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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Kristin Neff. Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas Austin and is the author of the breakthrough book Self-Compassion and the Sounds True audio series Self-Compassion Step by Step. She has been practicing Buddhist meditation since 1997 and has co-created a program on mindful self-compassion with her associate, Chris Germer at Harvard University.
With Sounds True, Kristin has just released a new audio training series on The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion. That’s what we talk about in our conversation, how each one of us, regardless of our gender, are called to embody both the yin side of self-compassion—the soft, accepting, loving presence that we can have with our self when we’re in pain—but also the yang side—that fierce, protective part of us that knows how to be angry when it’s time to be angry and knows how to say no when it’s time to say no. Here’s my conversation on both the yin and yang of self-compassion with Kristin Neff.
Kristin, you’ve really devoted your professional life to understanding, researching, and teaching about self-compassion. I want to begin by asking you a question that I hear a lot from people when it comes to self-compassion. Often when I talk about it to other people just in a very colloquial way, it’s like self-compassion—just like you’d be compassionate to a friend who was suffering or in need, you can be compassionate towards yourself. What I hear from people is, “It’s so much easier to be compassionate towards someone I care about than it is to be compassionate towards my very own self.”
TS:To begin with, to kick off our conversation, why is that true for so many of us?
KN:Well, and it is true empirically; most people are much more compassionate to other people than they are to themselves. I think there’s a couple of reasons. One happens at the societal level. I think society doesn’t teach us it’s a good thing to be kind to ourselves. In fact, it gives us the opposite message: that it’s selfish or it’s self-pity or self-indulgence. It warns us off being kind to ourselves. That’s one thing.
But I think at a deeper level, I actually think it has some physiological roots. What we know is that self-criticism, being really hard on ourselves, is rooted in the body’s sweat defense system, our reptilian brain. That part of us when we’re sweating that says, “Fight for your life. Run like hell or freeze and play dead.” Right? What happens when we’re hard on ourselves or say we notice something we don’t like about ourselves or we make a mistake or we fail in some way, we feel threatened.
But, of course, the problem, the threat, is our own selves. It’s an attack on our self-concept. We turn this fight, flight, or freeze response inward to try to feel safe. We beat ourselves up hoping that’ll somehow make us correct our behavior so we’ll be safe. Or we isolate ourselves in shame as if we’re hiding from a problem. Or else we freeze, we get stuck in rumination, like we get locked in and, “If I just think about the problem for the 57th time, maybe it will go away.”
Really, you can think of our more natural response of self-criticism or being very hard—or shame—that this is just our way of staying safe. Now if you, my friend, suffers in some way or make a mistake or fail, I don’t feel so directly threatened and, therefore, I can tap into another safety system we have and that’s the mammalian care system. This is a system that came a little later in evolution but that allows us to feel safe by affiliations, caring for people, social bonding. But the problem is when I fail, I feel isolated, I feel alone, and my first instinct is this critical response.
What we do when we give ourselves compassion—this is one of the keys—is by stepping outside of ourselves and relating to ourselves as if we’re relating to a friend, that gives us a little more space. We’re a little less locked in to the fear, and it actually allows us to use the care response to feel safe. I think there’s a lot of reasons, but that’s probably one of the biggest.
TS:What I want to talk to you about today, Kristin—and what you just said was very helpful, I think, to set the stage for this conversation—is that, with Sounds True, you’ve released the new audio training series on the yin and yang of self-compassion. It seems like this idea that there are different kinds of self-compassion, a yin variety and a yang variety, is something that has emerged of late in your work as you started training people in mindful self-compassion. Tell me about this emergence of different types of self-compassion.
KN:Yes, and so if you think of what compassion is, both for self or others, it’s really concern with the alleviation of suffering, right? It also remembers that we all suffer, it’s kind of connected, it’s mindful, but at its core there’s this concern for the alleviation of suffering. How we go about doing that can vary greatly. Most people, when they think of self-compassion, and where most of my earlier work focused, was in the more tender aspect of self-compassion. Being with ourselves in a kind way, accepting ourselves as we are, being supportive toward ourselves, comforting and soothing ourselves when we’re upset, just like we might be, again, for a close friend.
I like to think of a metaphor for this type of self-compassion is that of a parent really being present for their child, caring for their child, helping support them when the child is upset. But what’s another really important aspect of compassion, of alleviating suffering, is taking action to do this. For instance, a firefighter who jumps into a burning building to pull the people out who are about to be engulfed by flames, that’s an ultimate act of compassion. Or a parent who works three jobs to put food on their table for their kids. Or a teacher who motivates, inspires, their pupils to go on and reach their goals. Those are also acts of compassion. They take a more active form.
