In this conversation, we dive into how to cultivate self compassion in your own life, what it has to do with well being, and how to use self compassion to reach wellness goals.

Read on to learn more about why self compassion is so important, and how to make it a part of your life.

How to Cultivate Self-Compassion with Dr. Kristen Neff

Today’s guest is self compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin and a pioneer in field of self compassion research.

Dr. Neff talks about how to use mindfulness, kindness in response, and framing imperfection in light of the human experience to experience compassion.

 She also discusses how self compassion is not self esteem, self pity, weak, or selfish.

Today we are going deep into self-compassion.

In this conversation, we dive into how to cultivate self compassion in your own life, what it has to do with well being, and how to use self compassion to reach wellness goals.

Today’s guest is self compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff.

She is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin and a pioneer in field of self compassion research.

Over a decade ago, Dr. Neff conducted the first empirical study on self compassion.

She has written numerous articles, book chapters, and her own books and programs on the subject.

When I talk about gentle over perfect, I am talking about embracing and cultivating self compassion.

Talking about mindset and embracing self compassion is not always as popular as the next quick fix, but self compassion is linked to overall well being as well as reaching and sustaining wellness goals.

It’s about changing how you talk to yourself.

This episode is brought to you by our Wellness Personality Guide.

Check it out for mindset hacks, learning about where you might get tripped up, and resources to support your wellness goals.

On what led Dr. Neff to her work in self compassion:

Dr. Neff learned about self compassion when she started practicing mindfulness.

She learned that it is important to include ourselves in the circle of compassion; directing compassion inward as well as outward.

When she was more kind and understanding toward herself, it made a huge difference in her ability to cope with difficult life circumstances.

After seeing it work in her own life, Dr. Neff moved into researching self compassion to find and create empirical evidence, which was lacking in the research world at that time.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow had talked about the importance of self acceptance, but still no one had operationalized self compassion or published concrete research on what it does for you.

Dr. Neff had her postdoc with a self esteem researcher.

There, she started with the idea that in psychology, positive self attitude tends to be measured in terms of self esteem.

However, she became aware of the downsides of self esteem.

For example, self esteem tends to be based on comparing the self to others (bullying is used as a way to enhance one’s own self esteem by bringing down someone else’s)

Self esteem is contingent; we esteem ourselves highly when we succeed in whatever it is we value, but when we fail or struggle, our self esteem plummets (which is when we need it most)

This is where self compassion steps in.

Self compassion provides support, acceptance, and kindness even when we fail.

It creates a more stable, unconditional sense of self worth.

“ is a healthier alternative to self esteem in terms of a way to relate to yourself”

In all areas of life and academics, if you’re an outsider or going against the grain of what we believe to be true, it can be really hard.

Dr. Neff had only been at her university for 2 years when she asked a fellow faculty member if she should wait until tenure before researching this new thing.

Their response: if its your passion you’ll publish more with better quality research.

(Tenure is essentially your ability to prove to the academic world that you’re worthy; you’re promoted and your job is protected)

By not waiting, it was more uncertain that her work would be accepted, but it was what she was passionate about.

On what self compassion is:

To measure self compassion, Dr. Neff needed a clear definition.

“Compassion for oneself is the same experience as compassion for others, it’s just that we give it much more easily to others than we do to ourselves”

Some days we may feel compassion, some days we may not.

So, what are the elements that have to be there for us to experience compassion?

1 | Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is absolutely needed for compassion.

It is the ability to notice and accept the present moment for what it is.

You have to notice someone’s pain to be compassionate for them.

It is being aware of our pain, noticing our suffering, and responding compassionately.

Compassion is pain focused, meaning “to suffer with”, specific to pain.

2 | Kindness in response.

It is just as essential to have a kind response to suffering, although we give more readily to others and tend to be more harsh on ourselves.

Be kind, warm, and supportive to yourself.

3 | Framing imperfection in light of the human experience.

Compassion is different from pity.

Everyone is imperfect.

We tend to logically assume that normal is perfect, and when something goes wrong, it feels like you’re the only one who has failed or is suffering.

But, reminding ourselves that we are not alone in failure or suffering leads to connection in our struggles, without getting stuck in self pity.

“Most people are much much kinder to others than they are to themselves and we really harm ourselves in the process… we do ourselves a lot of damage through this mistaken belief that we aren’t good enough and we should be perfect”

On what self compassion is not:

1 | Self compassion is not self esteem.

“Self compassion provides a sense of self worth; it’s unconditional”.

Self esteem is often contingent on unrealistic standards; there are damaging consequences to this quest for perfection.

Self compassion is different.

Over time, sense of self worth is more stable than self esteem

2 | Self compassion is not self pity.

Self-compassion helps dissolve the sense of separate self

When we are self critical and lost in shame, we are self focused.

Recognizing that you are a human being doing their best, like everyone else, decreases the sense of separate self and increases the connection to others.

You could call it inner-compassion, instead of self.

“By including ourselves in the circle of compassion, as opposed to treating ourselves radically differently, we’re actually decreasing the sense of separation”

3 | Self compassion is not weak.

People tend to think that the inner critic is strong and self compassion is weak.

“Self compassion is one of the most powerful sources of strength, coping and resilience that we have available”.

In one of Dr. Neff’s studies, she found that veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with higher levels of self compassion were less likely to develop PTSD 9 months later.

