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Why Self-Compassion is a Learnable Skill — and One We ALL Need
With Kristin Neff, PhD
Self-compassion is a powerful tool for improving our own well-being and our relationships — yet cultural blocks often dissuade us from practicing this skill. In this episode, Kristin Neff, PhD, shares what self-compassion is, the strong, positive ways it can affect us (and others), and how we can start cultivating more of it in our daily lives.
Kristin Neff is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion nearly 20 years ago. She is the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and Thrive. Along with her colleague, Chris Germer, PhD, she developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program and co-wrote The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.
Self-compassion isn’t a “you either have it or you don’t” thing. It’s a practice that we can all learn. In this episode, Neff outlines the three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness. This is about being kind to yourself and stopping self-judgement and disparaging self-talk. Often it’s about treating yourself the same way you would a friend or family member.
- Mindfulness. This is the ability to be aware of what’s happening, and to also accept what’s happening — even if it’s painful. Neffs says it’s essential to acknowledge this in a balanced way so that you’re not so lost in or absorbed by the pain that you lose the perspective to look around and say, “OK, what needs to be done?” or “Wow, you’re really having a hard time, what can I do to help?”
- Common humanity. This is what differentiates self-compassion from self-pity: When you pity yourself, you feel isolated. And when you pity someone else, you feel superior. If you have compassion for someone, on the other hand, it’s a notion of, “I’ve been there” — there’s a sense of connection. With self-compassion, you feel connected to others: “I’m a human being who’s imperfect and who struggles, like all other human beings.”
- The Power of Kindness
- Cultivate Self-Compassion
- An Honest Talk About Mental Health With Dr. Mondo
- The Pursuit of Happiness
- How to Get Past Envy
- How to Let Go of Perfectionism
- How to Deal With Shame
- How to Stop Ruminating
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
- Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and Thrive
- The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook
- Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
- @neffselfcompassion on Instagram
- Kristin Neff on Facebook
- Kristin Neff on Twitter
More Like This
Anxiety, depression, limited self-beliefs, perpetual feeling states — we all experience mental-health struggles, and what we often don’t realize is the effect they can have on every area of our health and wellness. Dr. Mondo joins us for an honest talk about mental well-being, including the role trauma plays and the power that comes from healing.
Transcript: Why Self-Compassion is a Learnable Skill — and One We ALL Need
Season 14, Episode 14 | July 26, 2022
[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome back to Life Time Talks, everyone. I’m Jamie Martin.
And I’m David Freeman.
And we are really excited about our episode today with Kristin Neff. She is currently an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s a pioneer in the field of self compassion research conducting the first empirical studies on self compassion nearly 20 years ago.
She’s been recognized as one of the most influential researchers in psychology worldwide. She is the author of the best selling book self compassion. And along with her colleague Chris Germer, she developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program taught internationally and cowrote The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Her newest book is Fierce Self-Compassion– How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. Kristin, thanks so much for being here with us.
Oh, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Self compassion, self compassion, Kristin. Excited, like Jamie just said, to have you on and just to go over your bio just now, all these different areas that you thrive in and help others thrive in and make them aware. I want to know first before we jump into self compassion, how are you doing?
I’m doing pretty well, actually. Yeah, I’ve been doing this research for about 20 years. And I’ve kind of reached the point where I can sit back and let other people do most of the research now. And now I’m more spending my time writing books, giving talks.
Yeah, it feels like I’ve reached a point of– I don’t know what the right word for it is. I’ve reached a certain point where I can kind of just reap the benefits of what I’ve sown. Does that make sense?
Yeah, you planted the seed.
And it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. That’s great.
I love that.
I don’t have to work and run up that hill. I feel like maybe I hopefully haven’t reached the pinnacle but have at least reached a resting place. And that’s really nice.
Yeah, I would say, you planted the seed. You’ve been watering it. And now a lot of the fruit of your labor is being seen here. So I love that. When we talk about self compassion, the words that come to mind for me is grace for better or for worse. I mean, I heard that at the altar at some point in time. Always evolving but also being nonjudgmental. So how close or how far off am when I say those are the words that come to mind? Am I pretty close there?
Well, I think it’s a beautiful word for self compassion, the word grace. And in fact, some people– I mean, self compassion is taught in a secular manner. It actually comes from Buddhism. So you can practice it from a Buddhist perspective. But a lot of Christians, for instance, think of it as accepting Jesus’s love into their heart.
The metaphors you use for self compassion are I think whatever doorway in works for you. But if I understand how you’re using the word grace, it’s like this benevolence, this acceptance. But it’s a certain type of acceptance. It’s an acceptance with wanting you to be well.