Actually, Tami, I must give you credit. You’re the one who helped me and my colleague Chris Germer. We were thinking of it as more male and female aspects of self-compassion, and that just didn’t sit right with me. One was more tender, one was more active or fierce. You’re actually the one that said, “Well, what about the idea of yin and yang from Chinese philosophy? It sounds like that’s what you’re talking about.” So I really have to thank you—
TS:Interesting. I have no memory—
TS:—that I suggested that, but I do believe—
TS:—yes, in gender fluidity and not trapping—
TS:—these qualities in male-female language, so good.
KN:Exactly. Yes, so you are the one who suggested it, because Chris was wanting to talk about the gender of self-compassion, and my feminist self was getting really angry, “Well, it’s not just a male thing or a female thing.” But this is a perfect metaphor because yin and yang … most people will probably know, but listeners, the yin is more … in the circle of the yin and the yang that most people are familiar with—the black, the white, with the 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 is supposedly the more active energy, that masculine energy you get, doing things to make change. But of course it’s not male or female. These energies are every single person actually in all life-forms. So really, I think what’s happening is that everything has both the yin and the yang aspect, including self-compassion.
So the yin of self-compassion is this being with. This is really the healing aspect of self-compassion. When we can hold our pain with a kind of loving, connected presence, when we can be there for ourselves. It allows us to heal and eventually to transform the pain.
But sometimes, again, the yang form of self-compassion is taking action. I like to call this a fierce self-compassion, or another good metaphor is a mama bear. It’s so funny because I think everyone has the mama bear. I think men also have an internal mama bear. “Mama bear” refers to that fierce, protective force that arises when something we really care about is threatened. So when we’re threatened in some way or we’re stuck or maybe we aren’t meeting our own needs, our internal mama bear rises, our fierce self-compassion, to do something about it.
The problem with gender roles, as you know, is that gender socializes us to be one or the other, when we need both. So women are socialized to be yin, and we aren’t allowed to be yang. Women like you and me, Tami, who have a lot of yang energy, people don’t really know what to make of us. It doesn’t fit gender roles, and sometimes people don’t like us because we aren’t acting the way we’re supposed to. Women aren’t allowed to get angry. They aren’t allowed to be assertive or fierce, even though this is an essential part of everyone’s nature.
Of course, men, on the other hand, they’re socialized the opposite way. They aren’t allowed to be tender. They aren’t allowed to just be with things in a kind of vulnerable way. That harms men too. So what I really love about this metaphor, the yin and the yang, is that it really shows that in order to alleviate suffering, we need to bring our resources from many, many sources. Actually if you think of Hindu images of goddesses of compassion, or Avalokitesvara, who’s a Buddhist goddess of compassion, she has many, many arms, each with a different instrument, meaning that the way we alleviate suffering just depends on the circumstance at hand.
TS:Well, it’s interesting that you’re bringing up the deities from different traditions, whether those are Buddhist goddess forms or Hindu goddess forms.
TS:Because you see a lot of goddess forms that have a lot of wrathful energy in them.
TS:And I think some people would say, “Well, is that an aspect of compassion?” I think you’re saying, “Yes, of course it is.”
TS:OK. So here’s one of the things I really want to talk to you about, which is you’re a researcher. Your work has always come from research. Is there research that supports the idea that there are different kinds of self-compassion with potentially different kinds of results as well?
KN:Yes. So what was interesting … I mean, yes and no. We certainly have a lot of research that shows some of the myths about self-compassion—that it’s weak, that it’s passive, that it’s going to undermine your motivation, that it’s selfish. In some ways these are myths about not understanding the yang of self-compassion that people … If you just think it’s yin, you’re going to think it’s weak and passive and not motivating. What we know clearly from the research is self-compassion is a strength. It really helps you get through the tough times in life. It motivates you. It’s not selfish. It helps you give to others, with the balance meeting your own needs and those of others.
So the research, you might say, supports the fact that self-compassion, [inaudible] levels of self-compassion or when it’s trained, has these various effects.
Now, at this point it’s a little unclear, and partly this is a measurement issue, of whether or not you can differentiate the different types of self-compassion. Paul Gilbert has a scale, a measure of self-compassion that actually focuses more on this action and engagement side, but this is pretty new stuff. We aren’t quite at the level yet of differentiating the type of self-compassion and how that yields impact. What we do know is, absolutely, self-compassion has a variety of outcomes: more tender ones, more healing ones, more outcomes that come from just being supportive with ourselves, and also outcomes that yield action.
TS:When I was listening to your new program, The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion, the program that I had no idea that I helped to develop the title for, but that’s all right. Happy to learn that—
KN:Good, you should take credit.
TS:Yes, yes. That’s right. It’s all right. But when I was listening, I heard you talk about a study on self-compassion, a series of studies that related to combat soldiers and how soldiers who had high self-compassion ratings on the scale actually had less PTSD. I wonder if you can share some of that research. I thought that was so interesting.
