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How to prepare for anything life can throw at you

In the 1980s and ‘90s, ‘self-esteem’ (also known as ‘contingent self-esteem’) was among the most prominent buzzwords in behavioural science circles, its proponents pointing to a small-but-growing body of research positing that high self-esteem could bring with it untold benefits.

It all made so much sense: The greater your self-confidence and self-regard, the better you would fare in all areas of life – work, study, health and relationships.

“It would be hard to overstate the long-term impact of these claims,” writes Jesse Singal in The Cut. “The self-esteem craze changed how countless organisations were run, how an entire generation – millennials – was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favourably).”

By the early 2000s, however, researchers began to uncover problems with the nonstop pursuit of high self-esteem. They contended that while self-esteem is all well and good when things are going right, it has its downsides.  

“Self-esteem is when you pin your sense of self-worth on an external accomplishment, like coming first, getting a good grade, getting a job or getting the hot date with the person you fancy,” says Dr Madeleine Ferrari, a lecturer in clinical psychology at ACU's Strathfield Campus and researcher with the Healthy Brain and Mind Research Centre

This need for external validation has led to practices in schools where praise is doled out indiscriminately; where everyone gets a ribbon, regardless of whether they come first or last. 

“It’s this idea of really congratulating and focusing on the outcome,” Dr Ferrari says. “That works well when you do well, because when you get medals and rewards, you have great self-esteem. But if we rely on self-esteem to boost our sense of self-worth, that puts us in a really difficult situation when we inevitably make a mistake. And this will happen, because we’re only human, and we can’t be perfect forever across every sphere of life.” 

When things do go wrong, those who are high on self-esteem tend to collapse, allowing the self-critical voice that we all carry to rear its ugly head and run the show. This inner critic can be ruthless, leading to all sorts of fault-finding thoughts: “I’m not good enough, I can’t handle this, I’m weak, I’m a failure.”

Dr Ferrari suggests a solution to the troubles posed by self-esteem: self-compassion.

“Self-compassion is a healthy way of self-relating which serves as an alternative to pinning your sense of self-worth on what you accomplish, and an alternative to self-criticism. Self-compassion is a way of thinking and feeling that acknowledges we are imperfect people living imperfect lives,” she says. 

“When friends are going through a tough time, we tend to respond instinctively with support and kindness. We can acknowledge they’ve made a mistake, and we still think they’re a good person despite this. Self-compassion is about extending the same compassionate wisdom to ourselves that we automatically extend to our friends and loved ones.” 

Discovering self-compassion

Madeleine Ferrari’s discovery of the science backing self-compassion happened by accident. 

In 2015, when she first joined ACU as a psychology lecturer, she was asked to run a series of psychoeducation workshops at Sydney high schools. She scoured the literature for material that would assist students to build resilience against the rigours of high-stakes testing.  

“In this process, I stumbled on some of the early self-compassion research, and I have to say that when I first started reading it, it sounded a bit wishy-washy,” she says.  

“The more I read, however, the more I was convinced by the rapidly-growing research which consistently showed that if you can notice how you are reacting to yourself in times of pain or times of error, and if you turn inward some of that kindness and compassion you intuitively display with loved ones, there were overwhelming benefits.” 

In the years since, Dr Ferrari has focused her research on understanding the dynamics of self-compassion. Her studies have shown that self-compassion can improve diverse mental health outcomes, lead to better emotional regulation skills, weaken the link between perfectionism and depression, and bring physical benefits to those who are overweight or are managing diabetes. 

In late 2022, ahead of the end-of-year exams for year 12 students across Australia, she authored an article on The Conversation labelling self-compassion as “a superpower in the arsenal of every year 12 student”. 

“When I first read about self-compassion, I remember having this moment of, ‘Oh, I just wish I’d known this when I was younger’, because year 12 was a brutal year for me and undergraduate study was tough … the whole time, I relied on self-criticism to perform the way I did,” Dr Ferrari says.  

