In this episode of the Feel Good Effect, we’re talking with self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff.

Listen to the episode or read the notes to learn all her science-backed tips – plus 3 simple ways you can practice self-compassion!

3 ways to practice self-compassion with dr. kristin neff

Wanna learn self-compassion? Then you’ve gotta listen to this. Author & researcher Dr. Kristin Neff is back to change how we talk about self-care & kindness. Last time, she gave us a deep dive on self-compassion (including what it is & how it will change your life). Her work has since evolved & her newest book is all about self-compassion as either an act of kind acceptance or kind action.

You won’t wanna miss when she shares the really specific practices you can try & questions to ask yourself!

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

Dr. Kristin Neff
meet guest & self-compassion expert: dr. kristin neff

Dr. Neff began publishing about self-compassion in 2003. It took some time for the research to kick off, but in the meantime she was practicing self-compassion in her own life. Around 2008, Dr. Neff met Dr. Chris Germer, a longtime colleague and clinician and who pointed out that there was a need for people to learn exactly how to be more self-compassionate.

Her first book is really a story of self-compassion, including painfully personal details to show others how self-compassion helps us deal with our vulnerabilities. This book was Dr. Neff’s first big attempt in trying to translate ideas from the academic realm into something the everyday reader could easily digest. The book also includes specific practices, something Dr. Neff hadn’t really published much before. 

At the point when the book came out, Dr. Neff and Dr. Germer were developing the mindful self-compassion program, and they ended up founding the nonprofit, the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, through which they developed a teacher training program that really started to spread throughout the world. Then, they published The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, which is essentially their 8-week program in a workbook format. After that, to support those who wanted to teach mindful self-compassion, they wrote The Teaching Mindful Self-Compassion Program Guide for Professionals, aimed at helping others develop those skills.

“The intentional practice of self-compassion will radically change your life”

Dr. Kristin Neff
the beginnings of fierce self-compassion

Soon after, Dr. Neff was faced with several difficult changes in her life. Her marriage had started to fall apart and she and her husband decided to separate. Later, a close friend that Dr. Neff had been supporting turned out to be abusing women – she found herself caught up in the #metoo movement. As she was managing with how to deal with a sex predator and observing different women’s reactions, she noticed that a lot of women were afraid to get angry about it or they were afraid to speak up.

She wanted to speak up, but she was able to see all the barriers for women to do so. This sparked her interest in fierce self-compassion. Compassion has a tender form about self-acceptance and self-love. One of the things, though, that can hold women back is their gender role socialization; women aren’t supposed to be fierce, get angry, or speak up. 

looking at self-compassion & gender roles

Dr. Neff was battling her own inner demons about how to deal with her own naturally fierce energy, which presented in various ways through conflict with her gender role socialization. As it all came together, she realized that fierceness is something we should be thankful for.

It’s not something we need to control, it’s not something we need to just give space to with mindful awareness. It is an incredible power that women have access to. “Mama bear energy” is something that gender role socialization tells us we are not supposed to tap into because people don’t like fierce or powerful women. Dr. Neff started doing some personal work to integrate the fierce and tender sides within herself, the yin and yang energy of life, which seemed to be consistent with experiences of other women around her. 

“A huge part in social change can come from this shift in ways of thinking” 

Robyn Conley Downs
changing the power structures

Any time there is unequal power, it leads to oppression and abuse. This is true of women’s experiences in the #metoo movement, of Black Lives Matter, of LGTBQ+ rights, climate issues, and all social justice movements. It’s not enough to meditate, be mindful, and be compassionate. There is a lot of pain in the world that needs to be addressed. These ideas came together and Dr. Neff realized that she wanted to write a book for women, especially, and how women can tap into their fierce energy, own it, celebrate it, honor it, and integrate it with what we already know, which is to be compassionate and tender. It creates a caring force that we can harness for social change.