KN:Yes, and it’s in a variety of fields. We’ve seen the same effects with combat soldiers, with parents of special-needs children, people going through a divorce. You might say, when the going gets tough, the self-compassionate people get tough and they get going. Because what happens—I’ll just explain this one study of veterans. They measured veterans’ self-compassion levels after they came back from overseas, either Iraq or Afghanistan, and these were soldiers who had seen action. They measured their self-compassion level, and they followed up to see which of those soldiers developed PTSD nine months later.
Self-compassion—basically how they related to themselves in the midst of all the trauma they had experienced—that was a powerful predictor of whether or not they developed PTSD. In fact it was a more powerful predictor than level of combat exposure or, in other words, how much action they had seen. So what that really says is, more important than how stressful your situation is or how traumatic it is, is how you relate to yourself in the midst of that challenging situation.
Again, we get similar findings with parents with special-needs children, divorce. Whatever the stressor is, self-compassion is a strength, it’s actually … I’m biased, of course, but I’m comfortable saying it’s one of the most powerful sources of strength, coping, and resilience we have available to us.
That largely comes from this yang side. It’s not just being passive; it’s actually doing things to protect yourself, to give yourself what you need, to motivate yourself, to get you through the hard time.
TS:Now in your work, Kristin, you’ve identified three different types of yang self-compassion. I’m curious how you came to this categorization and if you can share with our listeners what these three different types are.
KN:Yes. This I have to say, a lot of these ideas come from both Chris Germer, who’s my close colleague who developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program with me, and things that we’ve been talking about for a long time. So Chris actually, give him credit, 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. Now this isn’t actually empirically derived from research. I suspect there probably are other domains of yang self-compassion, but these are the ones that at least we know from the research … areas where we see self-compassion having an influence.
So the reason we came up with them is just because it seemed to fit with our experience of where this more fierce type of self-compassion plays itself out. But again, I suspect there are others. But it’s interesting, what I’ve been doing with the model is I’ve been developing each of these more, kind of, more details. So the yin of self-compassion … Actually I should back up a little bit.
As readers may know or listeners may know, there’s three basic components of self-compassion: It’s being mindful of our struggle or pain. It’s remembering that this is part of life, common humanity. And it’s being kind to ourselves. So these three components of mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness take a different form. They feel different. They have kind of a different flavor depending on what form the self-compassion is taking.
So with yin self-compassion, the form it takes is loving, connected presence, right? So when we’re with ourselves in this kind of tender way, the kindness feels loving. Common humanity, it feels connected in the mindfulness. We’re very present.
But it feels very different with different actions. For instance, when self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. The kindness is fierce. That’s the mama bear, it’s like, “No, that is not OK. You will go no further.”
Common humanity—that’s “me too,” right? That’s, “We stand together with our brothers and sisters in strength. We are empowered by our connection with others.” Then the mindfulness gives us that real sense of clarity, “This is not OK.” So difference between loving, connected presence and fierce, empowered clarity—it feels different when you’re providing for yourself, when you’re giving yourself what you truly, authentically need. In this case the kindness is only … it feels very fulfilling, like satisfying. When we give ourselves what we need, we feel fulfilled.
Common humanity we recognize, but this is what? That it’s in a balanced way. In other words, we don’t just give to ourselves. We don’t just subordinate our needs to those of others, but we’re balanced. Common humanity allows us to balance needs of self and other. And then the mindfulness gives us a sense of authenticity. “What do I need? Do I even know what I need?” When self-compassion is in full bloom toward providing for our needs, it manifests as filling, balanced authenticity. Again, it feels very different.
Then the last one, if you’ll indulge me, you can see I’m very excited about this model, because it really makes sense. The last one—motivating—kindness and motivation comes out as encouragement. [Inaudible] someone needs to be motivated and they’re stuck, to just say, “Oh well, that’s fine.” Or to ourselves if we aren’t 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 ever encouraging quality.
Common humanity—this is also really interesting. 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 with 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.
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. Again, very, very different. So you can see that it all comes from the same core. All of these are aspects of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, but when they bloom in these different domains of life, they feel very different and they can have very different effects and impacts.
TS:So Kristin, I want to talk more about the type of yang self-compassion that you say is this encouraging or motivating force.
TS:Because one of the things in your work that you’ve pointed out is that research shows that the number one reason people give for not practicing self-compassion, “I’m not going to be compassionate to myself in this situation,” is because there’s a fear that “I won’t be highly motivated as a person. So I’m going to take the whip out instead and kind of whip myself—”
TS:—and say, “If only you were smarter, if only you’d worked harder … ” blah, blah, blah. This is a voice, this, you could call it the voice of the critic or the inner bully or the inner tormentor, whatever. I am very familiar, to be vulnerable for a moment, with that voice. I notice when I’m hard on myself, it’s because maybe I perceive that there’s this area I wish I was better in and I’m not. Other people seem to be surpassing me in these ways, in those ways, or whatever. So I think, “OK, I’m going to be hard on myself,” and then I’ll wake up early or I’ll go out and exercise or whatever.
