Kristin Neff: The Liberating Power of Self-Compassion

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November 6, 2018

Kristin Neff: The Liberating Power of Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff November 6, 2018

Dr. Kristin Neff is a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas and a practitioner of Buddhist meditation. The book and documentary The Horse Boy chronicle Kristin and her family’s extraordinary journey to help her autistic son. With Sounds True, Kristin has created the audio program Self-Compassion Step by Step, which includes clinical evidence of the importance of self-compassion along with techniques and exercises for cultivating this pivotal quality. In this interview, Tami Simon and Kristin talk about the vital distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, three pillars of self-compassion, ‘self-compassion breaks,’ and the importance of recognizing our common humanity during difficulties that feel unique and isolating. (68 minutes)

Tami’s Takeaway
In any moment of self-criticism or self-blame, a “go-to move” that is immediately effective and state-changing is to gently touch your arm, stroke your face, or place your hand on your heart (any form of soothing touch). This activates our mammalian “tend and befriend” system, releases oxytocin, and shifts us out of the threat-defense system. Try it next time you feel self-critical. Gently touching your body can shift your state of mind—fast!

Kristin Neff, PhD, is currently an associate professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion nearly 20 years ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide. They coauthored the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive and Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. Her newest work focuses on how to balance self-acceptance with the courage to make needed change. In June 2021, she will publish Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.

For more information on self-compassion, including a self-compassion test, research articles, and practices, go to self-compassion.org.

Author photo © BonnitaPostma-2017

Listen to Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interview with Kristin Neff:
The Liberating Power of Self-Compassion »
The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

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The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Yin and Yang of Self Compassion by Kristin Neff Blog Header Photo

The concept of yin and yang is a perfect metaphor for the energies of self-compassion. Most people are familiar with the circle of yin and yang, black and white halves and a dot of each in between. The yin is the dark energy; it’s supposed to be more feminine, more of a passive energy, more the “being with.” And the white⁠—or yang⁠—is supposedly the more active energy, the masculine energy, doing things that make a change. But really these energies are not male or female, these energies are in every single person and actually all life forms.

A lot of these ideas come from Chris Germer—my close colleague, who developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program with me—and the things we have been talking about for a long time. And to give him credit, Chris actually⁠ came up with the idea that the main domains of yang self-compassion are protecting ourselves, providing ourselves with what we need, and motivating ourselves. What I have been doing with this model is developing each of these ideas in more detail.

Readers may know there are three basic components of self-compassion:

  • Kindness⁠—being kind to ourselves
  • Common Humanity⁠—remembering this is part of life
  • Mindfulness⁠—being mindful of our struggle or pain

And so these three components of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness take a different form, they feel different, and they have a different flavor depending on what form the self-compassion is taking.

For instance, when self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. The kindness is fierce: that’s the Momma Bear, “No! That is not OK. You will go no further.” Common humanity, that’s that “me too” feeling. We stand together with our brothers and sisters in strength, we are empowered by our connection with others. And then the mindfulness is that real sense of clarity, that “This is not OK.” So it’s a difference between loving, connected presence, and fierce, empowered clarity.

It feels different when you are providing for yourself, when you’re giving yourself what you truly, authentically need. In this case, the kindness feels very fulfilling and satisfying. When we give ourselves what we need, we feel fulfilled. With common humanity, we recognize that it’s a balanced way; in other words, we don’t just give to ourselves, and we don’t subordinate our needs to those of others, but we’re balanced. Common humanity allows us to balance our needs with others. And then mindfulness gives us a real sense of authenticity: “What do I need? Do I even know what I need?” When self-compassion is in full bloom while we are providing for our needs, it manifests as fulfilling, balanced authenticity. Again, it feels very different.

And last, if we’re motivating ourselves, kindness in motivation comes out as encouragement. It’s not kindness when someone needs to be motivated and they’re stuck, to just say, “Oh well, that’s fine.” Or to ourselves, if we aren’t feeling happy, to say, “Oh, that’s fine.” Kindness means we don’t criticize ourselves; we don’t call ourselves names, but we say “You can do it! I believe in you!” Kindness is a very encouraging quality. Common humanity kind of sees how things are related to each other. It actually comes from the bigger view of interdependence—the causes and conditions that come together to create our suffering. So, when we motivate ourselves, common humanity actually manifests as wisdom. We can see where we’re stuck, why we’re stuck, what mistakes we made—we kind of understand the bigger picture of what’s happening. And then, mindfulness, in this case, is vision. It gives us the vision to see what we need to change in order to help ourselves. So in this case, kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness feels like encouraging, wise vision.

Let me give an example of this last domain. If you care about yourself and you don’t want to suffer, you’re going to want to make needed changes. You’re going to want to reach your goals. You’re going to want to be your best self. I mean, just like a parent wants that for their child, we want that for ourselves. Also we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. Because, again, if we remember that the reason we do it, the reason maybe if you’ve ever been hard on yourself, is because you want to be safe and you want to be happy. And there’s a part of you that thinks maybe this will help. If you’re really harsh on yourself, maybe you’ll pay attention and remember and do something different. It’s natural, but it’s just not very effective, right?

