Treating yourself with a little kindness. How hard can it be?
Harder than we think. Still, it’s just about the most important thing we can do. That’s the message from professor and self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff and psychotherapist Christopher Germer, co-developers of a program for strengthening this crucial skill.
“You need self-compassion to stay friendly with other people in the long term,” says Germer. “When all you do is give and give, you get burned out.”
Many people are skeptical when they first hear the term “self-compassion,” because it sounds like just sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, or maybe even acting selfishly. But Neff and Germer assure me that’s not what it’s about. In fact, quite the opposite. Their Mindful Self-Compassion method cultivates self-acceptance, inner strength, and personal growth.
In the interview below, they tell me about their mission to make the world happier—and explain, with great patience, the subtle differences between self-compassion, self-confidence, and self-esteem, as well as the importance of kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of our common humanity.
Bianca Bartels: Why do we need mindful self-compassion?
Kristin Neff: Because we’re not kind and supportive to ourselves. We’re much nicer to other people. When you’re self-critical all the time, the inner voice in your head is always cutting you down. That undermines your ability to be happy.
But in fact, we already know how to respond to failure with kindness. Imagine a friend calls you up in tears because her partner just broke up with her. Would you say, “Well, to be honest, it’s probably because you’re old, ugly, and boring, and because you make a needy, pushy impression on other people. And you’re at least 20 pounds overweight. I don’t know why you keep trying. After all, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of running into someone who really loves you. You just don’t deserve it.”
Of course you wouldn’t say something like that to someone you care about. But we do have this type of conversation with ourselves all the time in similar situations. At least two thirds of people do this, and the percentage is even higher among women. Everyone needs self-compassion in order to cope with their own pain, however slight or severe it may be. Fortunately, we can learn to have greater compassion for ourselves.
Chris Germer: You also need self-compassion to stay friendly with other people in the long term. When all you do is give and give, you get burned out.
BB: Still, many people think that self-compassion is basically self-pity and makes you passive and lazy.
CG: Those are just preconceived ideas. In reality, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity. Someone who feels self-pity is always saying “poor me”; a person with self-compassion learns that life isn’t easy for anyone. Self-compassion does have the word “self” in it, but people with self-compassion are actually less self-centered. They feel connected to others and know that everyone struggles, that we all make mistakes. In contrast, when someone with self-pity says, “I’ve failed,” the focus is very much on the “self.”
Self-compassion also helps you to worry less and put things into perspective. You see yourself from the outside, so to speak, so your view of the situation is more objective. You take your suffering less personally. Instead of thinking, “I’m suffering, and I’m the only one,” you think, “Yes, there’s suffering. I didn’t ask for it, but there it is.” Compassion isn’t egotistical either. Research shows that when we have compassion for ourselves, it’s easier for us to have compassion for others. We actually become more caring and more helpful.
KN: It won’t make you lazy, either. Compassion involves a focus on long-term health, instead of satisfying cravings in the here and now. It’s like the way a compassionate mother doesn’t let her children eat ice cream all day but gives them vegetables.
BB: We often think we won’t achieve our goals unless we’re very critical of ourselves.
KN: Self-criticism undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a very reliable source of inner strength. People with self-compassion still want to achieve the same goals. Not because we’ll think less of ourselves if we don’t, but because we care about ourselves and want to get the most out of ourselves. So the bar is just as high. The only difference is that you don’t run yourself down if you make a mistake, so you’re less afraid to fail.
BB: And that’s good for your self-esteem?
KN: Well, self-esteem involves evaluation, and that’s not what you want. Self-esteem means there’s a kind of inner judge telling you you’re a good person—or the opposite. That often goes together with perfectionism and the idea that nothing you do is ever good enough. Self-compassion is not about judging whether you’re a good person or not. It’s really just a way of being kind and supportive to yourself. You acknowledge that everyone is imperfect, and that includes you. So you can always feel self-compassion, but self-esteem requires success—whether in your own judgment or someone else’s.
CG: Some people say compassion isn’t good enough for them, but “the curious paradox,” as psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
BB: So the goal is to change?
KN: Yes, there’s a yin and a yang side to self-compassion. The yin is about acceptance and reassurance. The yang side is about the actions we need to take. For example, think of a child who is failing at school. A compassionate parent would never say, “Don’t worry, sweetie, failure is fine. Go ahead and fail, I love you anyway.” Compassionate parents will give a child like that unconditional love, but they’ll also want the child to do better in school, because they want their child to be happy. So they look for ways of helping out.
BB: In 2007, when you two met at a conference, Kristin had written about self-compassion before, and Chris had been giving mindfulness courses for decades. You were eager to work together right away. Why?
KN: It was wonderful to combine theory, practice, and all our insights about the connections between them. I had been engaged with the topic of self-compassion since 1997, when my divorce threw my life into disarray. I started exploring Buddhist meditation and learned about self-compassion exercises. I knew it was important to show compassion for others, but for myself? Wasn’t that selfish? But since I wanted some peace and quiet in my head, I did the exercises, and they taught me how to be a good, helpful friend to myself when I was struggling with things. It worked!
Meanwhile, I was doing academic research on self-esteem and discovering its downside: If we want to be better or more special than average, it leads to narcissism and constant comparison with others. Then I discovered that the self-compassion from my Buddhist meditations was the ideal alternative to self-esteem. I did a lot of research on this, but wasn’t in touch with the practical side. Chris was. He also had a lot of experience with mindfulness, which is one of the three core elements in my definition of self-compassion—along with self-kindness and common humanity. I knew mindfulness was the first step in self-compassion. You first have to be good at being here now and realize that you’re struggling.
