The Fierce Side of Self-Compassion
Date Published: June 10, 2021
Is it better to be self-critical or self-compassionate? Until 20 years ago, when Kristin Neff, PhD, began pioneering the empirical study of self-compassion, most high-achievers would likely have answered “self-critical.” Indeed, being hard on yourself can seem like the path to success. But Dr. Neff’s research has shown that self-compassion is actually the surer and healthier road. In this interview, Dr. Neff explains what self-compassion really means—hint: it’s not for the faint of heart—and how it supports mental health. She also describes “fierce” self-compassion, in which kindness toward ourselves becomes a force for change in the world.
Kristin Neff, PhD, is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new book is Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about facing adversity. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is Dr. Kristin Neff. She's an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas. Dr. Neff studies self-compassion, a term she put on the map about 20 years ago. Think of it as treating yourself the way you'd treat a close friend. That is to say supportive, understanding, kind, but also honest. Because many of us spend our lives doing just the opposite. We rake ourselves over the coals, going over every mistake, real or imagined, a million times in part because we think that being hard on ourself is the key to success. But Dr. Neff says we've got it all wrong. She argues that if you want to learn from painful experiences, you're better off being self-compassionate. Plus, it's more conducive to creativity and experimentation because there's less of a reason to fear failure. Dr. Neff has a new book out called, "Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive." In it she argues that self-compassion doesn't simply mean changing ourselves, it also means changing the systems that cause us harm. So here is Dr. Kristin Neff. I hope you enjoy it.
Dr. Kristin Neff, welcome to Road to Resilience.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 01:18
Thank you, Jon. Happy to be here.
Self-compassion is not a scientific or a technical word, it's an everyday word. And it's a nice word. But for me, personally, before I became acquainted with your work, it hit this tripwire of "self-compassion—yeah, yeah." And your work has changed how I see self-compassion. So I was wondering if we could just start with your definition of self-compassion and then go into the components of it.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 01:45
So I wrote a paper defining self-compassion almost 20 years ago. And normally when people think of self-compassion, they think about taking it easy on yourself, being gentle with yourself. And that's actually not the way I define it. So the easy way to think about it is being a good, supportive friend to yourself, treating yourself with the same compassion that you would naturally show to someone you cared about. But I wanted to be able to measure self-compassion to see if I could empirically study it. So in my model, there are actually three components to self-compassion. One is kindness, which is the one we think about, so being supportive, warm, understanding towards yourself, encouraging yourself as opposed to like shaming yourself into doing something. And really in the scientific literature, compassion is considered a motivation rather than an emotion. It's not a way we feel, it's actually the motivation to alleviate suffering. So if you look at the brain experiencing compassion, the parts of the brain associated with planned movement and readiness to help become active. So in one way, self-compassion is the desire to help oneself be well and healthy and not to suffer. But it's more than that. There's two other components that I really think need to be there in order for it to be a healthy and stable mindstate. One is actually mindfulness. And we've heard a lot about mindfulness these days, but from my point of view, you can't be self-compassionate without mindfulness. So mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what is without resisting the reality that this is what's happening. Instead of getting lost in things or ignoring things, we have some equanimity. It's like, "Okay, this is what's happening." We have some space with whatever's happening. And we need to have mindfulness toward our pain in order to be compassionate toward that pain. So if we kind of stiff-upper-lip it, just kind of barrel through and ignore it and "be strong," and not even focus on the fact that we're struggling, we can't give ourselves compassion. It'd be like a friend who called you up and said, "Hey, Jon, I really need to talk to you. I'm struggling." And you're like, "I'm too busy. I can't. I don't have time. I need to focus on something else." You can't give compassion to your friend if you ignore them. So we can't