So if you think about it, what voice is more effective? A voice telling you how bad you are, who’s belittling you, who’s really mean? Or a voice that’s encouraging, supportive, “You can do it”? We’re going to listen more to that encouraging and supportive voice. We’re also going to be able to take in what that voice is saying more readily than a voice who’s just shutting us down.

There’s a wisdom element, too. Self-compassion taps into constructive criticism.

What mistakes did I make?

How can I do it better next time?

That’s a caring, understanding, compassionate approach. What self-criticism tends to do, is it just gives us not very wise information. Just like, “You’re bad. You did it wrong. Do it better next time.” It doesn’t say what to do differently or how to do it differently. Or it doesn’t see the bigger picture of all the causes and conditions that led to this outcome. That’s actually pretty lousy information. Kindness, on the other hand, yields a kind of wisdom. “Oh, I see. I did this. Maybe I can try this different next time and that would lead to a better effect.” It’s actually much more informational to give wise encouragement as opposed to the belittling name-calling.

Then also, the thing about having the vision. What we know—actually you probably know this from positive psychology, is that negative emotions tend to narrow our focus. It limits what we can see. We only see what we did wrong and how we’re wrong. We can’t actually see possibilities because the negative emotion actually has the function, evolutionarily actually, of narrowing our vision. Positive emotions—kindness, safety, warmth—they have the effect of broadening our perspective so that we can have a larger vision so that we can see the possibilities so that we might get an idea of, “Oh, I can try this. This may really work better for me.” The research we’ve done really backs up that this kind of encouraging, wise voice of compassionate motivation is actually much more effective and more sustainable in motivating ourselves to change.

This is an excerpt from the Insights at the Edge podcast episode with Kristin Neff, author of The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion: Cultivating Kindness and Strength in the Face of Difficulty.

Kristin Neff, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a practitioner in the Insight Meditation tradition. She is the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. A true pioneer in the field, over 15 years ago she first identified self-compassion as a measurable trait, and now there are over 2000 published studies on its benefits. Kristin is a cofounder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and gives talks and teaches workshops on self-compassion worldwide. In addition to her research, she has developed an eight‑week program to teach self‑compassion skills called Mindful Self-Compassion. The program, co‑created with her colleague Chris Germer, has been taken by tens of thousands of people worldwide. Kristin and Chris recently co-authored The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, an immediate bestseller. Learn more at self-compassion.org.

Listen to The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion today!

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Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion Kristin Neff Pinterest

Kristin Neff: The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas and the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. With Sounds True, she has recently published the audio program The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Kristin about why it’s so difficult for so many people to treat themselves with actual compassion. Kristin explains that self-compassion is not some form of self-indulgence or excuse for bad behavior; indeed, there are actually various forms of self-compassion that arise in different situations. Tami and Kristin explore the roots of wrathful or angry self-compassion, including the mythological figures that embody this concept. Finally, they discuss the most common blocks to self-assertive compassion and the necessity of taking occasional “self-compassion breaks” to cultivate a better relationship within. (64 minutes)

Kristin Neff: The Liberating Power of Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff is a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas and a practitioner of Buddhist meditation. The book and documentary The Horse Boy chronicle Kristin and her family’s extraordinary journey to help her autistic son. With Sounds True, Kristin has created the audio program Self-Compassion Step by Step, which includes clinical evidence of the importance of self-compassion along with techniques and exercises for cultivating this pivotal quality. In this interview, Tami Simon and Kristin talk about the vital distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, three pillars of self-compassion, ‘self-compassion breaks,’ and the importance of recognizing our common humanity during difficulties that feel unique and isolating. (68 minutes)

Tami’s Takeaway
In any moment of self-criticism or self-blame, a “go-to move” that is immediately effective and state-changing is to gently touch your arm, stroke your face, or place your hand on your heart (any form of soothing touch). This activates our mammalian “tend and befriend” system, releases oxytocin, and shifts us out of the threat-defense system. Try it next time you feel self-critical. Gently touching your body can shift your state of mind—fast!

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Express Your Creativity to Jump-Start Vitality

Have you ever felt like you lost a part of yourself? 

Sometimes it happens. Life changes, and we change with it. It could be a move, job change, marriage, kids, taking care of elders, or any sort of transition. Sometimes it’s not even a difficult transition that makes us lose a part of ourselves but a decision we make to keep on with some things and release the rest. And yet, we might regret leaving that part of us behind. Often, the part of ourselves we leave behind is a creative part of ourselves that we might think, in today’s world, is less important or less valued. 