So grace does it want you to continue with your unhealthy habits that is harming yourself and others. Grace is like, I love you as you are. But I really want you to try to do your best so you can be healthy and well. That’s how I understand grace anyways. It has the directionality to it of benevolence. And that’s really what self compassion is. You might call it self-benevolence.
I like that. So from that standpoint, you said 20 years of research in this space, right?
So self compassion, how did this concept as a whole become such a focus in your work over the years?
Right. So I did start it as a personal practice. And so where I learned it was when I started learning Buddhist meditation and the tradition of the man named Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s a– he’s recently passed. He’s a zen master. And he’s one of the Buddhist teachers that talked a lot about the need to turn compassion inward as well as outward. In other words, if we’re just compassionate to others and we beat ourselves up, first of all, we’ll burn out. But we won’t actually be in the mental state needed to care for others.
And I was actually going through a really hard time in my life. I had just gotten a divorce. It was a difficult time. And I started practicing self compassion This is about 25 years ago. And I was just so blown away by how it changed my life. I mean, it made me able to cope so much more easily with all the stresses I was going through.
And so when I got an assistant professor possession at UT Austin, I thought, this is so powerful. No one studied it before. And people have taught. I didn’t come up with the idea. But no one had actually studied it. So I started doing research. And again, just kind of blown away by the really strong positive effects that self compassion can have.
And this is a cool thing. It’s not just like you happen to have it or you don’t. This is a practice. This is something you can actually learn to do. And it’s not rocket science. It’s just treating yourself with the same kindness and care and concern you naturally if you have a friend you cared about. And so that’s why I think it’s really worth devoting a life to because it’s so amazing in its power to change people’s lives.
When you say it like that and you describe it like that, it sounds like it should be so simple or it should be as natural as that. However, the opposite of self compassion is self-criticism. And we so often that becomes the default state for so many of us. And I’m curious about, why do we just tend to go that way instead of the other? And what role does culture happen to have to play with this?
Yeah, well, that’s a really good question. So you might say that it’s not very difficult. But I wouldn’t say that it’s natural either. And there’s two reasons. One is cultural. So we can address those. A culture has a lot of blocks to self compassion. They tell us that it’s selfish. You should only think of others first. You should ignore yourself.
They think it’s self indulgent, that self compassion means just taking it easy. They don’t understand like you’re saying the benevolence. If you want yourself to be well, you’re going to be self indulgent because by definition that means you’re harming yourself. You’re giving yourself pleasure. But you’re harming yourself. So it doesn’t lead to self indulgence. It’s not selfish. It gives you the resources to care for others.
A lot of people think it’s a weak. I have to say I think gender comes into this a little bit because compassion is part of the female gender role. And females have less power in society. And there’s a reason most people who come to my workshops are females. And there’s this idea that compassion is soft. It’s weak.
And that’s why I wrote the book Fierce Self-Compassion, which you can talk about later, the strong powerful side. But I’ll tell you the number one block to self compassion is the belief that it’s going to undermine your motivation. We used to think that you needed a harsh corporal punishment to motivate a child or they will be spoiled.
And we’ve moved beyond that with parenting. But we haven’t moved beyond that with ourselves. And it’s not true. The research shows it’s not true. So this is cultural. And there’s a second reason, though. And it actually is evolutionary and physiological.
So the care system did evolve to care for others. The care system evolved to care for our offspring and other group members. When we care for our offspring or the group members, we’re more likely to survive. The system we use when we’re threatened is the threat defense system, bite, fight, or flee– fight, flight, or freeze.
And so when you fail or you make a mistake or something difficult happens, you don’t go into threat mode. See if I fail, I feel threatened. If you fail, I don’t feel threatened. So I can go into care mode. But when I’m in threat mode, I go to fight, flight, or freeze.
So how does that manifest? I fight myself. I beat myself up, thinking that somehow I’ll control myself, so I’ll be safe or I flee into shame. I withdraw. I feel isolated. So somehow I can hang my head in shame. I’ll be safe from the judgments of others or I freeze and I get stuck. I just ruminated over and over. This is so bad. This is so bad over and over again.
So you might say self criticism is actually a natural safety response. For that reason, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. It’s kind of built into us. The cool thing is, though, we can switch systems. We can start to just– you have to do a little intentional effort. But it’s actually not difficult. You just have to remember we can start using the care system for ourselves as well as others. And you’ll see from your own experience it actually is much better at keeping you safe.
