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When Your Children are Too Hard On Themselves


Perseverance is a tenet of martial arts. We want our students to develop the competence and confidence that only comes from not giving up the moment they hit a speedbump. But we are seeing a greater number of kids who beat themselves up when they feel like they can't get things right away. It may be due in part to the school environment that has increasingly become more competitive and test-driven at younger grades. I was talking with one of the parents about it, and they said, it is not self-esteem that kids lack, it is self-compassion. This was a giant "A Ha" to me and I decided to dig deeper into this subject. 

Parents often bring their children to us to develop greater self-confidence. To me, confidence and self-esteem were one in the same. Recently I read Eric Barker's book, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" in which he addressed the issue of self-esteem vs. self-compassion. I thought that this may resonate with many of you, especially if your child is the kind of person who is relentlessly hard on themselves.

Confidence is a healthy trait and we were all raised to say we should be confident. However, teaching that through self-esteem has potential emotional challenges while self-compassion does not. Barker writes that while self-esteem is correlated with greater happiness, it has a tremendous potential downside. Comparatively, self-compassion is also highly correlated with greater happiness, and as research shows, lower rates of depression and anxiety. In fact, studies show that those who demonstrate greater self-compassion also show more compassion for others and is a better predictor of being a good partner than self-esteem. When you can focus on feeling good about yourself without the ego, people tend to like you more. 

So, what is the downside to self-esteem? For some, as Albert Ellis, Ph.D. said, it is a conditional feeling that correlated with performance, be it real or perceived. If I do well, I have greater self-esteem. I need to maintain that level of excellence, or perhaps perfectionism, to maintain the self-esteem. If I don't do well, I need to protect my self-esteem and the potential is to disregard feedback that could lead to improvement. With self-compassion, my sense of well-being is not contingent on performance. I can analyze feedback from myself or others without self-judgement. I am not continuously needing to prove anything to myself or anyone else. This leads to perseverance and improvement over time. Narcissists have high levels of self-esteem but are delusional in their analysis.  Of course, not everyone with self-esteem is a Narcissist, but there is a high correlation between the two, whereas the correlation between self-compassion and Narcissism is near zero.  

My end-goal is to teach confidence. But rather than focus on self-esteem, which cannot be taught and has all the downside potential, we will focus on self-compassion. We will emphasize that the children need not be harder on themselves than the worst boss or teacher they could ever imagine.  They should simply be kinder to themselves and not feel the need to be perfect. I promise you, having greater self-compassion will make them more driven, not less. They will see their true self without judgement and take more action toward performance. They will have less fear of failure, and so they will try new things, and have increased confidence and happiness. 

One of the things I have learned in teaching children is that if you tell a child three things that they did well during a class, and one thing that they need to work on, there are children who will only hear the negative, and they feel defeated. But with greater self-compassion, the child will hear all the feedback without the unhealthy need for constant praise. They need to learn that compliments are earned, and feedback, given in a friendly and constructive way, is how we learn.

In our dojang, we will talk more about being kind to yourself. Failures and frustrations are opportunities. I can't make someone have more self-esteem. But I can teach children how to have self-compassion by reminding them to use positive self-talk and to know that not everything is a competition.  What they need to give themselves is the "gift of time."  Time to try, time to fail, time to correct, and try again - and to do so without self-judgement.


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