This certainly happened to me—for about fifteen years. Basically, I lost my voice. As much as I loved singing, for reasons I could not fully understand, I knew part of my path was to continue in my study of healing. Unfortunately, when I chose graduate school, I also decided there was no point in singing anymore if I was not “serious.” Not only did I relinquish my opportunity to prepare for a professional career in classical western opera singing—I simply stopped singing altogether. And by making that black-and-white decision, based more in perfectionism than in feeding my heart and soul, I lost a huge part of myself for more than fifteen years. Singing was a gift I was given to bring me back to my own creative bliss—but I had been blind to its purpose for most of my life. And a part of me literally felt like I had died.

I’ll bet many of you can relate. External circumstances seem to shift the tides of our lives so that sometimes we lose parts of ourselves society doesn’t necessarily directly reward. If we enjoyed art, dance, music, or other areas of creative expression when we were young, unless we pursued these passions as professional artists, we might have lost sight of them over the years. We often think we have to leave creative pursuits behind in our process of “adulting”—making money, providing for a family, and pursuing a career. However, losing that creative juice comes with real costs—we can end up losing our ability to innovate, our fluidity, and a great deal of our joy.

Thankfully, our creativity is never really lost. In my case, I found the joy of singing again spontaneously while singing to my kids when they were young. When they got a bit older, I decided to reclaim the fun of singing for myself. Out of the blue, I created a Guns N’ Roses cover band called Nuns N Moses. I searched for musicians and convinced them (all straight males) to dress as nuns while I dressed as Moses for part of the show, changing lyrics and singing songs from Moses’s perspective. It was hilarious fun while paying homage to one of my favorite childhood rock ‘n’ roll bands with excellent musicians. Soon after, I was asked to front an Iron Maiden tribute band called Up the Irons. The music was amazing, and the band was a hit, with thousands of fans and a busy gig schedule at the best venues in Southern California. I found myself blissfully singing my heart out—and I had more energy than I ever had in my life.

I share this personal story with you for two reasons. One is to remind you that the parts of you that you think are forgotten actually live on inside of you—particularly the creative parts of you. These are the parts that long for authentic expression, in whatever ways they are able to manifest. They do not die, and when we give them voice, we actually provide healing for ourselves—an ability to bring us to a greater sense of self-awareness, self expression, connection, and ultimately transcendence. The second reason is to challenge you to consider ways you can step out into a more authentic expression of yourself—even if it feels risky to you. The best thing you can do is to break the false idol of yourself. Creative expression gives you the tools to connect with yourself beyond your cultural and social conditioning and to connect with others in true heart and soul expression. Nothing can be more freeing and more healing.

PUTTING CREATIVITY INTO PRACTICE

Fostering Our Flow

How do we begin to jump-start our experience of creativity and its links to flow, improved mood, and vitality to augment our own deeper, more authentic expression of ourselves and our healing? Following is an easy guide:

First, recognize that you are a creative being. The more you identify yourself as a creator, the easier it will be for you to create in different settings, even at work. Even the scientific data suggest this. 

Start simple. Remember that no one defines what is creative except you. Is there a particular creative activity that draws you to it? It does not matter whether you have prior experience with 

  1. It does not need to be a specific art form, either (putting creative outfits together or improvising a meal without a recipe are examples). Pick something easy for you to engage in at least once a week for six weeks, and do something that you can easily fit into your day or week. (Singing in the car or dancing around the house for fifteen minutes a day counts!)

Go beyond judgment. Suspend your and others’ judgment, and move beyond your discomfort. Believe me, I know what it’s like when the kids beg you to stop singing in the car! You will encounter a whole slew of judgmental statements, most of them likely from yourself. As Nike loves to say, “Just Do It.” (In my case, when encountering my children’s complaints, I keep singing, but I do it more softly so as not to irritate their eardrums beyond belief.) When feeling uncomfortable, do it anyway and tap into the bodily, energetic feeling that you have when you are being creative. That will help you break through those negative self-judgments and clear those vrittis, or mind disturbances!

Observe, persist, and enjoy. Notice how you feel after engaging in your creative act. Be your own scientist. Explore how you feel after the first time, and then the second time, and so on. How did the rest of your day go after you allowed yourself some time for creativity? Keep at it, and even try your hand at something new. You might feel more comfortable working with an art form you have learned in the past. However, remember that your goal is not perfection—it is connecting with the energy of creativity. There is something to be said for examining an art form with “beginner’s mind.” Keep honing your creativity by focusing on both things you know and things you don’t know, and see what insights come to you as a result.

author photo

Shamini Jain, PhD, is the founder and CEO of the Consciousness and Healing Initiative (CHI), a nonprofit collaborative that leads humanity to heal ourselves. Dr. Jain is an Ivy League-trained clinical psychologist and an award-winning research scientist in psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and integrative medicine. She is a sought-after speaker and teacher in mind-body-spirit healing. Dr. Jain is also adjunct faculty at UC San Diego. For more, visit shaminijain.com.

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