I want to tag on to something there real quick you said. So you talked about this fight-flight-freeze system that’s part of our natural response. That has very physiological effects on us. So let’s talk about that a little bit because I know the stress hormones that result from that and what that does to our health.
Yeah, right. So cortisol is one of the biggest ones and also inflammation in various parts of the body. So when we beat ourselves up, our heart rate gets increased. It can lead to things like heart attacks. That’s physiological. Also things like you lose sleep, which also has physiological effects. And you can get depressed.
So what self compassion does is it reduces cortisol. It increases heart rate variability, which is a parasympathetic nervous system response. It allows us to feel calmer internally. It allows us to sleep better. It reduces inflammation. And that’s why self compassion is linked to lower glucose levels for diabetes patients or fewer aches and pains, fewer colds, reduced physical pain.
For pain patients who learn self compassion, it actually reduces their physical pain because when you give yourself that warm, soothing response, it actually reduces your pain levels. So it’s just good for so many reasons. But just think of a baby. Think of a baby. Think of when your baby’s crying. You can do one of two things. You can rock that child. You can let that child know that you love it, that you’re there for it. It’s going to calm down.
If you scream at that child, stop shouting, you idiot, how helpful is it going to be? And we’re all kind of that little baby inside when we’re upset and we’re scared and we’re frightened. And so how we relate to ourself has almost the exact same impact it would as if you think about how you would treat your own child.
And that’s what gets people. They think, wow, would I ever say this to my child? No way would I say this to my child. Then why are you saying it to yourself? It has the same impact.
Yeah, I want to go back to when you said the fight, flight, or freeze. I remember we had Dr. Mondo on. And he said, there’s another F. He said it was fawning, meaning as far as putting others’ needs before yourself. And then at the expense of putting other needs before yourself, you’re compromising sometimes who you are or who you truly would be. And therefore you’re forgetting about that self compassion.
So when we speak to three elements, and obviously this is from you, and we think of self compassion, self kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, what I want you to do for our listeners or viewers right now is take us a layer deeper on each one of those three. And let us know exactly what they mean.
Yeah, thank you. That’s really important, David, because it’s more than just self kindness. Kindness is the thing that people can relate to most easily. But what’s the difference between self love and self kindness? What’s the difference between narcissism and self kindness?
So self kindness in and of itself is useful, but it’s not enough. First of all, we need mindfulness. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what’s happening and to accept and face the fact that it is happening. We really don’t want to do that.
We don’t want to hang our heads in the sand. We don’t want to face what’s happening, which leads to all sorts of problems if we don’t face the pain that we’re experiencing or you can extrapolate this to society. If we don’t want to face the pain that society is experiencing, we need mindfulness to say, OK, this is happening, to acknowledge it but in a balanced way.
In other words, we acknowledge it. But we aren’t lost in it. We aren’t lost. We aren’t so lost and absorbed in the pain that we have no perspective to look around and say, OK, what needs to be done? We need to be mindful of our pain. We’re aware all this hurts. I feel badly. I’m struggling but again in a balanced way.
So there’s space to step outside of ourselves and say, wow, you’re really having a hard time. What can I do to help? So that spacious awareness, that’s what the mindfulness gives us.
And then the third bit is really important. And that’s common humanity. And this is what differentiates self compassion from self pity. Self pity is poor me, woe is me. We feel isolated. We all self pity is not helpful to anyone. But self compassion is like– so David, if I pitied you, you wouldn’t like it if I pitied you because I’d be feeling superior to you.
But if I had compassion for you, it’s like, oh, man, I’ve been there. There’d be a sense of connection in the compassion. The exact same thing with self compassion. We feel connected to others. It’s like I’m a human being who’s imperfect, who struggles like all of the human beings.
And that sense of connectedness is so important because when we feel isolated when we’re suffering then, it’s like we’re kicking ourselves when we’re down. Not only are you struggling, it’s just me. I feel isolated. And for human beings, it’s very scary to feel all alone.
But when we remember, hey, it’s human. Other people experience this too. Nothing’s wrong with me for experiencing this. This is part of the life journey we signed up for as human beings. Then we feel safer. And we feel more connected.
The three elements really go together. And all three need to be there for it to be a very stable state of mind. But they do tend to go together from the research. They kind of form a system– kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
I said it earlier, sometimes we can put others’ needs before ourselves. And I want to be careful here because when we talk about self compassion, I remember hearing you say in one of your podcasts as far as global value of self worth and then self esteem, how self esteem– so I don’t want to say this, but you need to be somewhat selfish with the time that you need for yourself to be able to give the best version of yourself to others when that time comes. Can you help me out there?
