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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
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 Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Kristin Neff. Kristin is a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas-Austin. She has practiced Buddhist meditation since 1997. Kristin and her family were the subject of the recent book and documentary, The Horse Boy, which documented her family’s adventure with autism.
A self-proclaimed “self-compassion evangelist,” Kristin Neff loves spreading the good word of self-compassion. With Sounds True, Kristin created an audio program called Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, where she presents the clinical evidence that self-compassion is a master key to greater happiness, well-being, and resilience, and she presents proven techniques and exercises for cultivating this pivotal quality. In this episode of Insights at The Edge, Kristin and I spoke about three “pillars” or components of self-compassion. We talked about how to take a self-compassion break when we need it, and also the importance of recognizing our common humanity in the midst of a difficult experience that we might feel is unique to us. Here’s my very helpful and illuminating conversation with Kristin Neff.
There are several different aspects of your work on self compassion that I want to explore together in this conversation, and the first is, I know you spent quite a bit of time and energy and resources actually studying the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion: how are they the same, how are they different, do we get certain benefits or negatives from one or the other? I’d like to start right there, if you could talk about that and the research you did into this question.
Kristin Neff: Absolutely! The reason I got interested in the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion is because I was doing two years of post-doctoral study with one of the country’s leading self-esteem researchers and I was finding [out] about all of the potential downsides of the pursuit of high self-esteem. At the same time in my personal life, I was practicing self-compassion and seeing all of its benefits. So when I got my job as a professor at UT-Austin, I really wanted to see if I could connect [the] research differentiating the two.
So in terms of some of the theoretical differences, I’m defining self-esteem here as a positive evaluation of self-worth—of the global judgment that I’m a good person, or I’m a bad person, or somewhere in between. For years, as you know, self-esteem was seen as the ultimate marker of psychological well-being, and there were thousands of books and articles written on it, and movements in the schools to raise children’s self esteem. The problem—I should say, the reason—people are promoting self-esteem is because it’s strongly linked to psychological well-being. So, people who have higher levels of self-esteem are less depressed, less anxious, and are generally happier than people who hate themselves.
The problem with self-esteem is not if you have it, but how you get it. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to self-esteem. So for instance, in our culture, we have to be special and above average to have high self-esteem, right? If you think about that, that’s logically impossible. Right? We can’t always be special and above average. So what happens is it sets up this process of social comparison where we’re always trying to feel a little better than others, and see others as a little bit worse than ourselves. That can lead to things like narcissism. There’s an epidemic of narcissism in our culture—people who have really taken the need to be above average very seriously—that appears to be related to the self-esteem movement in the schools.
Self-esteem is also contingent on things like looking a certain way, or being successful in business or athletics, and that contingency means that we only have self-esteem when we succeed, and that it deserts us when we fail. So the idea of self-compassion doesn’t have these problems because it’s not about judging yourself positively, it’s about merely relating to yourself kindly.
So in terms of some of the researching differentiating the two, what we find is that self-compassion is associated with well-being just like high self-esteem. It’s linked to less depression, anxiety, stress, greater happiness, optimism, etc. But it’s not linked to the same problems associated with self-esteem—it’s not linked with narcissism, it’s linked to less social comparison—and this is really important, it’s not contingent on things like success, successful performance, social approval, or perceived attractiveness. So that means self-compassion can step in either when you succeed or when you fail. It’s there to catch us even when things aren’t going well or when we feel inadequate or we fail in some way. So overall, self-compassion is a much more robust predictor of well-being. You might say [it’s] a more helpful friend who’s not going to desert you when you need it most, the way self-esteem does.
TS: Now you mentioned that there’s a link between the ways we’ve approached self-esteem in the school system and potentially the development of narcissism in people. How is it that we’ve approached self-esteem in the school system?
KN: Well—and this, by the way, is a very well-meaning endeavor because of all the research showing that low self-esteem is so problematic, but when teaching kids to have high self-esteem, there wasn’t a lot of care put into how this is done. So, I’m telling kids constantly that they’re special, that they’re wonderful, that they’re great. Having them make stickers [saying,] “I’m great. I’m the best. I’m number one.” The emphasis is really on helping kids to judge themselves positively. There’s a great book by Jean Twenge called Generation Me that really ties this type of unconditional praise given to children with the current epidemic of narcissism. She finds that in the last 25 years, narcissism levels among college undergraduates have just ben going up and up. So that’s again at the problem with having people feel they need to be above average to feel good about themselves.
TS: Now, if you could wave a magic wand and self-compassion could be the name of the game—[that’s] what we teach in schools, that’s what we could be focused on instead of building “self-esteem”—what would that look like?
KN: Well that would be a wonderful dream, and several people are thinking about how we might actually do this, but really it’s about helping children to relate to themselves kindly—to be supportive, to be encouraging. So you want kids to feel good about themselves, but not because they’re above average or better than others, but simply because you’re a human being, worthy of care and kindness and respect. So this would mean helping children to be self-compassionate when they fail. Letting them know that it’s only human to fail, but that if they give themselves support and encouragement they can pick themselves up and try again. You know, lessons like, failure is a great learning experience, though it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure; only that this time you failed but that next time hopefully you’ll succeed.