Yet you’re actually saying something really different in your work, that we could be motivated through a type of self-compassion, and that would actually work better than being hard on ourselves. I think this is so important for people to understand this, Kristin.
KN:Yes, it does work better. It does work better, right? So 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 the child, we want that for ourselves. Also we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up, because again, remembering that the reason we do it, the reason maybe if you’re ever hard on yourself, is because you want to be safe and you want to be happy. And there’s 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.
The wisdom element, right? Self-compassion taps into constructive criticism, right? 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 this 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. This kindness yields kind of wise, “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 value in the 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.” So, yes, it makes perfect sense to me, but also you don’t have to believe me. It’s backed up by the research that this kind of encouraging, wise voice of compassionate motivation is actually much more effective and more sustainable.
TS:OK. So let’s talk for a moment to a parent, and I know that you’re a parent, and that parent says, “I want to raise children who are very self-compassionate and are motivated. They have this yang quality,” not, “You should have done it better. Never do that again.” What is needed to create that kind of ethos in a family system so children grow up with the sense of, “Oh, encouragement works. I don’t need to beat myself up to reach my goals”?
KN:Yes, so again, this is where both the yin and the yang—it’s so crucial to have both elements in also a family system. So the yin of self-compassion basically is the bottom line to your kids, and I have this bottom line for my son, “If you fail, or you don’t succeed, that’s OK. I love you anyway. My love is unconditional.” That’s yin self-compassion. Unconditional love and support, right? Combined with the fact that I want you to be able to do your best, and I want to be able to support and encourage you and give you the tools and the help you need to do your best. Right? So both of those messages. It’s not that if you fail, it’s unacceptable, but if you fail, well that’s not ideal because you won’t be as happy as if you were to succeed. So really giving both those messages, the safety net being unconditional acceptance, but the love manifesting as, “You can do it. I believe in you. I’m going to encourage and support you.”
So I think it’s really important. A lot of these messages, a lot of them are given implicitly, right? Usually parents don’t have a sit-down talk with their kids and talk to them about motivation. But what’s the tone of voice? What types of things do you say? Do you give the message that, “I believe in you. I think you can do it”? If the child struggles, do you give the message, “It’s OK. Everyone struggles, and I think we can help you to do better”? What’s happening in your tone of voice? Do you feel really kind of disappointed? Maybe you don’t say, “Well, I’m really disappointed in you.” Maybe it’s your face and your tone of voice is, “I’m disappointed in you.” The child’s going to notice that. So really just being conscious of the messages we’re sending our kids.
By the way, I’ve talked about these issues with parenting for years. My son had been homeschooled, so I didn’t really have direct experience with this, but actually he went to public school for the first time last semester. He actually came … he did come home with a failing final exam, and he was going to have to retake the course for summer. So I was all upset and faced with this real-life situation, “How am I going to relate to my son’s failing his class?” Of course, I didn’t say, “You stupid kid, I can’t believe you failed your class”—the type of thing a lot of people say to themselves, “I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid.” I knew that would have decimated him. So I just, quite naturally, as a parent did what you do, with compassion.
First of all, I just gave him a hug, and I said, “Oh sweetheart, it happens to everyone. It’s OK; it’s no big deal.” So that was the unconditional yin acceptance, but I said, “Hey, listen, I know. I think what happened is, you haven’t really taken a lot of tests before.” My son’s autistic, which is why he hasn’t taken a lot of tests before. “Let’s figure out how to take tests better.”
So I called all his teachers, and we figured out that for his next semester, he’s going to take all his final exams as practice tests to learn how to take exams; therefore, he’ll get the skill and be able to do it on his own the next semester. Right? So that type of kind of creative, supportive, encouraging thinking with the bottom line being, “But it’s OK if he fails,” that I did for him, that’s the type of thing we can model for kids and also for ourselves toward ourselves in front of our kids.
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TS:I wonder if you could give me an example, Kristin, from your own life, when it comes to this area of motivation of how yin and yang self-compassion have come together to motivate you around making a change in your life?
KN:Yes, well, [laughs] believe it or not, Tami, I am not perfect. I have a lot of things that I struggle with. So just as we—
TS:As we are as humans.
KN:—all do, yes. As we do, right? Again, I’d actually … I do have a lot of yang energy, and one of the ways that comes out is a part of my personality, it’s just a part, but that I like to affectionately name the “bulldog.” So the bulldog, if I think that something isn’t being done correctly or I’m kind of irritated with someone, I can be a little harsher than the yin side of me would like to be.
In fact, it’s actually, I think it’s … and I talk about these parts of ourselves, I think it’s actually useful to think in parts, because that is the truth of our personalities. We have a lot of different parts to ourselves, and some parts show up sometimes and then sometimes they don’t. None of these parts represents our whole self.