Yeah. So basically I wouldn’t call it selfish. But you need to include yourself in the calculation of what to do. So in my research, for instance, we actually looked at how do people resolve conflicts if money conflicts with that of my romantic partner or my parents or my kids? Self compassion people compromise.
In other words, it’s not saying that I’m more important than you. But I’m also not less important than you. So you take your needs into account knowing that, again, if you just give and give and give– and there’s a lot of people like this. And I have to say, Jamie, you’ll probably relate to this. Women especially are socialized.
Men have slightly higher levels of self compassion than women because they’re raised to feel more entitled to meet their own needs. Their needs are important. They’re men. Well, women are socialized to be givers. And they’re valued for self sacrificing. So for women, it can feel especially selfish to meet our own needs.
And so what self compassion does, again, it’s not my way or the highway. But it’s saying, hey, my needs count too. I need to take care of myself in order to take care of others. What’s the solution that values everyone’s needs? It’s really just including yourself in the circle of compassion.
Yes, that relates to me so well. I mean, I think one of the things I have often struggled is boundaries so that I can know like where I’m at and what I need and don’t need at any given point but be able to do and be able to compromise and move those boundaries as needed.
But to be able to set them in the first place, that’s something for me that’s been a journey these last few years to be able to recognize what I really need in relation to others, not for my parents, to my partner, to my kids. But it’s hard because it’s often like I find myself really moving those boundaries more often than I’d like sometimes. And then I have to– again, awareness. Be aware like, OK, I did that this time. How would I do it differently next time?
So that’s why my latest work talks about the difference between fierce and tender self compassion. And they’re both important. So tender self compassion is really about acceptance. We accept ourselves as flawed human beings. Our goal is just to be a compassionate mess. We don’t have to be perfect. We can be a mess as long as we’re compassionate toward that mess.
It’s really a kind of unconditional acceptance. It’s more of that– you might say that metaphorical mothering energy or parenting energy. You just accept your child unconditionally no matter what they do. You just love them regardless.
But there’s also a fierce side of self compassion that I like to call mama bear self compassion. And this is the compassion. You might have a mama bear too. Everyone has this inner mama bear. It’s like the willingness to say no. No, that’s not OK. No, you’re hurting me.
For instance, I see the MeToo movements and the Black Lives Matter movements as self compassion movements. These are fierce self compassion movements where people are rising up and saying, no, you will not harm me anymore. It’s not OK. We count. We’re valuable. We need to be respected.
So there’s all sorts of social justice implications, I think, from self compassion. But so say no and drawing boundaries. So I’m just saying no. But it’s also saying yes to ourselves. So say no to some people who request things of us. And also saying yes to ourselves. No, I deserve to meet my own needs. They deserve to be counted.
Again, I’ve got an autistic son, so I can’t meet all the needs I want to meet. His needs come first. And it should be that way. But that doesn’t mean that I just lose myself. I take myself into the equation so that as I raise him, I also make sure I meet my own needs. So both are really important.
There seems to me to be within that, there’s a groundedness in understanding who you are and your values all within this. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Yeah. So one of the most really strongest findings of the research is self compassion leads to authenticity. And you might also say that drawing boundaries is a part of authenticity. Meeting your needs is a part of authenticity. And here’s where the difference– I think, David, you mentioned slightly the difference between self compassion and self esteem.
So self esteem is how much you like yourself or how positively you judge yourself. And it’s typically, not always, but it tends to be contingent on a few main things. One is how we look. So we like ourselves if we look good, we don’t if we don’t.
One is success. Am I successful in athletics or my career. And the other is social approval. And so with boundary crossing, especially for women, one of the things that really stands in the way is people won’t like me if I say no. And you know what? Kind of true.
I mean, as women, part of– I hate to say it. Part of patriarchy– I’m going to say it. Part of patriarchy is, we will like you women if you do what we say. But if you stand up for yourself or you rock the boat or you say no, we aren’t going to like. We’re going to call you names.
And by the way, men also are oppressed in other ways. They’re called names if they’re too tender. But women are called names if they’re too fierce. The whole thing is kind of messed up I got to say.
Anyway, I lost my train of thought. Oh, about the boundary. Yeah. Oh, yeah, OK. So what self compassion does, we know from the research, is it makes your sense of self worth less contingent on social approval. In other words, if you don’t like me, that’s OK because I like myself. So your sense of worth is internal. And it’s unconditional.
And what that does is it gives you the freedom to be your true self. I don’t need you to me to be worthy, which means I don’t need to be phony or say yes when I really want to say no. I don’t need to act a certain way if it’s not how I feel inside.
