New thinking on self-confidence turns the concept upside down. Of course, it’s important, even critical, for our physical and mental health that we believe in ourselves. And it is good to let others see our confidence in who we are and what we can do. As professional and popular wisdom goes, you have to love yourself before you can love someone else, and have them love you. But loving and caring for ourselves is not the same as self-confidence.
Author Eric Barker offers his insight that the underlying element of a healthy view of ourselves is self-compassion.
“Self-compassion encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from an objective and realistic point of view,” Barker says in an article in The New York Times.
The problem with self-confidence, as Barker describes in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, is that it can exist on shaky ground. If you “fake it ‘til you make it,” that might work for a while, but sooner or later, the weak link in the chain is going to break.
Our society’s emphasis on productivity and success can lead someone “faking it while they’re trying to make it” to failure. Barker points to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, when you overestimate your ability in something, as a potential reason a person can stumble.
Let’s imagine how this might show up a work situation. Self-confidence may have helped you land a job where you have many of the required skills, but one of your responsibilities in the new job is analyzing financial reports. But, oops ! Your self-confidence allowed you to skip the detail that you have no training in economics or financial analysis. When that weak link surfaces, you are either going to be out of a job or will have to remedy that gap in your training.
In more personal activities, perhaps you boasted a little too self-confidently about your hiking skills and offered to lead a group of friends on a wilderness hike. If you’re not experienced enough or extremely well-prepared, you could end up in a storm on a mountainside with people’s lives in your hands.
Self-compassion in your work or personal life, in those examples, would have led you to acknowledge your true abilities and strengthen the weak links before you got into a difficult or crisis situation.
Pioneering researcher on self-compassion Kristin Neff says it emerges from the definition of compassion, which means “suffering with.” You feel empathy for others, perhaps a homeless person on the street or someone going through a difficult family situation. It’s not pity, but a gentle understanding that life has challenges and human beings are not perfect, because that’s the nature of being human.
“Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness, care and concern you show a loved one,” says Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas Austin.
Neff defines defines three major elements of self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness: Recognizing that being imperfect, failing and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so self-compassionate people tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences, rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, it leads to emotional connection and a feeling of being equal, that we are all doing the best we can in life.
- Common Humanity: Everyone has challenges in life and self-compassionate people don’t get stuck thinking, “Why me?” That leads to isolation. Connecting to the human family gives us strength in the long-run. We are not alone.
- Mindfulness: Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Keeping the perspective that others are suffering brings balance. Negative emotions are accepted, without being carried away by them. Mindfulness is a receptive and non-judgemental state of mind that allows compassion for self and others.
Someone who is overly confident can be attempting to hide self-doubt or a feeling of inadequacy, says Neff. Self-compassion, however, is based on a realistic view of ourselves as a human being with strengths and flaws, just like everyone else.
Test Your Self-Compassion
Neff offers a way to get an initial idea of just how compassionate you are with yourself. Try it. And remember to be kind and gentle with your findings. We are all in this thing called ‘life’ together.
Wong, Kristen, “Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence,” Smarter Living, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2017
Neff, Kristin, “The Three Elements of Self-Compassion,” Self-compassion.org