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Self Care vs Self Indulgence vs Self Esteem

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Self care vs self indulgence

“Isn’t self care self indulgent?”

“I’d feel like I was slacking off if I engaged too much in this self care stuff!”

“Being hard on myself motivates me to work harder”.

These are common words I hear from my clients, especially high achievers, when it comes to the topic of self care. But they are all misguided into believing that being too nice to yourself is not good.

We used to think harsh corporal punishment was the way to succeed. Many of us may remember growing up in a culture where “spare the rod, spoil the child” was a rule for life. However, we now know that this form of motivation can have many adverse consequences. In fact, this form of discipline may lead to psychological problems including attachment issues, increased anxiety, and may decrease motivation altogether. Being too hard on oneself creates a fear of failure, increases procrastination, and increases performance anxiety – all of which are the biggest blocks to motivation, as we know. High expectations, high self criticism, rigid rules, and using restrictions to punish oneself creates a negative impact on one’s cognitive and emotional health. Many people choose to give up, or even worse, never try challenging themselves toward mental growth.

The difference between self care and self indulgence ultimately depends on the long-term consequence of the reward itself. Self indulgence includes behaviors that lead to negative consequences, whereas self care will lead to positive consequences. Although eating a pint (or four!) of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream may feel rewarding in the short term, once it's over you may end up feeling pretty awful. Shopping and getting manicures may sound like good self care strategies, but will there be a negative financial impact from these “rewards”?

Although rewarding ourselves for accomplishments is great, how we reward ourselves matters.

“I hear you, but I grew up with tough love, and I think it served me well.”

Self care doesn’t have to mean being too soft on ourselves. Understanding the difference between intentions of tough love and cruelty will depend on a number of things, including tone and language.

Our inner critic, the self-talk we experience while thinking, making decisions, planning for the future, and engaging in other executive functions of the brain, is designed for protection and survival. Our brain’s number one job is to keep us alive. When physical or psychological safety is compromised, fear centers become activated, which then elicit thoughts and emotions to mobilize us for safety. The tone and language of the inner critic seems to be a strong determining factor of when things can take a turn on experiencing negative stress (distress) or positive stress (eustress). Our inner critic can be our inner ally or our inner enemy. When thoughts come on strong and hold one accountable, we are more likely to feel motivated, as long as we experience the tone as coming from a place of self worth and value. However, when thoughts are self deprecating, belittling, and punishing, we may become overwhelmed and defeated. Self compassion researcher, Dr. Kristen Neff, indicates this “drill sergeant” approach could be very motivating for some personalities, and there is nothing wrong with tough love, so long as it is not punitive and rejecting. We have to experience that the inner critic is an ally, not an enemy.

So what’s the difference between self esteem and self compassion?

Both self esteem and self compassion are linked with positive mental health, however, self compassion seems to sustain mental health during times of failure.

Self esteem is rooted in judgment of self worth. It is an evaluative comparison that appears to be contingent on a reward (success) and deserts you when you fail (success becomes threatened). Telling yourself, “I am good” or “I am an idiot if I fail” are examples of high or low self esteem in language.

Self compassion, on the other hand, is non-evaluative. It is based more on attitude, rather than judgment, and is stable. It is available to you both when you succeed and when you fail. Being ok with yourself, you would use phrases such as, “I am ok with who I am.” Self compassion steps in when self esteem fails you and is a better motivator for long term success. It embodies mindfulness (i.e., awareness and perspective) and provides what you need (support, space, time, food, etc.)

More important than how HIGH your self esteem is, is how STABLE your self esteem is. And in compassion, there is no hierarchy.

Perhaps some of the main questions to know the difference of your inner critic being helpful vs. hurtful would include:

  • What is the effect on you?

  • Does it help?

  • Do you feel cared for? Or, do you feel shamed and deflated?

  • What are the words that are used?

  • What is the tone of voice?

  • How is your inner critic trying to help you? (Because usually it is trying to help you. That is the reason we have this voice.)

  • How can you reframe what your inner critic says in a way to make you feel valued, in a way a good “coach” or loving friend would be?

Asking yourself these questions, including questioning the evidence of your own judgment could help compassion feel acceptable and accountable for you.

If you truly want to be successful, set your mind for self compassion rather than self esteem. It fuels motivation, creates successful teams, and leads with love and integrity.

Interested in learning more? Let’s talk more. Message me to set up a free consultation for therapy or worldwide coaching.

Be well always.


-Dr. Mini

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