So the other ones are also important. It’s really good for body image and eating because your self worth is dependent on your appearance. And it’s also really good for things like perfectionism because your self worth isn’t dependent on being perfect.
You can start seeing how– you can see how excited I get because it’s so powerful in so many different domains of life. This very simple thing of treating yourself like you would treat a good friend you cared about, it’s so simple, but its impact is really widespread and powerful.
So I know at the beginning we were talking about a curveball. And I want to throw a curveball now. And I guarantee you’re probably going to hit a home run with this. So when we look at the work of cultivating self compassion within certain perspectives, it might come off as more feminine than masculine.
So in your studies of 20-plus years, have you seen certain societies that we can now say, look, this is a perfect example? I want the males and the women to listen to this. When a male starts to exude some of that feminine quality as far as being vulnerable or showing the qualities of what it is to be self compassion, that it actually yields greater benefits.
Right. Yeah. So I like to use the metaphor of yin and yang instead of masculine and feminine because it’s very similar. So yin is more of the gentle, tender, vulnerable side. Yang’s more the forceful energetic side. And we need both. I mean, the Chinese philosophers got it right. They made that little symbol.
We need both. We need to have them in balance. So if you’re too tender without enough fierceness, you can be complacent or you can be a doormat. But if you’re too fierce without enough tenderness, you can be aggressive. You’re insensitive.
So everyone needs both. The way they balance it, it’s going to look different depending on your gender identity, your culture. Everyone’s unique. But we all need both. And so in terms of men showing the tender side. So we do have data showing that people are more satisfied with self compassionate partners in romantic relationships.
So people who’ve got more of this self compassion, men and women actually, applies to both, they’re less controlling. They’re less angry in their relationship. They’re more able to be intimate because, again, they have more to give. So I think all people– and really it’s not man or woman, all people need balance. But it’s just you might say the cultural blocks of the men and women are different. And for transgender people, they’re blocked multiple ways.
Culture tries to block us from being our true selves when it says, you need to be this way. And this is what a man is supposed to be. And this is what a woman supposed to be when in truth, we’re all human beings. Yes, everyone’s going to be different and unique. And they should be allowed to be their true selves.
David, are you an athlete? I see pictures of athletes on– OK. So we just conducted a study at UT Austin– NCAA teams actually across the United States. It was on Zoom, so we could do it during the pandemic, where we trained high-level athletes, both male and female teams in self compassion.
And you might think, I mean, in the sport culture, oh, that’s weak. That’s wimpy. They loved it. Why? Because if you fail– say, you’re in a game and you’re a basketball player and you miss the shot, if you just beat yourself up or you ruminate on that or you just kind of start judging yourself, you’re going to incapacitate yourself.
So first of all, it’s going to make you anxious, which is going to lower your performance anxiety. And also in practice situations, it’s going to make you less able to learn. Shame makes it almost impossible to learn anything. So what we did is we trained these athletes in self compassion.
And what they found, not only did their performance increase both from self rating and the coaches rated their performance increase, they’re also less anxious, less depressed, et cetera. So self compassion allows you to be your best. But the source of the encouragement comes from care, benevolence, grace, you might say, as opposed to you better win that game or else you’re a loser. It’s a really different source of motivation.
That goes right back, David, to your mantra that David often says. He’s always mind right, body right. And so it’s like that mindset matters. And if we can teach more people whether in athletics or otherwise how impactful– and that actually leads right into the question I was going to ask because we talked about how it can seem like this is a selfish thing to do this. And I think your research has shown that individual self compassion can be good for others and our world more broadly. Can you speak to that?
Yeah, absolutely. So if you think of what self compassion is, it’s really a moment to moment way of relating to suffering. So passion in Latin means suffer. Com means with. How are we with our suffering? So moment to moment, we have that thought. We look in the mirror, we have that thought, or we lose the game, so we’re having that experience or the pandemic hits.
So any moment of suffering, how are we relating to that suffering? Are we relating to it with kindness, with mindfulness? Are we balanced with it? Are we feeling connected or are we judging ourselves? Are we feeling isolated? Are we ruminating and getting fixated on it?
And so you can imagine that what we cultivate internally, both thoughts and difficult emotions, reflects on other people. First of all, it reflects just to other people. Without getting too much into it, we have a mirror neuron system where your emotions impact me. And my emotions impact you. So if I’m down and depressed and full of shame and judgmental, you’re going to feel that through your mirror neurons.