So again the way I deal with the bulldog—when the bulldog barks—is, first of all, what I’ve learned, and this is really important, is that if my bulldog feels like it’s going to be shut down or I’m not going to accept it or I’m going to try to silence it or muzzle it, put the muzzle on, you might say, put the muzzle on the bulldog, what happens is when that energy arises, it takes over the system. So the other parts, seemingly the more maybe compassionate or wiser or more calm parts of myself, I actually don’t have access to that part of myself, because this bulldog-y part feels like, “Oh, I better just bark now because if I don’t do it now I won’t get my chance.” So that’s part of the problem when we aren’t integrated with the yin and the yang is that the parts of us representing one energy or the other tend to take over the system so they won’t be shut down.
So what I do actually is I spend a lot of time—this is going to sound really silly and it’s not very scientific but—I imagine that I’m just petting that bulldog part of myself and I take it for a walk and I thank it for its protective force and there is … it’s really associated with me with some sort of identification for having things right and good but actually has a good core. It just comes out in a not very helpful way. So actually, again, I thank it, I let it know that I’m not going to shut it down, that I will always listen to what it has to say.
Then when I do that, the other parts of myself have a chance to come online when I get triggered, the part of myself that maybe thinks, “Well maybe it’s not the best way to word that email,” or “Maybe I should give this a little time to settle down and see what I think tomorrow morning about the situation.”
I actually find that it’s been incredibly helpful for me, this honoring all of the parts, having compassion for all the parts, listening to what each of these parts has to say, because they all have an important message.
TS:How, Kristin, might someone know in their own experience if it would be helpful to work on developing more yin self-compassion in a certain experience, certain difficult experience, or if really this is a moment when yang—
KN:Yes, where yang energy is needed. I think it’s … really the person is … This is going to sound like the cop-out answer, but it really is the true answer. Each person’s internal wisdom has to decide. I mean, I can’t say from the outside what’s needed. The really important thing is just being willing to ask the question.
Now here’s the thing. A lot of people don’t even ask the question, “What do I need right now?” They’re either so focused on fixing the problem or they’re focused on meeting other people’s needs or they’re focused on anything but this really essential self-compassion question, “What do I need right now?”
Usually we always need both energies. We need yin, and we need yang. So let’s say that maybe there’s some goal you want to achieve. Maybe you want to ask your boss for a raise, to give a concrete example, and you’re just a little stuck. You just feel you’re procrastinating; you keep putting it off. You aren’t allowing yourself to reach this goal of asking for a raise. Well then maybe you need a little more yang. Maybe you need to call up that energy as assertiveness, maybe protecting yourself, maybe you’re being treated unfairly, or maybe you just really see that you deserve this raise and therefore you need this kind of fierce mama bear energy to get yourself going.
But maybe your problem is the opposite. Maybe you’re a perfectionist and at work you have to get everything right and you’re working 70-hour weeks and you’re just running yourself ragged. Then maybe you actually need a little more yin energy. Maybe you need to focus on, “It’s OK not to get everything done. It’s OK not to be perfect. It’s good enough.” So really I think each individual deep down kind of knows what they need, but you have to start by being willing to ask yourself the question, “What do I need?” Then caring about yourself enough to try to give yourself what you need.
TS:That’s helpful. This idea that we need to have, each of us needs to have, this healthy mix, healthy balance of yin and yang—
TS:As you know, and we’ve discussed it, I don’t want to be like yang is for men and yin is for women, but I am curious, with keeping a very gender-fluid mind-set, in general for people who identify as being women, what do you see as the main blocks to yang self-compassion? And for people who identify as being men, they’ve been raised as men in our culture, what are their blocks to yin self-compassion?
KN:Yes, I mean, and this is news for cisgendered people, I think, because the blocks are both internal psychological and cultural and structural, and we have to talk about patriarchy here as well. We have to talk about power and equality. It’s all playing a role.
So for women, basically … For instance, I wrote a little piece about the Christine Blasey Ford hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and remarked on the fact that here’s this woman, a professor, an expert in her field, actually the psychology of trauma. She was very assertive, she could really speak loudly and clearly about her area of expertise, but at other times during those hearings, she was speaking to all these white male senators and she sounded like a little girl. I mean, this is not to say anything against her. She was incredibly brave, but she had to kind of smile and giggle and be pleasant for these men because she knew that she had to be that way to be heard. She was probably right. She was absolutely right. She could be heard because she was tentative in her voice.
If she had been like Kavanaugh—angry, forceful—she would’ve been called names and no one would have listened to her at all. So basically what happens is, there are these gender roles that I think are set up by a structure of inequality. I mean, women are socialized to be more submissive and to be more passive and not to speak up and always focus on meeting other people’s needs. Men are socialized to be leaders, to take charge, to prioritize their own needs, and the system works well for supporting patriarchy. So these gender roles, which at the societal level promote this gender inequality, get internalized at the personal level. “This is what I need to be like to be liked and accepted. If I’m a woman, I need to be soft spoken, I need to be sweet, I need to be happy, I can’t be angry because if I do, people won’t like me.”