The responsibility to change the power hierarchy is not on survivors or the people who have been historically oppressed. At the same time, they don’t have to wait around for those with power to wake up on their own.

yin and yang energy

In her book, Dr. Neff lays out general principles that apply to anyone, regardless of gender identity. These are human principles, whether you are in power or oppressed. The general principles are the integration of fierce and tender. From a perspective from Chinese medicine, ‘lack of health’ is defined by lack of integration between yin and yang.

The yang energy is the powerful energy and the yin energy is the nurturing energy – yet, they have been hijacked by hierarchy. People in power have all the yang energy and the people who are serving those in power have the yin energy. We split it by gender and defined them by gender roles. We aren’t allowing people to be their true selves by stuffing them into gender boxes; all of us are half whole.

In learning more about anti-racism, Dr. Neff also realized that these principles are so important for people in power in terms of committing to making change. Too much fierce energy without tenderness results in destructive anger and shame that causes others to shut down. On the other hand, too much acceptance and love does not push for change to happen. Tenderness without fierceness is complacent, but fierceness without tenderness is harmful. We need to honor and integrate both.

Dr. Neff realized that, as a white woman, she needed to start with tender self-compassion. Jumping into the fierce action can elicit defensiveness. Instead, she needed to acknowledge and hold the pain of her unconscious complicity and the history of oppression without shame or judgement. Only by opening to herself tenderly first, that she could fully jump into fully committing to doing whatever she could to change the situation. Acceptance and change are always doing a dance together and only after self-acceptance can we commit to making change.

Each situation is unique, but there are some general principles and tools we can use to try and help a variety of situations.

writing the book before the research

Dr. Neff wrote this book before spending years working on the research. There is already a lot of empirical evidence for the fundamental, radical change that self-compassion can make and the strength it can elicit. Self-compassion, for some, is associated with female gender roles and weakness, but that’s not at all what it is.

The research shows that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of strength, coping, and resilience that we have available to us. Self-compassion is being kind, supportive, sometimes fierce and sometimes tender, and trying to alleviate suffering when things are difficult. The more tools you have to alleviate your suffering, the more you are able to cope with difficulty, the stronger you’ll be, the more you’ll be able to function in daily life.

the basics of self-compassion

According to the model Dr. Neff uses, self-compassion has three main components, all of which need to be there for a healthy and stable mindset. What you need first, is mindfulness, the ability to be present with what is, to pay attention to what is happening, and accepting what is happening in the present moment. We need to do this with our own difficult emotions, rather than ignoring emotions. If we don’t acknowledge that we’re struggling, how do we give ourselves compassion? 

Then, we need to have a kind, supportive, constructive response to our pain, opposed to shame. Unfortunately, many have a belief that they will change for the better if they beat themselves up. But we actually know that shame and self-criticism make it a lot harder to change for the better. With self-compassion, however, you may notice that you failed or made a mistake, but you have a kind, supportive, and constructive response.

The third part, the thing that makes it compassion and not pity, is other people. Compassion is inherently a connected emotion. With self-compassion, we remember that everyone is imperfect and everyone leads an imperfect life. With self-compassion, we can remember that suffering and struggling are part of being human, which allows us to be more connected in our experiences and empowers us.

The BLM and #metoo movements might be conceptualized as self-compassion movements, centered around people saying “it’s not okay to treat me this way” and at the same time “I am standing with others who have been harmed as I have”. The sense of connectedness that comes with self-compassion gives us a lot of strength and empowerment. 

To give yourself compassion: be mindful of your pain, speak to yourself in the way you might speak to a friend you care about, and remember that you aren’t alone. There are many others in your situation.

ask yourself this one fundamental question: what do I need?

Each situation is very complex; there is no easy answer. Just asking yourself that question is a powerful act of self-compassion, validating the fact that your needs matter, too. Many people don’t do this. Men are socialized to feel that they are entitled to get their needs met and women are socialized to focus on others’ needs.

Simply asking yourself what your needs are validates that they do indeed matter. It doesn’t make you selfish, it doesn’t mean you prioritize your needs over others’. It just comes back to your needs mattering as much as everyone else’s. Just asking “what do I need?” can be a radical act of self-compassion.