But if I’m full of, you might say loving connected presence, kindness, warmth, mindfulness, centeredness, connection, then that’s going to benefit you just in terms of interacting with me. I’m probably less likely to snap at you, for instance. I can be more present with you because I’m resourced.
And then here’s a big set of findings, is it allows us to care for others without burning out. So we have a lot of research for health care providers or for parents that they can care for others without burning out because you’re resourcing yourself. So either one of those is our own suffering or the suffering of others.
When we care for other people, their suffering impacts us. Do we have the muscles to deal with that suffering without being overwhelmed? We do. And those muscles are called self compassion muscles.
All right, here we go. Straight fastball this time. You’re ready? To be human is to be imperfect. It came from you. I remember hearing you say that. Unpack that for our listeners.
It’s kind of funny that we think that when we make a mistake, we fail at something, that somehow it’s just us. We do this unconsciously. It’s not really logical. Everyone else in the world is living a normal perfect life. And it’s just me who’s failed or it’s just me who’s disappointed or it’s just me who’s having this struggle. We just forget this reality that we know logically that to be human is to be imperfect.
And so with self compassion, the goal isn’t necessarily to get it right. It’s to open your heart. And that’s what I like to call the compassionate mess. We’re still going to be a mess. We try to be as functional a mess as possible. We try to do the best we can at parenting and our job and our health and all those things. But we’re never going to be perfect because we aren’t robots.
We aren’t Ken and Barbie dolls. We’re human beings, which means we’re going to make mistakes. Life happens. Even if you have the most blessed life imaginable, you’re still going to get sick and old and die. That’s what it means to be a human being. And so can we hold that mess with compassion?
Oh, hold that. Hold that right there, that compassionate mess. Hold that. Jamie and I both feel the pressures within the roles that we put– the pressures we put on ourselves with the roles that we’re in. You just said it as far as being human is to be imperfect.
So you being described as one of the most foremost experts on self compassion, how do you navigate a lot of the things that might come your way when it comes to being questioned or how does this exactly work? How do you implement it, so on and so forth? So how do you navigate it?
I’ll say, thank goodness I’m a self compassion researcher, not a mindfulness researcher or self esteem researcher because I can be a mess. I am a mess. So after 25 years of practice now, I still lose it. I still snap occasionally. I still get stressed. I’m better than I used to be. But mistakes is just part of me.
But it’s pretty habitual now to relate to myself with compassion. I don’t beat myself up. Shame still arises. It’s interesting. Shame, I think it’s just an evolutionarily– it’s in our bodies. If I say something, maybe it was unintentionally harmful or something like that, shame still arises. I feel it in my body. That’s just my physiology. But I know what to do when shame arises, is I hold it with compassion.
I might put my hands at my heart. And I might say– first of all, it’s almost like the three components of self compassion are almost like the recipe for how to bake a loaf of self compassion bread or cookies or whatever you want to call it.
First, mindfulness, you’re aware of the pain. This is really hard. This shame hurts or this mistake hurts. Whatever the messiness is just really hurts. Remember, well, it’s part of life. Again, nothing wrong with me for having this happen. This is part of being a human being. I’m not alone. I’m not the only one. So losing that sense of isolation.
And then kindness. So I naturally put my hand on my heart. We often teach self touch is a really easy, quick way to give yourself compassion because you’re actually tapping into your physiological system. There’s actually research showing it lowers your cortisol levels. Just like when parents hold their infants, they naturally calm down. You can put your hands on your heart. And I’ll just say some words of kindness and support.
And by the way, sometimes they’re fears. You might be like, hey, Christine, it’s OK. It’s only human. But I really want you to try to do better next time because– let’s say, for instance– so I’ll give you an example. My son is autistic. And he’s very, very sensitive to tone of voice.
And occasionally, my tone gets sharp kind of like dog training because when it’s sharp, he has a tantrum. And it’s like kind of instant feedback that’s not good. But for myself, it’s like, so I do want to try to really watch my tone also because it impacts him so much. And I hate it when he feels so hurt if I have a sharp tone. It still happens, though. Whatever, it still happens. I’m only human.
So if it happens, instead of just say, oh, you stupid idiot, why are you so mean, or something like that, I will say, OK. Well, that hurts. And I feel badly. My son’s really upset. Well, we’ll just get back on that horse again and try again.
It’s really about the process. You’re never going to be perfect. But you can keep going, keep trying with kindness and encouragement as opposed to judgment. And so it’s pretty habitual for me right now. But again, the shame does still arise.