Then that’s reinforced by the fact that there’s stereotype backlash. Like I’ve been called plenty of names in my time because I’m very yang. I decided early on that it was more important for me to be authentic than have people like me. But there are real costs to going outside your gender role, at least in many spheres of society, that we just have to realize that are there. So it’s kind of the whole system works together, at least for women, to support the inside.
Again, for men, I mean, we teach self-compassion workshops for men … I don’t teach them; the male Mindful Self-Compassion teachers teach them. When you get men alone in a room, they start opening up about the incredible pressure of being strong and not being vulnerable and the pain that comes from that. If a man, if he shows his, or a boy when he’s growing up, if he shows his true feelings, if he shows any weakness, he gets pounced on, he gets bullied.
The system supports … Patriarchy has its benefits if you’re a man, but it also has its real cost. The cost being kind of this emotional inauthenticity and pain that comes from not being able to be your true self. So it is complicated, but this structure of inequality replicates at the personal level, at the interpersonal level—how people interact in romantic relationships or work relationships—and at the structural level.
So my vision, and I know it’s a grand one—but why the hell not, we need it—is that we can integrate these two essential life force energies, the yin and the yang, at every level of society so each person is allowed to be their true self and express yin and yang, however it works for them.
But in relationships, we don’t have to say one person has one role and the other person has the other role. People can be their authentic selves, come together authentically in relationship. If there’s any difference, it’ll be based on who those people are, not their gender roles.
Then at the societal level, could you imagine if women were allowed to be angry, then maybe they would speak up and demand change. It’s actually, it’s already happening. But what if we actually celebrated that as opposed to trying to push it down? What if we celebrated men—and a lot of the younger men are like this, they’re gender fluid. They’re not willing to say they can’t be frightened or tearful or upset. Men started saying, “No, we’re just going to be our true selves,” and that was accepted, and that the whole society became a society of authentic, fully realized human beings with all their complexity and all their diversity. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful day?
Now whether or not the planet will be long enough to see that day, I don’t know—
TS:Well, I’m here to support your vision.
KN:—[Inaudible] go together. Yes.
TS:I’m here to support your vision, Kristin, and to stand with you fully in that. Now as we work to develop yin and yang compassion for ourselves, how does that relate actually, self-compassion, to our compassion for others? What’s the connection? There’s obviously a connection, but is it direct? Like the more self-compassionate you are, the more compassionate you can be for other people? Or I’ve actually met people who seem very compassionate towards others but not very self-compassionate.
TS:So I’m curious what you see as the link or lack of link.
KN:Yes. So put it this way, it’s not true that you have to have self-compassion before having compassion for others, because a lot of people are like that. It’s actually a very common way to be, to have high levels of compassion for others and low levels of compassion for yourself. So it’s possible.
The problem is, it’s not sustainable, right? So you get people with high levels of burnout or frustration or overwhelm because they’re giving and they’re giving and they’re giving, that they aren’t meeting their own needs. They’re either subordinating their own needs because they think they aren’t important or they’re really hard on themselves or their emotional tone toward themselves is very deflating and defeating. So again, you can be compassionate, but you probably aren’t going to last very long at what you do.
That’s partly why we see these huge levels of burnout in the caregiving professions like doctors and nurses and teachers, but they’re also—there are a lot of reasons for that. But one of the reasons is just focusing compassion outward and not inward.
Again, so we know that if you increase self-compassion, it does increase compassion for others somewhat, but the reason it doesn’t do it a lot is just because people are already so high in compassion for others, but it does actually increase your ability to sustain giving to others.
So I really think that in terms of the yin and the yang, one of the ways I like to see this playing out is: yin, self-compassion, and yin, other compassion. That’s about acceptance, acceptance of ourselves as we are, acceptance of others as they are, maybe acceptance of people with diverse points of view, different types of people. Acceptance goes with yin.
But the yang is actually action. So just as we ourselves need to take action and protect ourselves and stand up for ourselves, I think the yang of compassion for others is social action, right? If you look at the “Me Too” movement, or if you look at, gosh, the greatest movements in social history— Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, or Gandhi in India. These people took a very yang approach to social change. So it was compassionate. It didn’t make anyone the enemy. It wasn’t fueled by hate. It was fueled by love, but it was very forceful through very clear boundaries. “This is not OK.”
I think when you combine the yin and the yang, both internally or externally, the way it manifests is what I like to call “caring force.” The care is the yin, but the forcefulness is the yang. Caring force. So we need caring force with ourselves, but we also need caring force in the world.
