For years, self-esteem has been touted as the key to happiness and fulfillment. But there's increasing evidence that another quality is even more important to a successful life–self-compassion.
Recent research: A 2012 analysis of 14 studies found that people high in self-compassion were less vulnerable to depression, anxiety and stress. Other research has shown that with self-compassion comes higher motivation to exercise, greater likelihood to have regular doctor checkups, less susceptibility to eating disorders and better ability to cope with chronic pain.
Natural Boost for Depression Sufferers
Recent study: Severe depression symptoms eased twice as fast in women who took 5 g of the muscle-building amino acid creatine along with the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro), compared with those who took only the antidepressant.
Theory: Creatine may boost energy levels in the brain, helping selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as escitalopram, work faster.
If you are taking an SSRI and your depression hasn't improved: Ask your physician about adding creatine to your regimen.
The Problem With Self-Esteem
Our highly competitive culture tells us we need to be special or at least above average to feel good about ourselves. But this can lead to constant, debilitating self-criticism. And in people who do have high self-esteem, it can contribute to a sense of superiority or entitlement, which can feed into prejudice and bullying.
What's more, self-esteem can be very fragile. It lasts only as long as you see yourself as successful, smart or attractive...and evaporates when you stumble or don't like what you see in the mirror.
Conversely, self-compassion is stable and constructive. When you see yourself clearly-both positive and negative traits—you can more easily cope with the setbacks and mistakes that are inevitable in life and make the changes needed to reach your full potential.
Self-compassion means treating yourself in the same way you would treat a treasured friend.
The biggest reason most people don't do this is that they think they need self-criticism to motivate themselves. They're afraid that if they permit self-compassion, they will keep making the same mistakes and never improve themselves.
But growing research confirms that self-criticism is a poor success strategy. Rather than motivating, it makes people feel anxious, incompetent and depressed.
Gestures of caring-a kind word or warm embrace-trigger the release of oxytocin, a brain chemical that promotes feelings of trust, calm and safety. To do this for yourself…
- Say soothing words to yourself when you're upset. Use the same kind of language you would use to comfort a friend in need. You might say to yourself, "I know you're feeling bad right now, and I want you to be happy. I'm here to support you in any way I can."
- Listen in on your self-talk. If you hear harsh tones of self-judgment, quiet your inner critic. You could tell yourself, "I know you're trying to make me a better person, but your angry words aren't helping, Please don't be so critical." But if there's a character flaw you would like to address, you might say, "This behavior is causing problems, and I don't want you to suffer. Can you try harder to change? I believe in you." These words can help put you in the calm and safe state required to do your best and make needed changes.
- Find an inconspicuous self-caress that soothes you. Physical gestures of kindness and warmth are the most direct way to calm anyone, including yourself. For some people, gently placing a hand on the heart or belly turns self-blame into self-compassion. You also can try cradling your face in your hand or wrapping your arms around your body for a brief embrace.
To have self-compassion, you must accept certain painful feelings without denying or fighting against them. Notice where in your body you experience emotions like sadness and anger–maybe it's a feeling of constriction in your throat or tight muscles in your chest.
When Doctors Get It Wrong…
Is It Depression or Hypothyroidism? Patients who produce too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) may have the condition for years before it is diagnosed because symptoms are usually vague and seemingly minor.
Common scenario: A doctor might assume that a patient who complains of fatigue, recent weight gain or apathy is suffering from stress or depression and write a prescription for an antidepressant.
What to do: Insist on a blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels if you have any of the above symptoms. Fatigue that's accompanied by an increased sensitivity to cold often is a sign of hypothyroidism. So is hair loss (but not that due to male-pattern baldness). For unknown reasons, thinning of the outer one-third of the eyebrows is also a red flag for hypothyroidism.
Experts disagree on the optimal range for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Current guidelines suggest that it should fall somewhere between 0.45 miU/L and 4.49 mU/L. (The specific values will depend on the laboratory that your doctor uses.) If your TSH is normal but your symptoms persist, ask your doctor about other blood tests, such as free T3/T4 or anti-thyroglobulin. In some patients, these tests are useful in detecting hypothyroidism.
Most people do well with a thyroid replacement regimen. Some benefit from levothyroxine (Levoxyl, Levothroid, Synthroid, etc.), while others find that natural desiccated thyroid hormone, such as Armour Thyroid, Nature-Throid or Westhroid, provides a better balance of T3 and T4 hormones.
Helpful: Lie down in a quiet place and do a body scan. Start with the soles of your feet and slowly move upward. Consciously offer comfort to areas where unpleasant feelings arise–by putting a warm hand on the spot...relaxing tightness in the area by tensing then releasing the muscle...or by saying some comforting words.
Write Yourself A Letter
In one study, people who wrote themselves one-paragraph self-compassionate letters (daily for one week) reported feeling happier and less depressed three months later.
You can do this for yourself. In your daily letter, focus on whatever troubles you. Write your letter from the perspective of a truly compassionate friend or wise grandmother who unconditionally loves you. Express the kind of understanding and gentle encouragement you would offer someone you care deeply about.
Take the quiz: To find out how self-compassionate you are, go to www.self-compassion.org.