ignore our pain. We can't just shove it down. At the same time, we can't be identified with it. I call it over-identification. What this means is when we're lost in it, when we're fused in it, if all we see is how terrible we are or how terrible our life is, we don't have any mental space to step outside of ourselves and say, "Hey, you're having a hard time. Can I help?" So we need that perspective provided by mindfulness toward our pain in order to give ourselves compassion. In some ways temporally it's the first step of self-compassion. And then, so we recognize that we're struggling and then we give herself kindness, but we have to do it in a particular way. And that's in a connected way. So the word "compassion" in the Latin "passion" means to suffer, it's, it's always aimed at suffering by definition. And, by the way, when I say "suffering," it may be big suffering, maybe it's little suffering, like you stubbed your toe. Any sort of unpleasant or difficult experience falls in this realm. But the "com-" means "with," so it's a connected way of being with suffering. So if I have compassion for you, Jon, I would be like, "Hey, I've been there." If I pitied you, I'd feel sorry for you. I'd feel separate from you. You would like it if I had compassion for you, I suspect, but not like it if I had pity for you. So they're very, very different. And so the same thing with self-compassion. We need to feel connected in our experience of imperfection or failure or struggle. So self-pity is actually not healthy. Self-pity is poor me, woe is me, it exaggerates the extent of how bad it is for us. We feel isolated from others. We go down that rabbit hole. "I'm feeling so separate." It's actually not healthy. Compassion is simply, hey, everyone's imperfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone struggles in life. Yeah. Some people struggle more than others, but the human condition is one of struggle. And so we remember that. And the reason that's so important is, well, when we forget that, when we feel like something's wrong with us because we're imperfect, something's wrong with us because we're struggling, what that does is it makes us feel isolated. It adds insult to injury. Because not only are we struggling, we feel all alone and we feel weird, we feel abnormal, we feel shame about that, and it makes it that much worse. So common humanity is really what gives us the wisdom element of self-compassionate. It really allows us to see how we're part of a larger whole, a larger unfolding, and that we aren't alone.
I found these two revolutionary, especially the mindfulness and the common humanity. The mindfulness because it's a reminder that self-compassion is not for the faint of heart. That in fact it involves holding and being with your pain, not suppressing it. It's quite the opposite. So it takes a lot of courage to be self-compassionate.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 07:00
It does. So Brené Brown likes to call mindfulness and "courageous presence." And it does take courage to be present with pain. It's not sugarcoating. It's not pretending everything's fine when it isn't. It's not pretending I didn't fail when I just really fell flat on my face. It's not sugarcoating. It's saying, okay, and this hurts. We have to open to the fact that it hurts. Pain hurts, whether it's because we did something to someone else or they did something to us or life's difficult. Whatever is the source of their pain, pain hurts by definition. And we need some bravery open to that, to acknowledge it. And if we don't, we can't work with it and we can't heal it, or we can't do anything about it, either.
And the common humanity as well. It's such an important reframe to me. I think of suffering as so isolating. Suffering puts you in this hole. And so to think of it as, instead of as a hole as a bridge to other people, to the common experience. That to me, I don't know, that changes everything to me.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 08:03
It does. And it's funny, common humanity—a lot of people, I think, struggle with it because they feel like, does this mean I'm belittling my suffering? Well, everyone suffers, therefore my suffering isn't a big deal. So you have to work with this skillfully. Again, it is really a wisdom aspect of self-compassion. It doesn't belittle, anyone's suffering. Quite the opposite. It says everyone is worthy of a compassionate response. We tend to dehumanize people. Either we dehumanize other groups of people, those people over there in that part of the world, I'm not really gonna think about them as human beings worthy of compassion, or we dehumanize ourself. Everyone else is worthy of compassion, but I'm not because I'm fatally flawed and I'm awful. So it includes everyone in the circle of compassion. And it simultaneously validates each unique individual experience at the same time that it recognizes that the definition of being human is struggle. When you say, "it's only human," that's exactly what it means. And so it's very important that we have that wisdom