It also means that we would help children to really understand that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Oftentimes we feel like something has gone wrong when we fail, or we feel inadequate in some way. But if we taught children that they aren’t alone in their imperfection and that in fact imperfection or failure is actually a chance to connect with other people, it would be a really powerful buffer against some of the isolation experience in school. It would also do things like help with the problem of bullying. Why do kids bully each other? Well, partly to raise their self-esteem, but when you emphasize the fact that we’re all in this together, we’re all human beings worthy of kindness and care, hopefully that would also decrease a tendency for kids to bully each other.
TS: I’ve heard that bullying is actually something that’s quite on the rise and quite a problem in the school system.
KN: Yes, that’s right. There are many reasons for it, but we know that trying to get social approval is one of the reasons. Unfortunately, in middle school kids who are successful bullies—which means picking on someone who is unliked and maybe a bit weird—they tend to get social approval from others. So I really think if compassion was emphasized as a value in the schools—both compassion for self and others—hopefully it would mitigate some of those tendencies and really help people feel good about themselves for better reasons: because they’re kind, caring people, and not because they’re better than others.
TS: So here we are, we’re addressing our conversation to the next generation, but here in our generation, having grown up in our education system, people like you and I find ourselves in a milieu where there’s so much, you could call it “comparing mind” all of the time. So much comparison of, you know, “You’re better than me in this. You look better. This looks better. This looks worse.” Talk a little bit about how self-compassion can help us deal with this “comparing mind” that we seem to have.
KN: Right. Well, the wonderful thing about self-compassion, as I said, is self-compassion connects us with other people in the shared human experience. It’s not contingent on being better than others in any domain. In appearance, for instance, women are most likely to invest their sense of self-worth in their appearance. Self-compassion, again, says [that] your worthiness is not dependent on how you look, it’s really just dependent on being a human being—and in fact, the research shows that self-compassion is linked to more positive body image than people who lack self-compassion. So we don’t really need to compare ourselves to others to feel special and above average with self-compassion. As a matter of fact, being an average human being is also perfectly fine, right?
So, the motivation or the driving force of self-compassion is not to be better than other people. The driving force of self-compassion is to thrive and to be happy, and to help alleviate our own suffering. So self-compassion is strongly linked to motivation and making efforts to do our best, but we do so not because we’re inadequate or worse than others if we fail, we do it because we care and want to be happy, and then therefore this type of motivation is much more sustainable over time.
TS: I guess where I’m going in this part of our conversation is that it seems to me that comparing and judging ourselves in relationship to other people—and as you say, needing to be special and above average—that everybody feels that in Western culture to some degree or another, to some extent. Yet here, self-compassion is now becoming a very more popular and mainstream idea and I wonder if it’s the antidote, if you will, for this disease of one-upmanship that we’ve all been immersed in. I wonder if you see it that way?
KN: Well, I think people are recognizing the incredible suffering cause by the striving for perfection that’s found in our culture. Whether it’s kids who feel like they have to get A’s to be worthy and the parents putting pressure on them to succeed; it seems like the standards for what counts as successful work performance keep going up and up—you know, we have to be more productive than ever. We’ve got to work more hours than ever. I think people are just really feeling the stress of being in such a constantly competitive situation. As part of that competition, that need for social comparison, I think society is becoming more isolated. We’re les focused on building community and more focused on individual success. I think that is one of the reasons that people are more open to the idea of self-compassion. They’re tired of suffering, and this is a way to, again, really foster and encourage ourselves to thrive and be our best, but it doesn’t require successfully competing or being better than other people.
TS: Now, you teach three different core components that self-compassion contains, and I wonder if you could briefly talk us through these three core components that you see are contained in self-compassion?
KN: Right. OK, so the first component is perhaps the most obvious, and that is treating yourself with kindness and care as opposed to harsh self-judgment. So really being a good friend to yourself. I mean, if we think about how we speak to ourselves, we often say mean, cruel things to ourselves, things we’d never say to other people we care about. We’re actually meaner to ourselves than some people we don’t even like very much. So in self-compassion we’re kind, supportive, just like we would be to a good friend, and also the self-kindness component refers to the fact that we actively soothe and comfort ourselves when we’re in distress. Just like with a friend, if they’re upset we give them a hug, the same thing with [our]selves: when we’re upset or feeling bad about ourselves, we do what we can to make ourselves feel better about it—to really support ourselves in difficult times.
The second component I alluded to before, and that’s the sense of common humanity. Self-compassion recognizes that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Typically, like I said before, we feel isolated when we’re imperfect or when things go wrong, as if there’s this, “I signed up for the ‘everything will go swimmingly until the day I die’ plan, [laughs] and I want my money back if I fail in some way. This is abnormal, this is not the plan I signed up for!”
Those feelings of isolation when we fail and feel inadequate are very, very damaging. A nice analogy for why common humanity is part of self-compassion is when we feel compassion for others, right? When we feel compassion for others, we see that, “There’s a fellow human being who’s suffering, but there for the grace of God go I,” and that differentiates compassion from pity. The same thing with self-compassion: we recognize that imperfection is part of being human, and therefore we don’t pity ourselves, feel sorry for ourselves when we suffer. Rather, we just recognize that we’re all in the same boat: this is part of the plan we signed up for.