This type of self-compassion helps with authenticity, because when you accept yourself unconditionally, you can be yourself without trying to be someone society says you should be. You are acceptable as you are. Then you can start to meet those needs, feel more fulfilled, do what makes you happy, stand up for yourself, fight against injustice, put up boundaries, and really just accept yourself as you are.

Whatever happens, happens with compassion. You might get it wrong, giving yourself something that isn’t actually what you needed, but you pick yourself up and try again. What becomes more important is not whether you succeed or fail, but how you hold yourself in the midst of it all. Self-compassion gives you a way of living in every single moment as it unfolds that isn’t always right, although it’s easier to get it right when your heart is open.

“Self-compassion is not an end state, it is a process. It is a way of relating to the ongoing, messy process in life”. The goal of practice is simply to be a compassionate mess”. 

Dr. Kristin Neff
how true self-compassion helps us

Sometimes the reason we choose pleasure over what is good for us is because pleasure is an escape from painful emotions. We might have some insecurities, rejection, inadequacy, or whatever painful emotion we may be experiencing.

When we choose pleasure to a point where it is unhealthy, it becomes self-indulgent (choosing pleasure at the expense of long-term health). True self-compassion never chooses harm to oneself as the honest answer to what you need. You may not ask honestly, though, because you may be dealing with depression, sadness, fear, anger, and you are using these things as a temporary cover for those emotions. 

There is a lot of research on self-compassion and eating disorders, and how it helps people heal from those habits by giving them another way to deal with painful emotions. Instead of being dependent on food, substances, or codependent relationships to meet your needs (especially your emotional needs), you can meet your own emotional needs with compassion.

When asking “what do I need?”, think not only about behaviorally but emotionally. You may need love, support, commitment, or honesty. The radical act of self-compassion is giving yourself that very thing, which makes a huge difference in your ability to make better choices in life.

action versus acceptance

Kindness is a spectrum: kindness can be action and kindness can be acceptance.

Think of a firefighter, a very compassionate, kind, caring firefighter. If a firefighter sees people trapped in a building, the kind thing for them to do is not to just accept it, but to risk their lives to pull people out of the building. Or maybe you are in the building, and the kind thing is not for you to notice that you are hurting and think you just need to accept your situation, but to be ready to take action.

Sometimes kindness means to be brave and courageous to help, to stand up to a difficult situation. The mama bear energy might feel more feminine, but just imagine someone is harming your child – you would become fierce. We just need to give ourselves permission to use that same fierceness with ourselves. 

If we actually give ourselves space to ask, “what do I need?” and “what’s driving that need?”, you will bump into some pain that you can notice without judgment. Instead of avoiding that pain with temporary pleasure, go right to that pain to notice it, put your hand on your heart, and meet yourself with kind words. We don’t want to use the fierce action to cover up the wounds underneath. We want to tend to our wounds with the tender, healing energy of self-compassion, but we also want to take action for what is right and good for us with the fierce energy of self-compassion.

It’s not black and white, dichotomous thinking. Self-compassion is integrated. When we think in black and white, it causes tremendous harm. If we are going to get beyond a lot of the serious problems facing our world today, we’re going to have to get beyond this black and white thinking and look from a more complex lens that sees all sides of a situation.

Compassion, love, connectedness, presence, strength, courage, and wisdom are our ultimate goals.

“The alleviation of suffering – that’s what compassion is, that’s what love is”.

Dr. Kristin Neff
what does it really mean to be healthy?

“A compassionate mess. Reframing health in that way has made such a big difference… it’s not what’s happening, it’s how we are relating to what’s happening, it just makes all the difference in the world. As long as you relate in a healthy way, even to what’s unhealthy, then you’re healthy. It’s more a means than an end.”

Dr. Kristin Neff
guest bio

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 books 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.  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.

headshot of dr kristin neff on pink background with navy text that reads 3 ways to practice self compassion

Fierce Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook

The Teaching Mindful Self-Compassion Program Guide for Professionals

Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

Self-Compassion, by Dr. Kristin Neff

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