But I’m not overwhelmed by the shame. It’s almost like it arises. And it’s almost physiological. It arises. And it hangs around maybe just for a few minutes and then passes away, sometimes a little longer. But it’s not like days or weeks or months or in some people years.
So let’s build on that a little bit. I mean, you’ve mentioned right at the top of this that this is a practice. This is something we do ongoing. And we’re thinking. Sometimes we’re going to do it great. And we’re going to move on and the days are great. Other times we’re going to get stuck.
So how do we kind of return to this practice? Is there a place that you have people start if somebody is really struggling with self compassion? Is there a practice or two you can share with us and our listeners and viewers around how to get started and start to cultivate this in your daily life?
Yeah, so if you think of compassion as how we are with our suffering, how we’re holding the difficulty, you actually start where you are. So maybe the difficulty– the thing that’s troubling you is, I can’t practice self compassion. I’m so bad at this. That hurts. It hurts to have that thought. I’m so bad at this. One more thing I can’t do.
So you can actually relate to that thought self compassionately. First of all, mindfully, yeah, it hurts to feel like you can’t practice self compassion. But common humanity, I’m certainly not the only one in the world who has trouble practicing self compassion. Most people actually have trouble practicing self compassion.
And then the kindness, which is just like, well, just do your best. Take it moment by moment. Just give it a try. It’s challenging, so I’m here for you. That kind of warm supportive attitude. And so the language– so using the three components, again, like I said, calling it mindfulness, this hurts. Common humanity, you aren’t alone. Kindness, warm supportive language. Tone of voice is key. And then also, like I said, physical touch is really important.
Some people respond to hand on face, a little hug, or just holding their hands. And so we have something called the self compassion break that combines, intentionally calling in the three components with physical touch. You can find it on my website at selfcompassion.org. And that’s a really good place to start. It’s pretty easy. It kind of is intuitive. It makes sense.
One thing I’ve talked to my daughters about– I have 11 and 8-year-old daughters. And my younger one, I would describe her as kind of is highly sensitive. And so she takes like everything, she feels at all.
And one thing we’ve talked a lot about is when you’re feeling this or if she’s in school is like something she can do is even just rub her own arm just as a moment, like something simple. And she’s young and she gets that. That helps her take a breath and calm. I hear that with physical touch or like placing that hand somewhere.
Yeah, because it actually does change your physiology. Sometimes your brain takes a little while to catch on. But your body responds actually more quickly than your brain does often. But we also need to try as much as possible to also pay attention to our self talk and also at the tone.
So very easy thing to do is just say, what would I say to a good friend I cared about who just experienced the exact same thing I experienced? And then it’s kind of easy. Well, I would say this and this tone. And then you just try it on with yourself. And it feels weird at first because we aren’t used to it. So you just allow it to be weird. You just do it anyway. And gradually over time, it starts to feel more comfortable.
All right. Well, anything else Kristin that you would want to make sure our listeners know or understand about self compassion before we move on to David’s two-minute drill with you?
Well, I mean, I think I did mention this. But I just really want to hit home because we know from the research the number one block to self compassion is the belief that it will undermine your motivation. It’s a much more effective motivator than self criticism.
It doesn’t create performance anxiety. It doesn’t create the shame that allows you to stop your learning, at least the learning goals. Your goal is to actually learn and grow. You can reengage after your setback. You can keep going, at least a much more resilience.
And if you don’t trust me, you can go to my website and look at all the research on self compassion and motivation and see the research studies. So it’s just such a big block. That the opposite is true. It actually helps motivation. But you can misuse anything.
You can be self indulgent, masquerading as self compassion. Oh, well, just skip school. Just won’t go to work today. I want to give myself compassion. If it’s helping you, if it’s really healthy, it’s self compassion. But if it’s harming you in the long run, it’s not actual self compassion. It’s self indulgence. So we also have to be awake and really ask ourselves, is this really helping me or not?
Yeah, there are nuances.
Is this really what I need? And sometimes we can fool ourselves. So we’ve got to be clear about that as well.
And that’s where that mindfulness comes back in again, I’m sure.
Yes, exactly. That’s right.
All right. Well, we’ll make sure to link to your website with all the amazing resources you have on there on the show notes page for this episode. Yeah, I have like 20 or 25 free practices you can do. Just start. I also have a lot of books you can practice as well.
One practice for each year that you’ve been studying. And you said 20 or 25.
Also, I just have to maybe call out two things. So I worked with my colleague Chris Germer about 10 years ago to develop The Mindful Self-Compassion Program. And we started a nonprofit called The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. You can also link to that from my website or Google it or maybe you can include a link.