The third component may be a little less obvious but it’s very important, and that’s mindfulness. So mindfulness, as I’m sure your listeners know, refers to the ability to be with our experience as it is in a non-judgmental way. Unfortunately, when that experience is painful and we have painful thoughts and emotions, our natural reaction is to turn away from that pain, either to suppress it and avoid it, or else to try to resist it and get really upset about the fact that this painful experience is happening. Well, if we avoid the fact that we’re suffering—if we aren’t aware of it or if we’re just fighting against it—we can’t give ourselves compassion. We have to say, “This is a moment of suffering.” We have to accept and acknowledge that we’re really having a hard time in order for our hearts to respond.
And also important, mindfulness is a type of balanced awareness that neither belittles and diminishes, nor exaggerates our suffering, you know—getting lost in a real drama about how bad things are. Again, if we exaggerate how bad things are, then we can be lost in the dram of self-pity. Mindfulness, on the other hand, sees things as they are, no more and no less, and that’s really what allows us to respond self-compassionately when we’re suffering.
TS: Now, I want to dig in a little bit more to each one of these components because there’s really a lot here. Starting with the first one, self-kindness—soothing ourselves, speaking kindly to ourselves—I think this is something that many, many people find difficult. So here it is, you’re describing yes, obviously self-compassion this is one of the things, but yet it’s hard for people. And I’m wondering if you could help us. What are some of the techniques and tips you’ve discovered that really help with the self-kindness and self-soothing?
KN: Well, the thing is we all know how to be kind and we all know how to soothe and comfort in times of distress; it’s just that we’re used to doing that with other people. Most of us have the experience of close friendships, or romantic partners or children, to whom we’re very kind, caring, and supportive. We know what to say when they’re feeling bad. So we have the skills—the problem is that we just give ourselves permission to use them with ourselves.
Hopefully at some point we can talk about the blocks to self-compassion—there are many of those. But, because we know how to use these skills towards others I really suggest that people, when they’re having a difficult time, imagine they were talking to a friend when they were talking to themselves—asking yourself, “Would I say this to someone I cared about? What would I say to someone I cared about?” and then try to use that language instead.
There are also exercises, like writing a letter to yourself from the perspective of an ideally compassionate friend. So, if you were this ultimately compassionate person and you were looking at yourself as an outsider and recognized the situation you were going through, what would you say? What kind of words of support, encouragement, love, acceptance, would you give to someone you cared about? Write a letter from this perspective, and maybe put it away for a little while and then come back and read it. So we really do have the skills, it’s just remembering and allowing ourselves to use them with ourselves.
Another thing that’s very, very important and is related to how we treat our friends, is physical gestures of kindness, comfort, and soothing. Putting our hands over our heart, or maybe giving ourselves a little hug, or a little stroke on the face. These types of gestures automatically trigger in us the response of being soothed and comforted. I could go more into that later, but basically it’s because all mammals respond to warm, soothing touch. So when we do that for ourselves, our bodies also respond. It’s a very powerful, immediate gesture of kindness and our bodies can go there sometimes even when our minds can’t.
TS: That’s very helpful. I’m imagining though, let’s say somebody’s listening and they said, “Well, you know, you said all of us can imagine being kind to a friend and on occasions I can, but often when my friends come and they share with me their problems, I actually feel kind of critical and judgmental. I try to be helpful, but I kind of move to the counselor position or the advisor position, but inside I feel critical or I feel like my friend’s suffering, and maybe I’m better than my friend.” I mean, how would you help this person, someone like what I’m describing?
KN: [Laughs.]OK, well if that’s the case, maybe modeling yourself on how you treat your friends isn’t the best idea. It might be that opening your heart to compassion more generally would be the wisest course of action. So really thinking about, how can I be kind and supportive? What are my true values? Is my true value to be better than other people, or is my true value to strive to be perfect, or is my true value care, connectedness and love?
I suppose when it comes down to it, if someone doesn’t value care, connectedness, and love, it’s going to be harder to be compassionate for [one’s] self or others. But I do think that when that is the case, often it’s because of early childhood experiences which taught us that we had to close our hearts to both ourselves and others in order to survive and keep safe. So sometimes, if there are real blocks to compassion either for others or oneself, it means that some healing needs to occur. If that is the case, people may want to think about finding some of that healing, and that will help them open their heart both to themselves and other people.
TS: You know, I quite like this idea of touching ourselves, petting ourselves. The idea of brining a hand to the heart, that’s powerful, and at the same time, I’m not sure I would imagine myself doing that in public places very often, although maybe if it was a different kind of world, I wouldn’t feel so nervous about that. I mean, do you have suggestions for ways that we could “pet” ourselves, if you will—maybe it’s on the arm or something like that where we won’t get a lot of strange attention?
KN: Yes; I call it the “surreptitious self-hug.” So you just fold your arms in a not-obvious manner, but give yourself a little squeeze. If you do it with the intention to soothe and comfort—a little signal of, “Hey, I’m here for you, I know this is hard right now, but you have my support”—it can also be very effective. So yes, don’t put your hands on your heart if you’re sitting with your boss thinking, “Oh my God, this man is making me suffer,” or “This woman is making me suffer.” Give yourself a little surreptitious self-hug and it’ll still be effective, but it won’t get you in trouble.