Before you studied self-compassion you studied self-esteem, and I think those are two terms that get confused. And so I want to ask you to tease those apart and explain why the research supports self-compassion as a better alternative.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 09:20
I did two years of post-doctoral study with a leading self-esteem researcher. It was actually because I was getting interested in Buddhism, and she also studied self-concept development. And I wanted to know, well, what is this thing called the self? And how does it develop? And so I got more into the self-esteem literature at that point. This was around 2000 or so when I did this post-doc. Psychology was having a big backlash against self-esteem. So for years and years, it was considered like the be-all and end-all of wellbeing because it's linked to things like psychological health very strongly. And there's nothing wrong with self-esteem. So self-esteem, you can define it as a positive evaluation of worth. I feel like a good person, or I feel like a bad person, or I'm somewhere in between. And it's better to have high self-esteem than low self-esteem definitely for psychological wellbeing. The question is, how do you get it? Why do you feel like a good person? So in a way, self-compassion is an unconditional source of self-esteem. It's like, well, I'm a worthy person not because I'm good, not because I succeed, but just because I'm a flawed human being like everyone else is always present. Self-esteem tends to be contingent. In other words, we feel good about ourselves when we succeed, we feel bad about ourselves when we fail, we feel bad about ourselves—. So the three main domains in which we invest our self-esteem is success in something important to us, perceived attractiveness—for women that's actually the number one domain in which we invest our self-esteem—and also social approval. And it's not how much your friends and your mother like you, it's how much other people at work or in society like you. And so it's contingent on those things. So when we don't succeed or we don't look the way we want to look, or people don't react the way we'd like them to react, our self-esteem takes a hit. So you might say self-esteem is a fair-weather friend.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 11:13
It's there for us in the good times. It's fragile. But self self-compassion is much more stable over time. Also, the problem with self-esteem is that it's comparative. We need to feel above average to have self-esteem, which is impossible because by definition we're all average. So it sets up this desire to put other people down or to gossip, or even to bully others—that comes from the desire to feel superior to others. And self-compassion is about connection, not about being better than others. So there's a lot of ways in which they both offer mental health benefits, they both offer resilience in the face of difficult experiences, but self-compassion is more unconditional, it's more stable, and you don't have to put anyone else down to have it. It's more connecting.
Let's talk about motivation. Because that's where you were talking about the, with self-esteem, the external factors that make self-esteem possible. Whereas self-compassion doesn't depend on those as much.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 12:12
Well, I was going to say, this is really important because what we find in the research is the number one block to self-compassion, the number one reason people give for not being self-compassionate, is people truly believe they need to be hard on themselves to motivate themselves to achieve. They think self-compassion is just about taking a break, taking it easy, being soft on yourself, excusing your behavior. It's actually just the opposite. Self-compassion is a powerful motivating force, a more effective motivator than self-criticism, but what's driving the motivation of self-compassion is different. So the motivation of self-criticism is basically a motivation of fear. Unless you do better, unless you get it right, I'm gonna hate you, I'm gonna yell at you, I'm gonna shame you. So that feels really uncomfortable when I shamed myself and I beat myself up. So I'm going to try harder so that I don't feel so bad about myself. And it kind of works. I mean, a lot of people got through law school or med school through self-criticism, but it has a lot of downsides. For instance, it creates fear of failure. When you know that if you fail, you're gonna beat yourself up, it creates performance anxiety, which actually undermines your ability to achieve. It leads to things like procrastination. Sometimes it causes you to give up, if you think, "I might fail. So I'm not even going to try."