I know you’ve been very involved in this, Tami. One of the potential downsides of these movements of kind of personal growth or mindfulness or any of this kind of psychological growth movement, which is very important, it runs the risk of just us all sitting on our meditation cushion being enlightened, boring other people, and not changing the world. It can’t just be directed inward. The action can’t be just with ourselves. We also need to take social action, because if we don’t, I mean, we just don’t have long as a planet. And all the issues of diversity and racism that are in our society now … we need to take action.
But again, if we’re just about social action and helping others and fighting for justice, but we don’t attend to our own hearts, if we’re like really hard on ourselves, or we aren’t fair with ourselves, or we’re too passive, or we’re too aggressive with ourselves, we aren’t going to be able to sustain the outward movements either. So I really, really think that all people, both inward and outward, need both yin and yang compassion.
TS:Kristin, before we end our conversation, I want to give a gift directly to people who are listening, who … perhaps someone listening is in a state right now where they’re like, “God, I could really use some compassion for myself about X, Y, Z that’s happening in my life,” some way that they’re suffering and they’re not quite sure how to turn towards themselves to help alleviate that suffering. “Do I need yin compassion? Yang compassion? Kristin said, ‘The essential question is to ask yourself, What do you need?’ OK, good question. Aah!” Could we just have you talk about these self-compassion breaks? Could we together—
TS:—have a self-compassion break and could you help our listeners—
TS:—kind of tune into what they might need, what type of compassion they might need right now?
KN:Yes, I can. Because what the self-compassion break does is it brings in the three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Then so I can lead us through a break, and then I’ll give kind of choice points where people can ask themselves how they might need that component manifesting. Well, we’ll see how it goes.
KN:All right. OK. All right. So yes, so I guess for your listeners and you, Tami, if you want, why don’t we all just close our eyes? Because I’ve been gabbing a lot, so it’s just nice to come back to our bodies, right? So it helps to close your eyes, go inward. If you just take a few breaths … and just feeling your body, feeling your feet on the floor, your seat on the cushion if you’re sitting.
OK. So taking a moment to think of some problem or difficulty in your life right now that’s bothering you. Please don’t think of an overwhelmingly difficult issue, because if you’re overwhelmed, you actually won’t be able to do the practice, but something that’s not sitting right with you, that’s causing you some stress or struggle. Just really just call the situation to mind, make it present, know who’s involved, what’s happening, what might happen.
OK. So the first thing we want to do is we want to bring in some mindfulness, just mindfulness of the fact that this is difficult. So you can say a phrase like, “This is a moment of suffering. This is a moment of struggle.” Now, depending on the type of struggle, maybe you’re feeling inadequate about something for instance. It may just be, “This is the way it is.”
But perhaps if the struggle is maybe something that’s unfair or unjust in your life, you can also add, “This is the way it is, and this isn’t OK.” So just ask yourself what it feels like, why the yin “this is the way it is” being with this … Or do you need the clarity of really calling it and saying, “This is not OK. It is, and it’s not OK”? So just ask yourself, “How do I need to acknowledge the suffering in this moment?”
OK. Then we want to bring in common humanity, just remembering that this is part of life. Imperfection is part of life, making mistakes is part of life. To be [laughs] cold and crass about it, shit happens. So how do you mean to express this recognition that this is part of life. Maybe it’s just kind of accepting that this is not abnormal. “I am not alone in this.” Maybe if it feels right, reminding yourself that other people are struggling too. “Me too. It’s not just me. It’s also my brothers and sisters and whoever else is experiencing this.” This is bigger than just us. We are not alone.
Then we want to bring in some kindness. The first way I want to bring in kindness is just some sort of touch. So you may use a more tender touch if you feel what you need is some tenderness, like maybe a hand on your heart or hand on your face, tenderly touching yourself if you feel you need that tenderness.
Or if you feel what you really need is strength, kindness manifest as strength, you can actually put your fist on your heart, or on your stomach, your solar plexus, depending on your energetic core, to give yourself strength. Physically give yourself what you need in terms of kindness, either with a tender touch or a strong touch.
Then really asking yourself in this moment, “What is needed? What do I need to hear?” So what may come up is a message of you need acceptance, “May I accept myself just as I am,” or “May I be patient with myself,” kind of more of these yin messages.
But maybe what you need to hear is something more yang, something like, “No. No, I’m drawing my boundary.” Or, “I’m going to make a change. I’m going to commit to making a change. That’s really what I need.” Or, “I’m going to give to myself. I’m going to provide for myself. I’m going to put my needs out there as well.” Just really, again, just letting whatever answer from deep within you come up to answer the question, “What do I need right now to be kind to myself, to be there for myself,” and just see what bubbles up.
OK. Then letting go of the practice and just, wherever you are, just kind of coming back to the presence of just noticing how your body feels. You might be feeling good right now. You might be feeling bad right now. You might be feeling nothing right now. We aren’t attached to how these practices make us feel. What we’re doing is we’re setting our intention to be more compassionate and then kind of allowing whatever to unfold and to be as it is.