TS: And Kristin, in familiarizing myself with your work, you talked about how doing this kind of self-soothing at the physiological level actually helps us in terms of releasing oxytocin in the system, and I wonder if you could talk about that? I think that might be helpful for people.
KN: Yes. OK, so we have two main physiological systems designed to keep us safe. The first is the one we tend to tap into more often, and that’s the threat-defense system. So all animals, including reptiles, have the threat-defense system, so that when something or someone is attacking us, our amygdala gets triggered, releases cortisol and adrenalin, and we go into fight-or-flight mode. Now the system evolved very effectively to prevent physical harm, but the problem with human beings in modern times is [that] typically the threats are not to our bodily selves but to our self-concept. So when we see a problem in ourselves, we attack the problem, i.e. we attack ourselves, and then of course with self-criticism, it’s a double whammy because we are both the attacker and the attacked. So self-criticism is really very damaging in terms of all the cortisol it releases, such that eventually if you’re a really habitual self-critic, you’ll eventually become depressed because your body shuts down in response to all of this stressful activation.
Now, fortunately, we aren’t just reptiles—we’re also mammals. So what happened when mammals evolved is because mammalian young are born so immature (which allows them to eventually be more advanced than reptiles), we needed a system in place that would keep mammalian young next to the mother so that they could survive long enough to be successful adults. So most mammals have the caregiving system physiologically, which means that infants are soothed and comforted and they feel safe when they receive warm touch, softness, and soothing, gentle vocalizations. You can just imagine a little kitten curled up next to its mommy and the mommy purring and cuddling with the cat. So most mammals have this to some extent.
So when we receive warm touch or these soft vocalizations our bodies release oxytocin and opiates. What happens is we deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, which is what arouses us for fight-or-flight mode, and instead we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which soothes us, calms ourselves down, reduces cortisol, and again releases these kind of feel-good, all’s safe and well hormones. So when we touch ourselves, especially when we touch ourselves in a gentle way and feel the warmth of our hands, you can feel it almost immediately. Your body responds. It calms down. It feels less activated. It feels very, very safe and comforting. That’s why I really suggest that physical gestures of affection should be used as much possible along with words that are kind and supportive rather than harshly judgmental.
TS: I particularly like this idea of this physical kindness towards ourselves, because—and I’m curious to hear what you have to say about this—even if we’re feeling kind of hard hearted or we’re not quite sure we can be kind towards ourselves, we could make the physical gesture and it would have its impact even if our mind hadn’t quite gotten on board.
KN: Exactly. Oftentimes our minds are filled with the storyline of what happened or how horrible I am, so making these physical gestures might relax us enough to therefore be able to have some awareness of what we’re doing to ourselves and even change our internal dialogue. But even if we can’t change our internal dialogue, just that gesture of support and affection will make it easier to bear and to get through difficult moments.
Like I say, I teach workshops on self-compassion all of the time and most people find that these physical gestures of affection—especially when they’re combined with supportive words—I even suggest to people if they feel comfortable using terms of endearment like, “darling” or “sweetheart,” if it feels comfortable. But I’m a mother and a lot of mothers who are used to using that language to soothe and comfort their child find that when they say things like that toward themselves, especially with a gesture like putting your hands over your heart, it can just be a really powerful way for you to feel comforted and supported and compassionate towards yourself.
TS: Do you have words that are sort of your go-to words that you use with yourself?
KN: Yes I do, actually. I teach this as part of what’s called the “self-compassion break:” something you can do when things are really difficult or you’re really feeling bad about yourself, [that] you’ve failed in some way. The self-compassion break does start with some physical gesture of affection like hands over your heart, or some people actually feel most comforted by their hands on their belly, or maybe even gently cradling their face.
For me, I use words that really evoke the three main elements of self-compassion. So the first thing to say is, “This is a moment of suffering.” That’s so important. Oftentimes we’re so lost in the storyline of what’s happening or the storyline of how inadequate we are [that] we aren’t even aware of the fact that this is a really, really hard moment. So [we remind] ourselves that this is a moment of suffering, and suffering is a part of life. It’s part of the shared experience. Or you might say, “I’m not alone in my suffering.” So, reminding ourselves that suffering isn’t an isolating experience. Nothing has gone wrong. This is part of the human experience. This is a moment in which we can connect ourselves with others. So, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment? May I give myself the compassion I need?” So again, reminding ourselves what we really need is compassion, kindness and support.
So I really tell people to come up with some variation of these words that feels comfortable and natural and to memorize them. Then when you’re in a difficult situation, or you’re experiencing emotional pain, they come up kind of like a mantra. They automatically kick in to remind you, “Oh yeah, his is how I need to orient myself to this experience,” and it really helps people cope.
TS: I’m curious, in your own experience, how much of the time would you say that works for you? Like 90 percent of the time? I’m not a researcher but I do like numbers. I’m just curious. What percentage?
KN: [Laughs.] That’s funny. Well, I’ve never actually quantified it, but I know that pretty much whenever I remember to do it, it works. The problem is when I forget to do it. Even now, I’ve been practicing self-compassion for 15 years and I still occasionally forget that this is a moment of suffering. I get lost in the situation as well, but I think more quickly I remember, “Oh yeah that’s right, what I need is self-compassion.” The second I touch my body kindly and just remind myself, either using those particular phrases or just saying, “I’m sorry this is so hard right now, darling, I’m here for you and it’s OK.” I find that almost every time it immediately helps.