And that’s where you can take self compassion training. So you can go online, take a 10-week online course or shorter courses if you don’t have the time to do that. And the training is available worldwide. And we also have teachers all across the world in different languages as well.
So training is available through The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, if you want. It helps to learn in a group. You can do it on your own. But it’s really helpful to do it in group setting to get that social support.
We’ll be sure to link to that as well.
All right. David, I’m handing it over.
OK. I’m giving myself compassion already, I can tell.
There you go. Yeah, go ahead and place your hand on your heart and on your mind. You’re going to need both, your heart and your mind for this one. All right, it’s five quick questions. It’s fun ones. First question, what is your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
What is my biggest failure and what did I learn from it? You’d think I have this down pat. Yeah, so my first marriage failed. And it was my fault. And I learned a lot from that. I learned the importance of being true to myself so that I could be honest and true and committed. And I will never make the mistakes I made again in my first marriage. Put it that way.
I was young. But it really changed me. I learned a lot. Actually going through that divorce and the things that caused it, which led to a lot of shame, was when I was learning self compassion. And it actually did transform me. So kind of a personal one. But it’s true. It’s the biggest failure.
I love that transparency. I love that. We got to normalize conversations like that. I think sometimes it becomes taboo whenever we talk about the struggles with marriages maybe. But that’s another episode there.
All right what are the best resources that have helped you in your life?
Well, it’s kind of an obvious one, self compassion. I’m sorry. But beyond self compassion, I mean, I’ll be honest, my Buddhist practice. So I learned self compassion but also just meditation and then mindfulness, the whole way of looking at the world, understanding that we aren’t as separate from everything as we tend to think we are.
I mean, that’s really probably the most important thing in my life, my spiritual practice, which is all about interconnection, interbeing, nonseparate self, the illusion of separateness, all of that. Yeah.
I like that. What is the common myth about your profession that you want to debunk?
Interesting. This is kind of unique to me. Most people think I’m a clinical psychologist because I do self compassion work. And they’ll say, how would you teach this to a patient with bipolar disorder? I’m not a clinician. I’m a researcher. I got my PhD in developmental psychology. I’ve never dealt with a patient in my life.
So, I mean, your self compassion is very clinically relevant. And so I actually probably would know how to answer that question because all my good friends are clinicians. But just because you do self compassion work doesn’t mean you’re a therapist. I’m not a therapist.
I think I’ve heard Brené Brown say that too, like, just because I’m– like I’m a researcher. This is where I felt it’s interesting.
All right. Who has been the biggest influence on your Life
Well, I got to give that one to my mom. My mom’s 80 now. We just moved in together because she’s getting 80 and getting older. And it just reminds me how I love my mom. She’s such a strong woman. Also I can see where I get some of my traits, like reactive anger. So she’s not perfect like me. Yeah, she raised me alone and with my brother. And yeah, got to give that one to my mom.
Yeah, the moms. All right. What impact do you want to leave in this world when it’s time for you to depart? Well, you know where I’m going with that.
Yeah, I mean, I have to say– I mean, that’s also an obvious answer. It’s a really good feeling. If I were to die tomorrow, I would feel good about the contribution I bring to the world. I mean, I’ve had people write to me and say they were contemplating suicide. And they read my work and they decided not to. I mean, what can you ask for more than that.
If I can do more, that’s bonus. By the way, it was just kind of fortune. I’m the messenger. I’m not the message. Self compassion sells itself. That is the message that works. I just happen to be in the right place at the right time to help facilitate it getting out in the world. But yeah, I feel proud of what I’ve done. And if I can do more, that’s great because I think everyone needs self compassion, everyone. No matter who you are, you need self compassion.
One of the things I was going to add is, Kristin, you’ve been a longtime source for Experience Life Magazine, talking about these topics. And I will say there’s an article from years ago on the power of kindness that we did and you were a lead source in that. And it’s one of those articles that I go back to over and over again.
And it’s some of the words that you’ve spoken to us here today that I learned years ago. And it’s like the things that I’m constantly coming back to. So just within like with the Experienced Life readers who get this or others, we’ve been featuring your work for a long time.
And I really hope– like for me, it’s made such a huge difference in how I approach things in life. I just want to say a huge thank you on behalf of our readers and all the listeners today for the work you’re doing because it is powerful and life changing. It can be that for so many people. So thank you so much.
Well, thank you. And thank you too as well. I mean, you’re doing good work in the world and also helping people. So it’s all good. It’s all good.
Well, thanks so much for coming on and spending your morning with us.
Thank you. Have a good day.
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