Because you're protecting yourself from the taskmaster.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 13:37
You're protecting yourself. Exactly. And also, again, shame is not exactly a get up and go mindstate. Shame also interferes with your ability to learn from failure, which is a problem. If I can't admit that I failed because it's too painful, how can I really look and see, okay, where did I go wrong? So self-compassion is the motivation of care. I want to do better not because I'm inadequate for failing, but just because I care about myself, I want to reach my full potential. I want to change unhealthy behaviors because I care. So it's kind of a motivation of encouragement and kindness. Like the way a parent, hopefully, ideally, encourages their child. Hopefully a parent doesn't shame their child into doing better. A parent encourages their child into doing better because they care about them. And so what we know is first of all, it doesn't create anxiety. So it's linked to less performance anxiety. It's linked to less fear of failure because it's safe to fail, which means it's okay to take risks. And really important, it means that if you do fail, instead of saying, "I am a failure," it's like, "Okay, I failed. Everyone fails. What can I learn from this?" And the ability to learn from your failure, for instance, fosters a growth mindset, kind of a learning orientation, and it's actually much more effective in the long run. And another thing it provides, which is kind of linked to this theme of resilience, is a lot of grit. Angela Duckworth, who's a friend of mine, says she thinks self-compassion is probably one of the most important factors for developing grit, the ability to stay strong when times are tough. Because when you have your own back, that's going to make you strong. Cutting yourself down is not going to make you stronger when you go into battle. Having your own back, supporting yourself, being on your own side, so to speak, is going to help you stay strong when times get tough. And again the research really overwhelmingly supports that.
There's been a lot of research on the connection between self-compassion and resilience. I've read you cite some of it. Some of the stressors that self-compassion can be helpful with include trauma, divorce, combat, parenting an autistic child, chronic health issues. Say a little bit more about the connection between those two things. And is there one study that for you really stands out and illustrates this connection best?
Dr. Kristin Neff: 15:55
Well, the study I like to use as an example, illustrative, is with the combat veterans. There's actually been a lot of research on combat veterans. The VA is very interested in teaching self-compassion to combat veterans. And the reason I like it is because combat veterans, actually, they experienced real war, especially those who've seen action overseas. But in a way life's a war to a greater or lesser extent, life's a battle. And what they found in the research is people who've experienced combat, they're less likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, because really what self-compassion is is a way of holding our pain without being overwhelmed. And when you experience something as traumatic as combat, you easily get overwhelmed, especially if you shame yourself—there's a lot of moral guilt associated with being in combat, moral injury happens, and just again the overwhelming stressors of it. So if you don't support yourself, if you don't have your own back, if you don't talk yourself through it with kindness and support, you are going to be overwhelmed. And so a lot of soldiers develop PTSD or think about suicide as a way of ending their pain, or turn to drugs or alcohol. And the research shows that self-compassionate soldiers are less likely to think about suicide. They're less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They function better in their daily life. And also they're less likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome. And again, so who do you want inside your head when you're in a difficult situation? Are you your own ally? It's like, "I'm here for you. What do you need? How can I help?" Or it's like, "I'm shaming you, you did that wrong. You're horrible. I hate you." What's going to make you stronger? It's kind of so logical if you think about it, but we don't think about it. And again, I think that's for two reasons. One is simply just our physiology. Again, it's just because we go into fight or flight mode and it comes on immediately, it's our natural reaction so that's understandable. But then also our culture gives us these messages as well. Our culture used to give us this message for children. I mean, people used to really think that you needed harsh corporal punishment to motivate a child, otherwise they'd be spoiled. And now we know from the research actually, well, it kind of works, but boy, you're going to really mess that child up. You're going to undermine them in all sorts of ways emotionally. It's the exact same thing with ourselves.
Part of that list was parenting an autistic child. And I know your son is autistic. So I was wondering how self-compassion—it's a big subject, you've written about it—what can you share from that experience and how self-compassion has applied?