Now, that doesn’t mean the pain is going to go away—it’s not like you put your hand on your heart and poof! [Laughs] You’re happy and skipping and smiling. It just means that you really feel supported and cared for when things are difficult, and that gives you what you need to cope with the situation and be more resilient. I really can’t think of a time where I did that and it didn’t help, as long as I was sincere about my efforts to give myself compassion.
TS: OK, I want to move on to this second core component of self-compassion: connecting to our common humanity, especially when something is happening and we’re upset, seeing that this is a universal situation. In this discussion of our common humanity, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about your own situation. You write about it in your book and also talk about it in the audio series Self-Compassion Step-by-Step, and it’s been documented in a film about your son Rowan and his autism—a film called The Horse Boy. My question is here, you know, different things happen and we could say, yes, many different people have experienced suffering like this, but I can imagine having a child and discovering that your child is autistic, a response [to that] might be, well, actually only a small percentage of the population has to go through something as difficult and as challenging as this. So how is it that you’ve been able to understand the common humanity in your struggle? A struggle that seems in some ways difficult, particularly difficult if you will.
KN: Well, It’s funny. I have a very clear memory, shortly after my son was diagnosed, of being at the park and I think Rowan was maybe about three. There was all these other kids playing and they were playing happily and interacting, and Rowan was kind of by himself, kind of babbling, not really talking and doing these repetitive movements. I started feeling like, “Oh God, why can’t I have a normal child? This is so unfair.” So I did start feeling isolated in that experience.
But then it struck me that, here are all of these other kids and they’re all going to grow up and the experience of having troubles or challenges with your children [is] actually so common. I mean, people have their kids commit suicide or become drug addicts or really act out and get thrown in jail. There are just so many things that could happen. So it wasn’t that I was belittling my experience and saying it’s not as bad as it could be, but when I remembered that so many people have troubles and challenges with raising their kids, it just made me feel less alone—yes, maybe it wasn’t autism, but it could easily be something else.
Or even parents with kids who don’t have obvious problems, maybe they kill themselves with stress and trying to be successful. There are so many kids who are so pressured to be perfect and get the perfect grades so they can go to college, etc. So, really remembering that suffering is part of the shard human experience. Now maybe how much we suffer, or the kind of suffering we have varies, absolutely. But that was one of the Buddha’s basic truths, one of his first discoveries, is that life for everyone entails suffering—even people who seem to have it all get sick, they age and they die. So it’s so important for us to remember that so we don’t feel isolated and alone and separate from our fellow human beings when things become difficult.
TS: So do you actually think it’s possible to tap into this sense of “Other people know the kind of pain I’m feeling,” that this is a shared human experience no matter what our suffering might be like, no matter what is happening?
KN: Right. Well, again, we don’t want to expect that other people experience the exact same situation. I mean, usually there are a lot of people experiencing your exact same situation. But the focus shouldn’t be on how you’re suffering, just the fact that you are suffering. I mean for some people, I don’t know, they get cancer. Other people, something happens to their child. Other people, they struggle with mental health issues. Other people, they struggle with obesity. There are so many ways in which human beings suffer and struggle. It really is part of life. I don’t know, I suppose again that there’s a handful of people without a lot of suffering in their lives, but they’re definitely the very, very small minority.
So just remember, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. That kind of attitude—not to be depressed or pessimistic, but just to remember that suffering is part of life. It’s OK, it’s normal. It’s part of how we learn and grow. If everything was perfect, life would be boring, wouldn’t it? Do we really all want to be Ken and Barbie dolls and have everything happen great all the time? I mean, that’s part of what makes life rich and interesting is the fact that we do have challenges. It also means that we can overcome those challenges, or at least rise to the occasion to be courageous and really open to our pain with this heartfelt quality that in many ways makes for this very rich and lovely, though bittersweet experience.
TS: What I’m flashing on are individuals who perhaps feel uniquely isolated and just so upset with their particular situation, and yet as I’m listening to you, I’m seeing how beneficial it would be if there was a way that people could crack open and break open that idea that their unique suffering is their sort of personal cocooned predicament. How can people who you think are in that kind of situation, break out of it to see that they share something with other people? Because often when you’re suffering like that—do you know what I mean? The feeling is that “I’m alone in this room,” and that’s where the person is sort of stuck spinning around with that experience.
KN: Part of that is because all negative emotions’ purpose—actually their evolutionary purpose—is to narrow the focus of our attention, right? You can see why that tendency evolved. If we see something negative or we get negative information, usually it means that there’s a threat. So we’ve got to really narrowly focus on that threat in order to escape it and survive. In contrast, the purpose of positive emotions, one of the reasons they evolved, is that they signal that things are safe. That allows us to broaden our perspective and then start looking for opportunities: “Oh, is that fresh water of there? Are those berries edible?”
This is what is so beautiful. When we embrace our suffering with compassion, we’re not only making ourselves feel safer and reducing our sense of threat, but the feeling of love and connectedness inherent in self-compassion, these are actually positive emotions. So self-compassion reduces negative emotions, enhances positive emotions, and that allows us to be less narrowly focused. To see the bigger picture, and part of that bigger picture is to recognize our common humanity.
