthy. And the fierce side says if you truly care about yourself, you accept yourself but don’t accept all of your behaviors, especially harmful ones. “Part of caring for yourself means taking active steps to change,” says Neff. That’s where the power of self-compassion comes in.
But none of this is easy. We tend to be waaay nicer to others than we are to ourselves—and we’re quick to judge our shortcomings and failures. The good news is this is a trainable skill. “It’s a muscle you can build,” says Neff.
Self-compassion Exercises to Try
These three methods create a deeper understanding of self-compassion and will help you feel your best today and for years to come. Motivation, a better mood, and, yep, alllll the feel-good feelings, right this way…
1. Ask Yourself: What Do I Need?
This is the question that guides the whole self-compassion cultivation agenda, says Germer. Say you missed a deadline and are being hard on yourself about it. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk, figure out what you need—a few more hours of childcare, writing daily to-do lists—to problem-solve. This inquiry (part of the fierce side of self-compassion) provides resources and tools for change, eventually generating self-confidence as you’re able to learn and grow.
2. Put a Hand on Your Heart
Touching your heart or your cheek “is probably the most widely used, simple, and physiologically transformative experience toward self-compassion,” says Germer. (You’re likely already doing it—when you receive bad news, you may instinctively put your hand on your heart!) This self-touch lowers cortisol levels, according to German research. Also, when you rub your chest, specifically, you may activate your vagus nerve, the main nerve of your parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) system, Germer says.
3. Figure Out When You Just *Don’t* Have It in You
Pinpoint times when you lack self-compassion, says Pooja Lakshmin, MD, the author of the forthcoming book Real Self-Care. Do you get in your head when you see an email from a certain coworker, or does negative self-talk bubble up every time you and your partner fight? Homing in on self-kindness in these moments can push you toward the type of change you’re looking for.
How to Practice Positive Self-Talk
The way you talk to yourself can fuel compassion, but acing positive self-talk is not simply telling yourself, “Everything’s great!” How to change your tune:
Notice the Negativity
An easy way to cultivate a little TLC toward yourself is to practice a meditation tailored by Neff for this purpose: Focus on the mistakes or flaws that have been bothering you lately, then find where the emotions about them tend to end up in your body, like a tightness in your jaw or tension in your shoulders. Allow those feelings to sit in your body instead of resisting or rejecting them. This lets you get in touch with the suffering caused by your criticisms or the belief that you have to be perfect.
Make a Wish
Germer favors the use of wishes over positive self-statements (like “I’m getting stronger!”). Wishes, such as “May I accept every part of me,” are like “surrounding yourself with sacred company rather than the nasty chatter in our own minds,” he says. Plus, they encourage growth.
Replace the Word Should
Ever find yourself “shoulding” all over yourself? (Ugh, I should have done this earlier.) It’s a common form of self-criticism, one that’s not exactly self-compassionate, says Dr. Lakshmin. Try subbing for your shoulds anything that fosters curiosity (Could I have chosen to do X instead? Or: I wonder what held me back most this week?). Curiosity is kinder and more productive than shoulding, she says.
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel. A former Shape and Men’s Health editor, her work has also been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, CNTraveler.com, and other national print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her drinking coffee or running around her hometown of Boston.