Dr. Kristin Neff: 18:30
I know firsthand when things are really, really tough that self-compassion provides resilience. Because thank goodness I had about seven years of solid self-compassion practice under my belt by the time my son was diagnosed. So the whole experience, it was so important. I remember actually I was on a meditation retreat. He got diagnosed the day before I left for a meditation retreat. And it was so helpful for me to be able to handle all my difficult feelings. You have feelings like disappointment. And this is the person you love more than anything else, any other person in the world. And you feel disappointed and you feel guilty for being disappointed. But it's true—It's not the plan you signed up for, it's not your vision of what your experience of parenthood would be like. So I had all these really difficult feelings come up. I first of all knew I just had to allow myself to experience whatever I was experiencing. To not shame myself for feeling any of these feelings. I allowed all the difficult feelings to arise, but I really held myself in the difficult experience. I comforted myself, I soothed myself. And more than that, I really committed to helping myself, you know, "We'll do what—." It's kind of weird with self-compassion, you're treating yourself like a friend. So you end up—you can talk to yourself however you want. It sounds a little weird at first, but like, "I got your back. We'll get through this." It's like part of you, your compassionate self, is talking to your scared self, your frightened self. We really are parts, so in a way, it's having a dialogue between your parts. But the ability to intentionally support myself made a huge difference. Not only in dealing with this diagnosis, but whenever he would—. You know, he wasn't potty-trained until he was five. That was tough. You know, he'd have these horrible tantrums. I mean, he's doing so well now, but it was really tough when he was younger. And so self-compassion, absolutely, it helped me every step of the way. It made me stronger. It made me more resilient. It also made me a better parent, absolutely. Because instead of having to stuff down those feelings, my ability to hold those feelings and work with them and process them allowed me to open my heart more to my son, because I wasn't having to shove anything down. The more I could remain open-hearted with myself, the more I was able to be open-hearted toward my son. And also it gave me the strength, the resources to care for him without draining myself. I love talking about self-compassion for caregivers, because there's this insane notion that self-compassion is selfish as if, you know, "We only have five units of compassion. So if you give three to yourself, you're only gonna have two left over for someone else." It doesn't work that way because it's additive. The more you give yourself, the more you have available to give to others. And I saw that over and over again with my son.
Let's talk more about that, about caregivers, healthcare providers, because I think many people certainly listening to this podcast are familiar with the fact that healthcare workers suffer from some of the highest rates of burnout and distress of any workers in our economy and especially this past year. And so I know that you have programs designed specifically for healthcare providers.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 21:49
Yeah, we developed a program. We just published it last year. It's called "Self-Compassion for Healthcare Communities." And it's designed particularly for professional caregivers. So it's much shorter than—we have a long program, which is an eight-week program, two and a half hours a week. There’s homework and meditation. And the caregivers said, we don't have time for that. We barely have time to eat! Can you give us the short version? So we did, and we taught it during lunch. We gave them pizza. We taught them self-compassion. They had to eat anyway, no meditation, no homework. We just designed practices that they could use on the job. And we found that it made a big difference in terms of reducing their burnout, reducing their stress levels, increasing their self-compassion, also their mindfulness and their wellbeing. It really made a big difference. And the way it works is—what happens with caregivers is they've got this term called "compassion fatigue," and Charles Figley defined that term, God bless him, he brought so much wisdom. He was really the first one to point out the fact that caregivers, professional caregivers, it's very draining. It's fatiguing. And this is something we need to look at. The problem is not really compassion fatigue. There's a movement to say it should be called "empathy fatigue." Compassion is not fatiguing. Compassion we know if you look at the brain is a rewarding emotion, it feels good to feel connected. You feel kind, you feel loving. Empathy is what's so draining. Empathy comes from feeling what other people are feeling. So the human brain is actually designed to resonate with others. We've got mirror neurons. We have whole portions of the brain whose whole function is evolutionarily to feel the emotions of others because that facilitated parent-child communication, they passed on their DNA to us. So especially sensitive caregivers, which people tend to go into caregiving professions because they're kind of empathic in the first place. When you're resonating with other people's suffering, the trauma, COVID patients, death, dying. We developed the program at a pediatric hospital. Dealing with kids with cancer, it's heavy stuff. And so if you're empathic, what happens is you are actually feeling the pain of the people you're working with. And so it's the empathy that's draining, not the compassion that's draining. In fact, if you have compassion, first of all, for your patient, that helps. So instead of being lost in the pain, instead of being absorbed by the pain, you're holding the pain with these feelings of kindness and connectedness and mindfulness, which actually help [unclear], but again, not only for your patient, but especially for yourself. So we developed a practice called "breathing compassion in and out." So you breathe out compassion to the person you're caring for. You're in the presence of their pain and you kind of imagine that you're sending them compassion and kindness and well wishes. But then when you breathe in, you have to include yourself. If you don't breathe in, you're not gonna be able to breathe. So you consciously acknowledge: This is hard for me. I feel overwhelmed. I feel stressed. I feel burnt out. I feel confused. Whatever it is you're feeling, you validate it with mindfulness. You acknowledge it with mindfulness. You remember your common humanity. I'm not alone. It's not just me. Anyone in this position, my fellow professionals feel this. It can feel so isolating. Not every single person experiences this. And then really important—kindness. Asking yourself, what do I need? You know, self-care is great if you have the time for it. But if you don't, at the very least, you need emotional self care. We taught people to put their hand on their heart or to breathe in for themselves, to really emotionally hold their own exhaustion and pain. And it really makes a huge difference. And by the way, we have to be careful. It's not like we just throw some self-compassion at caregivers. And we say, you don't have to change the system. The system is also broken, right? So this is where the fierce self-compassion comes in. It helps to have self-compassion, it's not enough. We also need to make external changes to alleviate our suffering.