Now of course, your question was, how do you help people who are stuck? They have to want to be helped, right? You can’t force people to be more self-compassionate. But I do think that by modeling self-compassion—especially to children—by discussing the topic more in our culture, people like you promoting the word, having this be really a thought that this is a possible way to treat yourself, that a lot of people will say, “Gosh, I’m really sick of suffering this way. I’m really sick of constantly criticizing myself. I’m sick of feeling so alone. Maybe there’s a hope for relating to my life and myself in a slightly different way.”
I can tell you, I get emails, several emails a day from people saying that the self-compassion work has radically changed their outlook on life. So it is possible, but if we don’t talk about it and spread the good word, so to speak—which is, you might say what my life has been devoted to—then people don’t even know this is a possibility.
TS: Now I want to move on to the third component, but before we do I’m curious to know, these three components—self-kindness, discovering the common humanity in our suffering, and mindfulness, which we’ll talk about next—how did you come to these three pillars of self-compassion, if you will? How did you narrow it down to just these three?
KN: Right. Well, so if I’m perfectly honest about my journey, what happened is that the way I learned about self-compassion was through Buddhist meditation. I started practicing meditation when I was going through a very stressful time finishing up my PhD at UC-Berkeley. You know—when in Rome, do as the Romans; when in Berkeley, learn to mediate, right? So it seemed like a good thing to do, and the woman who led the group really talked about the importance of self-compassion, and that’s what started me on this journey. Then when I got to UT-Austin and I decided I wanted to do research on it, the first thing I had to do as an academic was operationally define self-compassion so that therefore I could measure it and start to do research on it.
At that point, no one really discussed self-compassion in academic literature, but there was discussion of it in a lot of Buddhist books and probably also in books from other traditions; it’s just that this is a particular tradition that I was familiar with. So I read things like Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness and Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart and tried to see, what are the basic elements necessary to give ourselves compassion? And that’s the three I came up with: you have to be mindful of your suffering in order to give yourself compassion, you need to recognize that this is part of the shared human experience so you don’t get lost in self-pity, and then you need to respond with an open heart and a sense of kindness. Who knows, there might be some other elements that are part of compassion that I don’t talk about, but these seem to be the three main ones, at least that I seem to find in all of the writings and research and reading I did on compassion in the Buddhist literature.
TS: And then talking about mindfulness, you said that many of our listeners are probably familiar with mindfulness and that may be true, but I’m also noticing that there are more and more definitions that are being offered and in some ways, the whole field of mindfulness feels to me like it’s getting more confusing, not clearer. So, I’d love to know what you mean by mindfulness?
KN: It’s so funny, because there was just a conference held in Berkeley at The Greater Good Science Center on precisely this topic—mindfulness and compassion: how they’re the same, how they’re different, and actually Jon Kabat-Zinn was talking and he really sees mindfulness and compassion as part and parcel of the same thing. That mindfulness automatically engenders compassion for self and others. I actually, really respectfully disagreed with him in that sometimes mindfulness is used as an umbrella term to refer to all aspects of contemplative practice. So, that would include mindfulness of your present moment experience without judgment, also compassion for self and others, and also wisdom is part of this as well, right? Understanding that things aren’t permanent or that maybe we aren’t as separate as we think we are.
I think you can use the term in multiple ways; the most common way it’s used and the way I use it in my work is paying attention to present moment experience without resistance, without judgment, and with real acceptance of what is. I personally think that given that that definition is so ubiquitous in the field, it’s not that helpful to use mindfulness as an umbrella term because it’s very confusing, especially if you’re trying to, let’s say, differentiate compassion and mindfulness in the brain.
Also in teaching: when I teach people self-compassion, I need to explain how it is different than mindfulness. Mindfulness is turning toward your present moment experience and accepting it as it is, whereas self-compassion means turning toward the experienceer—not the experience but the person who’s having the experience—and wishing for the alleviation of suffering, at least as it unfolds in future moments. They kind of form this bit of a paradox where we have to accept our experience, but we hope for ourselves and we do what we can to help the future moments unfold in a healthier manner that entails less suffering.
So I actually, at this conference, laid out this whole model of these various aspects of mindfulness and how they’re different but then how they feed into this overarching construct which you might say is something like having an open heart or an open mind or reaping the benefits of meditation and other types of contemplative practices. But in my model, I use a more narrow form of mindfulness, which is really mindfulness of suffering. [It is] the ability to notice suffering and to accept the fact that suffering is occurring, and that that is kind of the prerequisite for our hearts to respond with compassion.
TS: Well let’s talk about that. We notice what’s happening in our present moment experience without judgment, but let’s say what’s happening is that we’re quite anxious or maybe even having some type of panic response in the moment. So we’re upset about something, really upset. How do you stay mindful in those kinds of moments?
KN: Right. Well, often when we’re very anxious, all of our attention and focus is on the perceived threat, what we think might happen or any sort of problem. Most of our attention is focused on, how do we fix a problem? How we get rid of it? We usually don’t use any of our available working memory space to reflect back to say, “Wow, this is really difficult right now.” If all of our attention is on fixing the problem, worrying about the future and regretting the past, we can’t really give ourselves compassion. We can’t recognize that this is really difficult and what I need is a little TLC right now. You have to be able to have some meta-awareness of the fact that this is a difficult moment and I need some help to get through it, especially from myself. In terms of how to get people out of that locked-in mind state, one of the reasons meditation is so incredibly helpful for developing things like mindfulness and compassion is that we really rewire the brain. Our brain gets in the habit of seeing things from this more aware, mindful, and compassionate perspective so that our brain automatically kind of kicks into that gear.
