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 © Bonnita Postma

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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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5 Tools to Create More Space in Your Mind

Busyness, distraction, and stress have all led to the shrinking of the modern mind.

I realize that’s a strange thing to say. Most of us don’t think of our mind as something with space in it, as a thing that can either be big or small, expensive or claustrophobic.

But just think about the last time you felt overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control. Chances are, you might not even have to think that hard. You might be experiencing that state right now as you read these words.

What happens in these moments? 

First, our mind wanders. It spins through all sorts of random thoughts about the past and the future. As a result, we lose touch with the direct experience of present time.

Second, we lose perspective. We can’t see the big picture anymore. Instead, it’s like we’re viewing life through a long and narrow tunnel. We become blind to possibility, fixated on problems.

Put these two together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eradicating space in the mind. The landscape of the mind begins to feel like a calendar jammed with so many meetings, events, and obligations that these neon colored boxes cover-up even the smallest slivers of white space. 

So it could be nice for our partner, for our kids, and, mostly, for our ourselves to consider: how can we create more space in the mind?

Here are five tools for creating mental space. If you want to go deeper, check out my new book with Sounds True on the topic called OPEN: Living With an Expansive Mind in a Distracted World.

1. Meditation.

You’ve no doubt heard about all of the scientifically validated benefits of this practice. It reduces stress. It boosts productivity. It enhances focus.

That is all true. But here is the real benefit of meditation: it creates more space in the mind. To get started, try it out for just a few minutes a day. Use an app or guided practice to help you.

2. Movement.

So, maybe you’re not the meditating type. That’s fine. You can still create space in the mind by setting aside time for undistracted movement.

The key word here is “undistracted.” For many of us, exercise and movement have become yet another time where our headspace gets covered over by texts, podcasts, or our favorite Netflix series. 

There’s nothing wrong with this. But it can be powerful to leave the earbuds behind every once in a while and allow the mind to rest while you walk, stretch, run, bike, swim, or practice yoga.

3. Relax.

When it comes to creating headspace, we moderns, with our smartphone-flooded, overly-stimulated, minds seem to inevitably encounter a problem: we’re often too stressed, amped, and agitated to open.

Relaxation – calming the nervous system – is perhaps the best way to counter this effect and create more fertile ground for opening. When we relax – the real kind, not the Netflix or TikTok kind –  the grip of difficult emotions loosens, the speed of our whirling thoughts slows, and, most important, the sense of space in our mind begins to expand.

How can you relax? Try yoga. Try extended exhale breathing, where you inhale four counts, exhale eight counts. Try yoga nidra. Or, just treat yourself to a nap.

4. See bigger.

When life gets crazy, the mind isn’t the only thing that shrinks. The size of our visual field also gets smaller. Our eyes strain. Our peripheral vision falls out of awareness.

What’s the antidote to this tunnel vision view? See bigger.

Try it right now. With a soft gaze, allow the edges of your visual field to slowly expand. Imagine you’re seeing whatever happens to be in front of you from the top of a vast mountain peak. Now bring this more expansive, panoramic, way of seeing with you for the rest of the day.

5. Do nothing.

Now for the most advanced practice. It’s advanced because it cuts against everything our culture believes in. In a world where everyone is trying desperately to get more done, one of the most radical acts is to not do — to do nothing.

Even just a few minutes of this paradoxical practice can help you experience an expansion of space in the mind.

Lie on the floor or outside on the grass. Close your eyes. Put on your favorite music if you want. Set an alarm for a few minutes so you don’t freak out too much. 

Then, stop. Drop the technique. Drop the effort. Just allow yourself to savor this rare experience of doing absolutely nothing.

Nate Klemp, PhD, is a philosopher, writer, and mindfulness entrepreneur. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here and the New York Times critics’ pick The 80/80 Marriage. His work has been featured in the LA Times, Psychology Today, the Times of London, and more, and his appearances include Good Morning America and Talks at Google. He’s a cofounder of LifeXT and founding partner at Mindful. For more, visit nateklemp.com or @Nate_Klemp on Instagram.

Parker Palmer: Welcome to the Human Race

Why is depression so hard for us to bring out into the open? Why does it stir up so much shame and fear? How can we shift our view of depression from a problem that needs to be fixed to a gateway to empathy, courage, wholeness, and belonging? These are the profound questions explored by Tami Simon and Parker Palmer in this incisive, insightful podcast. 

Join Tami and Parker as they discuss: Being present for those in depression; suffering and empathy; courage and resilience; integrating (rather than disowning) experiences of depression; showing up in the world as who you really are; the vast intelligence of life—and the weaving of shadow and light; embracing paradox; Parker’s metaphor of “living at altitude” (or the level of ego) vs. living from one’s soul; depression as a befriending, grounding energy; how Abraham Lincoln’s depression served as a force of reconciliation for a nation at war with itself; learning to be “hallowed by our diminishments”; and more.

Self-Love is a Superpower

Dear Sounds True friends,

I believe self-love is a superpower.

When we treat ourselves with kindness, it turns on the learning centers of the brain and gives us the resources to face challenges and learn from our mistakes. Transformation requires a compassionate mindset, not shame.

And yet, people often worry that self-love will make them lazy, self-indulgent, or self-absorbed. Science shows just the opposite: people with greater self-love are more compassionate toward others, more successful and productive, and more resilient to stress.

The best news of all: self-love can be learned. We can rewire the structure of our brain and strengthen the neural circuitry of love toward ourselves and others. Each time we practice self-love, we grow this pathway.

My new children’s book, Good Morning, I Love You, Violet!, offers a road map for strengthening your child’s brain circuitry of deep calm, contentment, and self-love.

It is built on principles of psychology and neuroscience and offers a simple yet powerful practice.

As a mother, when asked what I believe is the most important thing we can teach our children, I always answer “self-love.” Learning to be on our own team and to treat ourselves with kindness is life-changing. There is no greater gift we can give our children. There is no greater gift we can give ourselves.

May this book plant seeds of kindness that ripple out into the world.

Shauna's signature

Shauna Shapiro, PhD

P.S. I invite you to download a free coloring sheet from the book, created by illustrator Susi Schaefer, to enjoy with the children in your life.

Shauna Shapiro is a mother, bestselling author, professor, clinical psychologist, and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and self-compassion. She lives in Mill Valley, California. Learn more at drshaunashapiro.com.

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