You mentioned, I guess I'll call it the "McMindfulness" critique that fierce self-compassion seems to be a response to. And the "McMindfulness" critique is—when you tell people to do mindfulness, they're working on themselves and their response to their environment. But what if that environment is really messed up and needs to be changed? What do we do about that? And I think that's where fierce self-compassion comes in.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 26:10
So fierce self-compassion can be aimed inward or outward. So I break self-compassion into two main forms. There's tender self-compassion, which is our ability to be with ourselves and our pain. So this allows us to validate our pain, to soothe or comfort ourselves, and remember that this is part of life. This is really important. This is the healing power of self-compassion. It allows us to hold our difficult emotions without being overwhelmed. But there's also a fierce side of self-compassion, which is action. So if compassion is concerned with the alleviation of suffering, sometimes what we need to alleviate our suffering is not to be with what is, but to try to change as much as possible what is. So even though we might accept ourselves unconditionally, we don't want to accept all our behaviors unconditionally. Sometimes we're doing things that are harming ourselves or harming others. So it's not compassionate to accept those behaviors. Or we're in situations which are unacceptable. If someone is harming us, we're in a toxic work environment or toxic relationship, or what we're doing to the planet or other groups. It's not compassionate just to let that stand. I call it the two energies—tender self-compassionate, metaphorically, is like mother or parent gentle soothing. Fierce self-compassion is like mama bear. That fierce, protective energy that rises up to protect people we love. So we feel it maybe towards our kids or the people we really love, but we can harness that energy also for ourselves. So for instance, I see the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movements as self-compassion movements. These are people saying, we aren't going to take it anymore. Stop. No. Drawing boundaries. Clear lines in the sand. This is not acceptable behavior. Or a lot of the reforms going on in terms of the workplace, in the healthcare world— overworking the staff as if this is a good thing. Fierce self-compassion is to say, no, we need to change the system. These are the ways the system is broken. These are the ways the system is causing harm. This is what we need to change. And so that might include getting angry. People often think anger is antithetical to compassion, but when anger is aimed at preventing harm, it's part of compassion. It's only when the anger itself becomes harmful either for yourself or others that it's a problem. But if the anger is just this power source that just says, hey, this is not okay, it can focus you, it can allow you to be brave. It can let people know there's a problem. Anger has a place in compassion. So these fierce emotions are really, really important. And we need to draw on the power of fierce compassion to change our world. And also to change ourselves. So sometimes we need to say, I can't keep drinking, or I can't keep staying in this relationship, or whatever it is we're doing to harm ourselves. This mama-bear self-compassion says, you gotta do something differently. But it doesn't ever mean that the person, that we are unacceptable. But our behavior or our situation may be unacceptable, and we try our best to change it.