For instance—I won’t go into too much detail because you probably have neuroscientists on this show that know a lot more than I do—but we know that [when] the mind [is] in its resting state, the default mode network is activated. Basically—and this evolved for a good reason—when we have free time and we’re not thinking of anything else, our mind tends to create a sense of self and project that sense of self in the past and the future looking for problems, right? We regret about the past and we have depression, or worry about the future—anxiety. So, although this allowed us to protect ourselves and pass on our genes evolutionarily speaking, nowadays it pretty much just causes us to be unhappy most of the time. But with meditation, what happens is that we actually lower the activation of the default mode network so our default mode or habitual way of being is actually much more aware and much less oriented towards finding problems in the past and the future.
So meditation is a great way, but even just developing the habit of reminding ourselves to be aware, to be compassionate in simple moments in everyday life, can help this response kick in even when we’re absorbed in painful situations. But it does take some work—let’s face it. If your whole lifetime is spent in the habit of self-criticism, worry, depression, etc. it’s not going to change by itself. You need to take some active steps to cultivate new habits, and it really can be done, but it does take some effort.
TS: One of the things that I thought was quite interesting in your work was that you actually present research that shows that the attempt to suppress negative or unwanted thoughts, that it just doesn’t work. That there’s research that shows that [when] we’re feeling something that we don’t want to be feeling and we’re thinking things that we don’t want to be thinking, but that taking suppression—trying to make those negative thoughts go away—that we actually can’t do that. Of course, that’s been my experience, but I never knew there was any research to show that.
KN: Oh yes, there’s a whole field of research on emotional avoidance that shows that the more we try to resist, the more is persists. [Laughs] A classic experiment called “The White Bear Thought Experiment” where the researchers had two groups of people, and one group was told, “For the next five minutes don’t think about a white bear.” And the other group was told, “For the next five minutes, think as much as you can about a white bear.” So one group was told to suppress the thought, the other group was allowed to express the thought. Then a little while later, they gave each group five minutes with no instructions other than, “Whenever you think of a white bear, ring this little bell.” And of course, what they found was the group that didn’t think about a white bear for the first five minutes thought about the white bear constantly in the next five minutes, whereas those who initially thought about the white bear thought of the bear much less often afterwards.
It’s almost as if when we suppress a thought, it kind of builds pressure in the subconscious and it kind of comes out one way or the other. I think of it almost like gas in a container or something—the more we squeeze it and resist and try to shove it down, the stronger it is and the more it’s likely to explode, whereas if we just open it up to the fresh air, everything kind of sorts itself out and we don’t really contain it anymore. Actually that’s a good metaphor. I just thought of that! [Laughs] It’s a good thought, that resistance and suppression is really a way of containing things, and when we contain things it means we keep a hold of them. Whereas when we let go, we don’t resist and we don’t contain them, and they’re free to just dissipate on their own.
TS: I’m curious what you think then, of a very common teaching that a lot of people say has been helpful—it’s never really worked for me, but I’m curious—which is to work with affirmations. So if you’re feeling beset with something, some negative experience, you can say the opposite and affirm the opposite and that that will work.
KN: Right. I mean, I do have some issues with that work. The research doesn’t really seem to support positive affirmations when they’re combined with suppression of the negative. So, in other words, just thinking about the positive actually can be quite helpful; because our minds tend to be so focused on the negative, remembering that most situations also have a positive aspect can bring balance to our experience. So being grateful for things that are good in our lives, or focusing on those nine positive comments on our work evaluation and not just the one negative comment, that can really enhance well-being and help us see things in a more balanced way.
But when positive affirmations mean we aren’t going to think about the negative, we’re totally going to suppress those feelings and not acknowledge them, then it’s more likely to backfire so that at some point those negative thoughts and feelings come out, and typically they come out much stronger than they last much longer than they would have otherwise.
TS: Now, I have just a few more questions I want to try to squeeze in here. One of the things that I learned from your work that I’d never heard before was how self-compassion can for some people be exceptionally difficult if there is a history of early sexual abuse— that that’s a discovery that has been made. Can you explain that?
KN: Yes. And it’s not just sexual abuse, [it can be] any kind of abuse including physical and emotional abuse. Paul Gilbert, who has done some really great work in this area, he’s a clinician who focuses on self-compassion. What happens [is that] when we are young, and the people we love and trust in the world—you know, our parents or maybe some other caregivers—abuse us, is that our caregiving attachment system which normally helps us feel soothed and comforted actually gets intertwined with threat, right? That when we opened the door of our hearts when we were little, what we encountered at least part of the time was some sort of abuse or some sort of harm. So if that is your situation, then opening the door of your heart with self-compassion can feel very, very scary.
Actually, there’s a term for this [that] my colleague Chris Germer uses called “backdraft.” If there’s a fire with a closed door, and then you open the door, the fire springs out really strongly. The same thing can happen for people whose hearts have been closed—the door of their hearts has been closed because of this early betrayal by their caregivers. This can be gotten through, but it does make having self-compassion and also the process of learning self-compassion more difficult. I recommend for people for whom there is a fairly strong history of abuse to go down the path of self-compassion with a trained therapist, because sometimes things will come out really strongly, a lot of suppressed emotions and feelings that you may need to get some help sorting through.