CG: And that’s not easy to acknowledge, because we like to tell ourselves, “I don’t want to suffer.” Mindfulness helps you attend to your suffering and acknowledge that it’s real. That’s the basis of life and plotting revenge. We tend to get stuck in a “story” about suffering and ruminate about it, instead of being able to just see suffering as suffering. Mindfulness helps to reduce tension in the moment, so that you don’t get swept up in the story your head tells about your suffering.
KN: The second key concept is “self-kindness,” the quality that leads us to give ourselves the same care we give to others. You learn not to attack or abandon yourself when you fall short, but to offer yourself warmth and unconditional acceptance.
The third core element is common humanity. That’s the sense of being connected to everyone, the awareness that all human beings fail sometimes—and that we all suffer, as the Buddha also taught. We often fall into the trap of thinking things should go our way, that it’s abnormal to fail, but of course we make mistakes, we get wrinkles, and we die. Those things not only cause suffering, but can also make us feel isolated. Yet if we keep in mind that pain is part of being human, then our pain can transform into an experience of connectedness with others.
BB: Many people will have a hard time with this. We know that everyone suffers, but some suffer a lot more than others, and your own suffering often feels most important. It’s hard to take comfort in that thought.
CG: Most people do find it difficult, but this attitude really is what makes the difference. You won’t get it on your first try. The Mindful Self-Compassion program and workbook are full of exercises. That’s because it take a lot of practice—it’s not the kind of thing you learn by thinking about it. Of course, some people suffer more deeply than others, but what can help is to realize that other people have similar emotions, that your pain is what anyone would feel if he were in your situation.
BB: What exercise do you do when you’re suffering?
CG: For many years, I had public speaking anxiety, and no form of therapy helped. A few months before I had to give an important speech, a meditation teacher told me just to do a loving-kindness meditation. I came up with a variety of sentences that I repeated to myself. For months, I spent half an hour a day on the exercise, and I did it every time I started to panic about the lecture. They were sentences like “May I be safe,” “May I be happy,” and so on.
BB: So you didn’t focus on a specific problem and say, “I want my speech to go well?”
CG: No. I just showed some kindness to a broken person, because I was sure I would fail. But unconsciously, I was linking my panic to my friendly words. And then, right before I gave the speech, I felt not only panic, but also a friendly voice in my head: “May I be safe. May I be happy.” It was amazing! And my speaking anxiety was gone. I was carried through it by the months of kind wishes for myself. That was years ago, but I still do the meditation daily.
KN: In our program, we help the participants to come up with their own phrases. Not everyone uses them. We do lots of different exercises, and everyone uses the one that works best for them.
BB: Is it important to practice daily?
CG: Yes, but it doesn’t matter whether you do a particular sitting meditation or practice during your everyday activities, as long as you keep the flame burning.
BB: You write, “What we feel, we can heal.” Does the program ever stir up suppressed pain?
CG: Compare it to your fingers, numb with cold after you’ve been out in the snow. When they warm up again, they start to hurt. The same thing happens in this program. We suppress a lot of traumas, large and small, in the course of our lives. It’s like numbing ourselves. But when we start to warm up our heart by giving ourselves compassion, the old pain resurfaces. Suddenly we realize we’re hurting. And the same way it’s good for your hands to warm them up, it’s good to warm up your heart, because that’s a kind of healing. Your heart opens. That’s why it’s important to do it slowly, step by step, and when you have big problems, to work with someone you can talk to about what comes up.
BB: You say you should offer yourself compassion when you’re struggling—not in order to feel better, but because you’re not feeling good. So the point of the program is not to get rid of the pain?
CG: I have a metaphor for that too. Suppose your five-year-old son has the flu, and it’s day one. You’ll be friendly to your child and take good care of him. You won’t say to yourself, “If I’m friendly enough, then the flu will only last two days.” You know it takes five days to get over the flu. You might say we all have the flu, a lifelong flu known as human suffering. So when something goes wrong, will you say to yourself, “This isn’t supposed to happen, so I’d better do 36 things to solve the problem?” That obviously won’t work. Or will you say what you say to your child: “That’s too bad. How sad that it went wrong and that it hurts.” Can we just be kind to ourselves and open our heart without seeing it as a strategy to get rid of the flu, or the pain? That spontaneous opening of the heart might be enough to ease the pain, whereas when we’re angry and frustrated about the pain, our heart closes.
BB: So the pain may subside, but it won’t go away?
KN: If all you want is for the pain to go away, then you’re not accepting that the pain is there. Then you’re resisting. The pain won’t subside until there’s less resistance—in other words, when we’re kind to ourselves because it hurts.
CG: The friendly sentences we say to ourselves when we practice express simple intentions, such as “I wish I were happy,” or “I wish I could love myself.” They’re wishes. It’s goodwill.
KN: You don’t say, “It’s not OK that I’m suffering, and I want it to be over now.” Then you’re resisting, and that’s exactly what causes the problem. It’s a subtle distinction, but an essential one.
CG: We practice self-kindness regularly so that one day when your heart breaks, the kindness will flow naturally. And that’s exactly when you need it most. At that moment, you don’t have to do anything else. Your self-compassion is already present, and so is your pain.