I've talked about on the podcast before harnessing fear. I always just find it interesting this idea of harnessing emotions that are really powerful and hard to control and associated usually with the negative, as anger is. So I found that part about harnessing anger really compelling.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 29:38
Yeah. And especially the reason I wrote the book for women in particular. So my book's called "Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive." Men need to do this as well. The reason that I didn't write the book in a gender-neutral way is that traditional gender-role socialization, unfortunately, raises men to be fierce but not tender. Boys are called sissies, they're called names, they're made fun of if they're sensitive in a way that's really damaging to men. I think men are really harmed by gender-role socialization because this power of how we use kindness and care and comfort to deal with our pain—they don't have access to that, which means that they're forced to use other less productive coping mechanisms. And that harms men. But women are harmed because they aren't allowed to be fierce. They're called the B word if they're too fierce or if they get angry. People really don't like fierce women, really competent women. People think a competent woman is too agentic. She's too fierce. And therefore she's not tender. She's not nurturing. And therefore they don't like her. And that's partly what explains the glass ceiling. And so this is a problem because this disempowers women. And so everyone needs both. Everyone needs to find balance. These are human qualities that unfortunately have been gendered. But I wrote it for women because it was just too complicated to say, well, for men, they gotta do it this way, and for women, they gotta do it this way. So I just wrote it for women. But again, the principles of balance are human principles that I think we all need.
I don't want to give the impression that this is, like, three quick things you can do to master self-compassion. But I do want to give people a sense of what's in the book and what it means to cultivate self-compassion and fierce self-compassion. So are there a few exercises—you've shared a few already—but I was wondering if you could just give us some examples.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 31:32
So one thing we really rely on is touch, believe it or not. Because for human beings, touch evolved to be a really important indicator of care, signal of care. That's because, again, for the first two years of life babies don't have language, and parents communicate safety, care, and support primarily through touch. Also tone of voice, so those are both important. But with touch we can actually change our physiology. So typically we calm ourselves down. We help soothe ourselves through touch. And it can be a tender touch. It can be kind of a soft touch, or it can be an empowering touch. Like if you hold your body, your back straight and maybe a fist on your heart or something like that, to signal strength and support. Touch is great because it bypasses the brain, which is usually full of some story of how awful we are, how awful our situation is. So touch is a direct way to give yourself compassion. Also, combined with language is also very helpful. I often say to people, imagine you had a really good friend that you really cared about who was going through the exact same situation you were. What would you say to that person to help support them in the moment? And then just try it on with yourself. And it feels weird at first, it does. It feels awkward. It feels fake. But it's only because the critical, mean voice feels so normal and habitual. But eventually over time, for some people the journey may be a little slower, but you take it step by step, eventually over time it starts to feel normal. And it makes a huge difference, especially with resilience. When you're going through a very difficult time—and again this could be the difficulties because you've done something wrong, you failed, you made a mistake, you feel something you're ashamed about, or it could be the pandemic, or it could be your work life. It doesn't really matter the source of the pain. The more you're able to support yourself through that pain, have your own back, be kind, be encouraging, the stronger you'll be in terms of your ability to get through it without being overwhelmed. Some people think of self-compassion as an emotion-regulation technique. I think it's more than that, but that's part of what it does. It helps us work with difficult emotions that normally derail us in a way that doesn't derail us. And that's kind of what resilience is.