TS: Thank you, Kristin. Now I know that one of your marriage vows is that each of you will help each other to be self-compassionate, that that’s one of your vows: we’ll help each other be self-compassionate. I’m curious how that actually works in day-to-day life? How do you do that?
KN: Right. And by the way, I should say, “when we remember,” so that is an ideal that isn’t always met, but certainly more than if we didn’t have that goal. Really it’s the commitment to, instead of trying to get your partner to meet all of your own needs, trying to meet a lot of your needs for yourself and also helping your partner to meet those needs by maybe reminding them to be self-compassionate and not to be so hard on themselves. Giving them the space and time they need to nurture themselves without being so demanding.
In fact, I just published a research study looking at100 couples in a committed romantic relationship, and we found that self-compassion was a really powerful predictor of health in the relationship. So people who were more self-compassionate were weighted by their partners as being more intimate, more caring, granting more autonomy, being less controlling, being less verbally aggressive, and people were more satisfied with their relationship when their partners were self-compassionate. It makes sense if you think about it, as I said; when you can meet a lot of your own needs, you aren’t so dependent on your partner to meet your needs. You don’t have to be so controlling, and that means you really have more emotional resources to give in the relationship. So it’s wonderful if couples can agree that self-compassion is going to help the relationship, help each party in the relationship and really try to model and mutually support each other in being self-compassionate.
Unfortunately, that means that you have to be a little less critical of your partner, right? When they do something wrong, instead of just hitting them over the head saying, “You’re terrible, I can’t believe you did that,” it means you want to help your partner recognize that failure and imperfection is only human, that it’s OK and that they’re loved and supported anyway.
TS: Well, in listening in this conversation twice you’ve talked about how it’s dependent upon remembering. Remembering to be self-compassionate. So how can we help ourselves remember?
KN: Yes. And again, that is the mindfulness component. How do we help ourselves be mindful, especially of suffering? So, of course as I mentioned, meditation is great. There are also other things you can do, like putting up little stickers around your house, little notes to remember to be mindful and self-compassionate of what’s happening. Reading books [about self-compassion] so it’s something that we think about more often. Some people have little bracelets and switch them from one arm to the other whenever they notice that they’re going through a difficult time and need self-compassion. Actually, I have a dissertation student who did a little study, had a little intervention for her students, and that’s one of things she had them do is do some physical gesture when they were struggling or feeling inadequate to remind them that what they needed was self-compassion in the moment.
So really, any creative way you can think of to just keep the idea of self-compassion in your awareness, whatever that might be. There’s a great group called Compassionate that has refrigerator magnets, for instance [laughs] and also bracelets. So little things like that can be very helpful. Listening to your podcasts, for instance!
TS: It’s a reminder. It helps to remind me! And just one final question, Kristin. It’s always curious to me how different people get different mantles, if you will, or different torches to carry, and here, early in your life, you made this commitment to be the self-compassion researcher, even before you discovered that your son had autism. I’m curious, when you look at, “Here, you know, my life, it’s such a curious thing, each one of us, and here I’m the self-compassion woman.” How did that happen? Why did that happen? What’s going on? What’s your view of that?
KN: It’s kind of a mystery, isn’t it? I mean, it’s almost, well not embarrassing but…I mean, it’s very gratifying that I started the research ball rolling and so many people are being helped by this. I can’t even tell how amazingly wonderful it is to get emails from people telling me [that] this has really changed their life. You know, seeing over 200 journal articles and dissertations focused on self-compassion.
How did it happen? You know, I don’t know. It’s just that it helped me in my personal life at a time when I really needed it, when I was stressed. It was actually just after a very messy divorce, and that combined with doing the post-doc on self-esteem and seeing all of the problems, and also learning more about Buddhism and this openhearted path that was making such a difference in my life. It just seemed like a really good idea at the time, and it just spring-boarded from there.
I’m a little like a bulldog sometimes; when I get an idea that I think is good, I persist, and I’m very dogged in my determination to see it through. And I just said “Well, why don’t I do it? Why don’t I define and research self-compassion? No one else has done it, at least in academia, and it should be done.” I started the ball rolling and the research turned out so well and so powerful and I got more and more interested in the ideas and I started noticing more and more how people really needed self-compassion, and at some point I guess I became a bit of an evangelist because it just seemed to be a way that could really, really help people that actually was fairly simple. It didn’t take a lot of effort or time or money or resources. But you know, who knows? Why me and why this particular path? Maybe some if it is just luck? Being at the right place at the right time.
TS: Well, I’m grateful that you’re carrying the self-compassion torch so brightly and so powerfully. Thank you so much.
KN: Well, thank you. And thank you also for being such a light in the world and bringing these concepts of self-acceptance and openheartedness to such a large number of people. It really is a pleasure and an honor to be on this show with you.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Kristin Neff. With Sounds True, Kristin has published a six-session audio series called Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. It’s chock full of guided practices and exercises and is a wonderful step-by-step program. Thanks everyone for listening. SoundsTrue.com, many voices, one journey.