Compassion for Self-Esteem Regulation: A Psychodynamic Perspective

In Buddhism’s Metta Sutra, the centrality of compassion and kindness is made clear when the Buddha advises his followers to wish, “May all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be, whether they are weak of strong, omitting none…the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born and to-be-born, may all beings be at ease! Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings” (in Salzberg, 1995).

Mindfulness practice is like a kind of soup, with several ingredients: present-moment awareness, acceptance, letting go or surrender to impermanence, inhabiting of the physical self, perhaps other ingredients as well. In this soup, compassion (or metta, in Buddhist terms) is the sweetening ingredient. Without it, mindfulness or Buddhism might seem an austere discipline, a self-absorbed quest for solitary enlightenment, an aloof detachment from the day-to-day world, or just, to bring back a dismissive term from an earlier generation, navel-gazing.

But compassion elevates mindfulness into a practice of love and connectedness with others, a powerful and necessary antidote to what could otherwise be isolationism and escapism. An analogous statement could be made about the role of compassion in psychoanalysis. Unlike some analyses, in which people come to see clearly all their quirks and foibles but never truly stop devaluing themselves because of them, a core aspect of analytic work informed by mindfulness practice is to be kind to oneself, kind to each moment-of-self as it occurs. As with the inability to simply be in the present moment and the refusal to accept one’s experience, the tendency to regard oneself harshly and unkindly generally functions unnoticed within the self as a compulsive, repetitive, habitual way of being.

The cultivation of compassion can be relevant to addressing disorders of self-esteem regulation. A person naturally experiences an endlessly fluctuating stream of self-images that can run the gamut from idealized to devalued, which would, to varying degrees, generate an endless flux of pleasurable and painful feelings. In Buddhist terms, narcissistic pathology is related to the extent to which one tries to cling to these images and thoughts, holding rigidly to the positive and trying to drive away the negative. Since this amounts to snatching and shoving impossibly at the flowing water of a river, it leads unavoidably to suffering and to a personality that becomes in some way distorted. Here again, happiness is related to how much one can accept the river’s entire flow, surrender to it, and allow all self-images to freely come and go. As Falkenstrom (2003) writes, “The more tightly the individual holds on to images of the self, the more conflictual it gets if something ‘not belonging’ to the self-concept is experienced.…The degree of narcissistic vulnerability is thus directly related to the degree of clinging to images and concepts of self.”

An analyst, regarding narcissistic phenomena in this way, might find ways to increase the patient’s awareness of the ceaseless flow of these value-laden fantasies of the self, and how he clings to them or turns away from them. Of course, it would be essential that the analyst be aware of his own moment-to-moment shifts in this regard, from effective clinician to hapless hack to just…himself. It would also be essential, especially given the vulnerable self-esteem of such patients, to approach this type of material with compassion and closely attuned attention. Falkenstrom (2003) expresses the heart of it: “Mindful attention to momentary experience needs to be a kind attention.” From this perspective, emotional health is closely related to a sense of fluidity of the self. A meditation practitioner watches up close the transience of all mental activity and gradually gains a lighter hold on the experience of self, an increased sense of it as not fixed, not separate from the ever-changing stream of all his other perceptions.

Mitchell (1988) observes, “The determination of emotional health as opposed to psychopathology…is not so much what you do and think as your attitude toward what you do and think, how seriously you take yourself.” Nichol (2006) says of the benefits of meditation practice that someone who has an insight into the self’s fluidity “is able to discover new things, to create, to enchant the world, and to live with more of a sense of awe.” There is the thrilling possibility that mindfulness and psychotherapy together will help our patients, and ourselves, achieve this kind of life.

For more on compassion and psychoanalysis, check out the new volume Mindfulness, Acceptance, and the Psychodynamic Evolution: Bringing Values into Treatment Planning and Enhancing Psychodynamic Work with Buddhist Psychology.


Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving-kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Falkenstrom, F. (2003). A Buddhist contribution to the psychoanalytic psychology of self. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 84, 1551–1568.

Mitchell, S. A. (1988). Relational concepts in psychoanalysis: An integration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nichol, D. (2006). Buddhism and psychoanalysis: A personal reflection. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 66, 157–172.

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