Who do you want inside your head? An enemy, or an ally?

4 | Self compassion is not selfish.

Meeting our own needs, being there for ourselves, and being supportive for ourselves allows us to be there for others.

When we only focus on others, we burnout.

The human brain is build for empathetic resonance, meaning that we feel the pain of others.

When you are in the presence of someone in pain, the pain centers of your brain are being activated.

The 3 components to self compassion: Loving, Connected, Presence (kindness, common humanity, mindfulness).

“When we are self compassionate, we are in a state of loving, connected, presence with ourselves.

And then when we are with others in a state of loving, connected, presence, they actually empathically resonate with our loving, connected, presence; they can feel what we’re feeling”

Self compassion increases our ability to sustain compassion to others.

On empathy versus compassion:

The word empathy is used in a lot of different ways; a lot of times when people use the word empathy, they are referring to something along the lines of compassion or caring.

Empathy is actually a function of the brain; we have specialized neurons called mirror neurons that allow us to feel what others feel.

Evolutionarily, being able to empathize and feel what others feel and allowed us to survive in social groups.

However, empathizing doesn’t mean caring.

It can be used to take advantage of others as much as help.

Empathy is basically a neutral ability: “I feel what others feel”.

On the other hand, compassion is to feel the pain someone else is feeling, actually care, and want to alleviate their suffering.

Empathy and compassion look different in the brain, too.

Looking at empathetic resonance: when watching video of someone getting their finger slammed in a door, the pain centers in the brain light up.

Looking at giving compassion: when holding this empathetic pain in loving, connected, presence, the reward centers in the brain become activated.

The loving, connected, presence holds the pain, creating a positive emotion that allows us to not be overwhelmed by the pain.

“Caregivers who have self compassion, it’s one of the most powerful gifts you can give to those you care for”

With compassion, caregivers are less likely to burnout, and when we embody compassion, others can pick it up through their mirror neurons, too.

On self care versus self compassion:

Self care is something we do off the job, like getting a massage, resting, eating well, etc.

It’s important, but it doesn’t help in those moment when we are experiencing empathetic resonance; it’s not enough for caregivers.

Rather, self compassion is something we do in the moment, on the job, when we are experiencing empathetic resonance and feeling someone’s pain.

Some people can be triggered around idea of self.

It can help to explain to others how the brain works, explaining how others pick up on what you’re embodying.

You can call it inner resilience training or strength practices instead of compassion; there tends to be less resistance from these.

On practicing self compassion:

Self compassion break: A self compassion break is reminding yourself of the three components of self compassion when you’re in a difficult situation: Loving, Connected, Presence.

This is meant to remind you to be mindful.

Even so far as to say to yourself, “this is really hard”, can help you take a mindful stance adding perspective, reminding you that the struggle is part of life, part of common humanity and human experience.

Speak to yourself kindly and find language that works for you, memorizing phrases that remind you of common humanity.

Touch: we are sensitive to touch as a signal of care.

Try to put your hands on your heart, on your face, or holding your own hands; use touch as a signal of care.

Touch reduces sympathetic nervous response (cortisol, adrenaline, fight or flight response), increasing feelings of safety.

It also releases oxytocin, opiates, and other hormones that are released when you trigger your care system.

Breath: we are always breathing, so why not use it as a vehicle for compassion?

Breathing in- compassion for self, “this is hard for me”.

Breathing out- compassion for others, “this is hard for them”.

This can be altered with emphasis placed more towards the self or other based on what you need at any given time, too.

You can take some time to focus more on the self first, and when we have more resources, you can focus more on breathing out for another person.

On Dr. Neff’s workbook:

Dr. Neff co-created “The Mindful Self Compassion Course”, a worldwide program with thousands of trained teachers and an empirically supported basis.

For more accessibility, she also has the training in a workbook format, “The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook”.

On what’s next:

Next up, Dr. Neff wants to explore what she calls the Yin and the Yang of self compassion.

The Yin of self compassion describes learning to be with oneself in a compassionate way, soothing the self, comforting, and validating pain.

The Yang of self compassion describes more of acting in the world, protecting ourselves, providing for ourselves, and motivating ourselves to take action.

Sometimes self compassion can take the form of fierce compassion, when we need to say no to others (or ourselves).

Gender stereotypes bias these two forms of self compassion.

Women are not encouraged to be Yangs, and Men are not encouraged to be Yins.

However, all human beings need both.

Dr. Neff wants to investigate how we balance these two energies.

Yin without Yang can be passive and complacent, while Yang without Yin can be hurtful and self righteous.

On what it means to be healthy:

“Something about balance and integration.. Accepting foibles of  being human but also really doing what we can to help ourselves thrive, not excluding any aspect of ourselves from the whole, but also not getting off balance by prioritizes some over the others…

Sense of center, balance, authentic, being in the world, and that involves Loving, connected, presence”

Robyn’s self compassion mantra, from the book, “The Artist’s Way”:

Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong”.


Wellness Personality Guide

FGE Episode 53: What You Really Need to Know About Mindfulness, an interview with Leah Weiss

The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook

The Center for Mindful Self Compassion

“Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”, by Dr. Kristin Neff

“The Artist’s Way”, by Julia Cameron

Guest Info

Kristin Neff is currently 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 over a decade ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” released by William Morrow.  In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported eight-week training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide, and the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook is now available by Guilford.

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