“Suddenly, all these years later, I happen to stumble upon this research telling me I could have achieved all of that without the self-criticism, without the reliance on high self-esteem, simply by listening to the self-compassionate voice. And I guess that drove me to focus my work on this area, so that maybe I could pass it on to others at a younger age.”

Self-compassion for success

If self-compassion is so effective, it begs the question: Why don’t we do it naturally? Why are we harder on ourselves than we are on others? 

Madeleine Ferrari cites the work of British psychologist Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy, who references our tendency to underestimate and undermine our own goodness. 

“It’s quite a sad idea, that we often feel the need to be tough on ourselves and apply harsh self-criticism in order to accomplish things and keep ourselves accountable,” she says. 

“But when you look at the research on self-criticism – this practice of beating yourself up that goes beyond constructive criticism and takes that extra leap of saying, ‘I’m not good enough’– it has the effect of diminishing your motivation and your will to achieve things. It doesn’t help us; it’s crippling.” 

In contrast, says Dr Ferrari, self-compassion can help us to make headway on our goals and aspirations

“When you connect with the compassionate part of yourself, it’s almost like you’re giving yourself permission to try again and take the risk of making a mistake,” she says.

“You’re not putting a positive spin on things by saying, ‘You’ll definitely succeed’, because that’s fake. Instead, you’re taking a more grounded, realistic view. You might fail because you’re only human. You can only do the best you can at that given moment, and that will be good enough. 

“It isn’t about taking away the drive for success, it’s about adding an extra skill that helps you to respond in times of adversity. If you practice this compassionate approach, you might find you’re more likely to try new things and accomplish something you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Mastering the ‘tricky brain’

There’s another reason why we don’t always intuitively treat ourselves with compassion. 

Put simply, we are working with what Paul Gilbert terms “a tricky piece of machinery”. 

Through evolution, our brains have been hardwired to react to danger through the fight or flight response. This served us well when we were faced with extreme physical threats, like being attacked by a sabre-toothed or an aggressive invader. 

Nowadays, the threats tend to be less extreme, like failing at exam time or having someone laugh at our expense. Yet our “tricky brain” is still responding to the more extreme, more life-threatening stress situation.

“The human brain isn’t perfect, it’s the product of evolution,” Dr Ferrari says. “When it really was life or death, it kept our ancestors alive. In modern society, the threats are no longer life-threatening, but we still have the same physiological response.” 

When we practice self-compassion, we go some way to disarming this threat-defence system.  Instead, we activate hormones that trigger a calmer, gentler bodily response. 

Learning self-compassion

So, how do we nurture self-compassion? Can it be learnt? 

The good news is that research suggests even those who are habitually self-critical can learn to change their ways. 

Says Madeleine Ferrari: “The powerful thing with self-compassion is that it’s intuitive, because we know what to say to a good friend when they’re having a tough time, and it’s just a matter of applying that same compassion to ourselves.” 

The other thing to know is that the evidence supporting the benefits of self-compassion is growing, as are the informational resources (including clinical treatments, filmspresentations, media articles and techniques). 

Dr Ferrari points out that the journey towards greater self-compassion is not a linear one; rather, it is a sometimes-smooth, sometimes-rocky road. 

“Even as someone who works in this area, constantly talking and thinking and researching self-compassion, I sometimes find myself listening to Voldemort – what I call my self-critical voice – telling me that I’m a terrible person,” she says. 

“Practicing self-compassion is a lifelong journey of learning. There might be times where we fall off the wagon, where we need remind ourselves of its superpower. If we can tap into our compassionate wisdom and turn it inwards, we won’t need external validation and we won’t listen to our self-critic – our self-compassion will mean we’re more able to deal with adversity, and more likely to reach our goals.” 

Dr Madeleine Ferrari is a clinical and health psychology researcher. She is passionate about self-compassion and cultivating a healthy and supportive way of relating to oneself. A registered clinical psychologist she has worked in hospitals and private clinics with clients across the lifespan. 

Dr Madeleine Ferrari

Learn more about ACU.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G