My eleven-year-old daughter was complaining about her friend Mary.

‘She’s keeps boasting about her new school,’ she confided, looking despondent. ‘It’s got the most amazing netball courts and clubs for everything...and she’s got much nicer clothes than me...' As she began to sob, spouting a familiar litany about how her life was so much worse than Mary’s, I thought of Kristen Neff. She’s an American academic from Houston, who has put numbers to what I’ve long suspected as the mother of two daughters: the competition game starts young, and girls in particular compete at least partly on the basis of how they look.

The competition game starts young, and girls in particular compete at least partly on the basis of how they look.
Neff’s research shows that girls as young as eight and nine begin to worry about how they compare with others and begin on a treadmill that continues into their adult lives. By the time they are eleven or twelve, levels of self-esteem begin to plummet. It was this insight that led Neff to suggest that we need a new model of psychological wellbeing. Hitherto, achieving high self-esteem was the Holy Grail of good mental health. If we felt high levels of self-worth, then in turn we experienced less depression and anxiety, the argument went. And indeed there is evidence to suggest that high levels of self-esteem can indeed correlate with good mental health. Yet as Neff convincingly argues, the problem is that self-esteem tends to be based on needing to feel above average, and better than others. I will not enjoy self-esteem by having an okay wardrobe: for my daughter to feel good, she needs to be thought stylish and fashionable, and crucially, more stylish and fashionable than the aforementioned Mary. The problem of invidious comparisons to others has worsened in a world of very public numerical comparisons, be they of Facebook likes or Twitter followers, website hits or sales.

Relying on self-esteem provides no psychological shelter in a storm.
Nor does self-esteem help when failure hits, as it does to all. Relying on self-esteem provides no psychological shelter in a storm. Better for our mental health, Neff argues, is to develop self-compassion, which encompasses three main components: a kindly inner voice of encouragement, understanding, and forgiveness rather than harsh judgment; an acknowledgement of our common humanity, and how alike we are in our common imperfection; and to use mindfulness to accept our suffering in the present moment with compassion. 

The further strand of Neff’s argument is to dismiss the notion that somehow self-criticism motivates us. In fact, her research shows that self-criticism does the exact opposite. It makes us feel threatened, triggering our old friend the ‘flight or fight’ response, and floods our bodies with those enemies adrenal and cortisol. We become both the attacker of others who need to be less than us, and the attacked, as we feel under threat ourselves. It is a disastrous combination which in turn triggers high stress levels, the breeding ground for the anxiety and depression which has long been my companion and which I have now learnt to manage. 

I am careful with my diet, exercise, practice mindfulness, and use poetry as a constant companion to feel less alone and more able to tell myself a different story. But Neff’s research showing the efficacy of self-compassion has proved hugely helpful since I chanced on her work. One trick for me is to encourage my own daugthers to develop their self compassion, partly by example. As I gave my eleven-year-old a hug, I felt her visibly relax and soften. Neff explains that receiving compassion, physical warmth and trust generates a feeling of safety, which in turn dispels fear and triggers opiates and oxytocin. So when I hear my own self-critical voice, I remind myself to apply the daughter test. Would I treat her harshly if she came to me feeling inadequate and frightened? The answer, increasingly, is not. And for that I remain very grateful to one Kristen Neff.   

Rachel Kelly's latest series of poetry workshops to help those with anxiety or depression start at The Idler Academy next week.