In the book you write about working with the UT Austin men's basketball team. And I bring that up only because you talk about teaching self-compassion without using the word "self-compassion." And I think that's very useful.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 34:07
It is, yeah, because unfortunately—and I have to say, and I write about this in my book—compassion is part of the female gender role, and women have less power than men in society. Mothers have less power than fathers in society in terms of the larger picture. And so when people think compassion, they think weakness, they think squishiness. I think it's worth looking at that. That's a problem in and of itself. But regardless that's the system we've inherited, so we think compassion is weak, we think that soft. So you don't need to use the word. When I taught the UT Austin men's basketball team, I just called it "inner-strength training," which is what it is. It gives you inner strength. It's the strength to be able to deal with, cope with debilitating experiences of failure, of difficulty, of stress, of shock, whatever it is you're going through. It gives you inner strength. And you don't have to—even the word "self" is a trigger word. Because, I'm sorry, there wouldn't be a men's magazine called "Self." It's a woman's magazine. It's also kind of a woman's thing, self-help. I mean, 85 percent of the people who come to my workshops are women. Partly because, again, it's considered okay in the female gender-role socialization to work on these things. With men it's not such a cool thing, which again, I think really harms men. It really disempowers men. And it prevents men from harnessing this very effective tool that could actually help them. So you don't have to use the word "self-compassion," you could call it "inner-strength training." It's exactly the same thing. I have a dissertation student who's actually working with athletes. She developed a self-compassion training program for athletes that she calls "Fail better." In other words, how to harness failure to learn from it. And so you don't—because if you're an athlete and you make a mistake and you get derailed by it, you'll lose the game for your team. It's really harmful. So you need to learn to deal with failure productively in a way that's going to help you as opposed to harm you. And so they're loving it. She barely mentioned self-compassion. She just talks about how to work with failure experiences as an athlete and learn from them and use them to your advantage. And they eat it up. So you don't need to use the word.
I listen to a lot of sports radio, and athletes are famously bad interviewees. And I think it's in part, because if you listen closely to a lot of good athletes, they do this self-compassion stuff. They'll say something like, "You win some, you lose some." All these cliches that athletes give out. They're actually very wise in this regard.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 36:40
The good ones, the good ones. Yeah, because the good ones, they do that. And the ones who don't, who beat themselves up and who shame themselves, they won't win. Because if you get caught in a negative self-criticism loop, especially while you're playing the game, it's going to derail you. It causes performance anxiety, it literally undermines your ability to do your best.
The role models you mention in the book. I don't want to—I don't want to not bring up because I thought they were really useful for me in terms of reconceptualizing compassion, self-compassion, especially fierce self-compassion. So, for example, the first responder. That is compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 37:17
Exactly. So compassion, again, isn't just about being with suffering. A first responder doesn't say, "Oh, I'm so sorry. You just got in a car accident. Oh, I feel for you." No! That actually in some ways we sometimes have to even compartmentalize that tender response because you gotta do your job. You need to be brave. You need to take action. Maybe something's on fire and you need to risk your life to save someone. But also for ourselves, I mean, if you're on the second floor of a building that's on fire, you don't want to say, "Oh, this is so painful right now." You may need to be brave and jump out the window to save your life. And so taking action is an important part of compassion. Firefighters, police officers, all these people, anyone who takes action, teachers, teachers are also really good exemplars of this. They give and they work hard. Or parents who work to put food on the table for their kids. These are all acts of compassion. So compassion sometimes is very fierce. It's very active. It's very brave. Compassion is what do I need right now to alleviate suffering? And the answer to that question is gonna look very different depending on what's happening. And sometimes we need multiple things to help alleviate our suffering.
You've been working on self-compassion for 20 years. Where do you hope we are 20 years from now?
Dr. Kristin Neff: 38:40
I hope, and I think this will happen, actually—so self-compassion research is following in the steps of mindfulness research. And mindfulness research started about 20 years before self-compassion research. So now mindfulness is everywhere in society. It's fully accepted as a good thing to practice. It's in corporate America, it's in the military, it's in sports. It's pretty much everywhere. Mindfulness has, you might say, infiltrated society. And I hope that self-compassion is as widespread. That in corporate America—for instance, right now corporate America hasn't really caught on to self-compassion yet, even though I think they will because it's such a productive way of dealing with failure, which is so important in the corporate environment and how to deal productively and how to motivate things with self-compassion as opposed to self-esteem. So I hope it spreads through the corporate world, through all segments of society. Here's something—I would hope that every single person that goes through med school or any sort of caregiving training would learn self-compassion as an essential part of their training in order to be able to do their job without burning out. I would love to see things like that happen.
Kristen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It's been an absolute pleasure talking with you.
Dr. Kristin Neff: 40:01
Dr. Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas. Her new book is "Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive." That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. We're a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The podcast is made by Nicci Cheatham and me, Jon Earle, and our self-compassionate executive producer, Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.