So that’s the self-compassion break. You’re just reminding yourself of mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. You can also do this in the format of writing if it helps, but really yes, that’s the basic idea. If you find some language that works for you, sometimes when you do this you come up with a set of phrases that’s just like, “Ah, that’s what I need to hear.” It’s actually good to write them down and then practice with that specific set of phrases.
TS:You know, it’s interesting to me, Kristin, that you said that the essential self-compassion question is asking, “What do I need right now?” I’ve found also in relationship, in intimate relationship, if I’m having an argument with my partner and she turns around and looks at me and says, “What do you need right now?” It completely stops the argument. It’s a showstopper.
KN:Yes. That’s right.
TS:It’s like, “Oh, that’s a really good question. What do I need right now?” You talked about how, often, even those of us who know how important that question is, we forget. We forget to just say to ourselves, “What do I need right now?” I’m curious, how do we keep that question more in our consciousness? It’s so powerful.
KN:Yes, yes. Well that’s a good question, but as we know with all the research on brain plasticity that the more you practice, the more it will come up. It is kind of a matter of habit. I know some people write little messages, put them on their mirror, or leave little sticky notes around. Anything you can do to remind yourself.
By the way, the thing about, “What do I need,” especially in interpersonal relationships, is sometimes, we kind of know what we need, but we expect our partner to meet that need. Good luck with that one is all I could say [laughs] because your partner may or may not be able to meet your needs, but they got their own life going on. They have their own agenda; they’ve got their own needs.
We give away a lot of our power by expecting other people to meet our needs, and we suffer when they don’t. The amazing thing about self-compassion is we start learning, “Wait, I can meet a lot of my needs myself.” Not everything. We can’t be automatons, but we have a lot more power to meet our own needs, to give ourselves the support we need, to give ourselves the love, the kindness, the acceptance, the encouragement we need, the fulfillment we need. We just have to remember to do it.
Even more important than remembering is giving ourselves permission to do it. Once you give yourself permission and you set your intention, the rest naturally tends to follow.
TS:OK. I just have a final question for you, Kristin. Early in our conversation, you talked about goddesses of compassion and the images of Avalokitesvara with the hands reaching out. And I brought up the fierce, wrathful deities of compassion that are bringing forth more of a yang style—
TS:—of protection. If you were to describe just in a feeling kind of way, what occurs to you, this balanced yin-yang figure? What it looks like, it has both, and it’s there right as the god/goddess of fierce and loving, attentive compassion. What does this being look like?
KN:Right, so just to answer the thing of the different goddesses. In my bedroom right now, I actually have a picture of Green Tara, who’s the Buddhist goddess of kind of more yin compassion, and I have a picture of Kali. I actually have them both side by side. So I look at them both every morning when I wake up. For me, actually the image that combines both is a tree. A tree, I think … actually outside my bedroom—
KN:—window, I have this—
TS:—first of all, I love that and you’ve completely surprised me. So I love that.
TS:Keep going. Yes.
KN:Yes, because I think, I’ve got this beautiful oak tree. I call her “Grandmother.” She’s huge. She’s like probably 300 or 400 years old. The trunk is big, and it’s solid, and it’s strong. That’s the yang energy, the strength. But the branches, they’re flexible and it’s amazing how they curl, and you can see over the years, they’ve just like—they each counterbalance each other and it’s so intricate and they’re very flexible and they kind of sway with the wind. So I kind of see the image of the yin and yang as the tree, the tree of life. The strong, solid trunk with the flexible, more yielding branches, and we need both. Both are necessary for that tree to survive, and I think for us to survive.
TS:Beautiful. That’s beautiful.
KN:Yes, I don’t have a single goddess image, but a tree is a goddess. [Laughs]
TS:I’ve been talking with Kristin Neff. With Sounds True, she’s created a new audio training series. It has about a dozen different guided practices. It’s called The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion: Cultivating Kindness and Strength in the Face of Difficulty.
Kristin Neff has also created with Sounds True an audio training series called Self-Compassion Step by Step and with Chris Germer, who she mentioned in this conversation, they’ve created an online training course with Sounds True called The Power of Self-Compassion. Kristin Neff will also be at Sounds True’s foundation gathering that’s taking place at the end of September in the Santa Cruz mountains. If you’re interested, come join us.
Kristin, thank you so much. I think some people in the world, they have some kind of direct, open line with what’s needed to help the culture evolve to its next step. I think somehow you and your work with self-compassion and now The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion, you have your finger on the pulse. You’re right on it. It’s a gift.
KN:Well, thank you, Tami.
TS:Thank you so much.
KN:Thank you so much for having me. I’ll see you soon.
TS:See you soon.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast and, if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.