The Science of Self-Compassion |
Kristin Neff, PhD
Self-Compassion has three components: kindness toward oneself, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is treating ourselves as we would treat a good friend. Most of us are shockingly cruel to ourselves, rather than soothing or comforting, supporting or protecting ourselves. Sometimes we even need to be mama bear, to draw boundaries and self advocate, saying a firm no to abuse.
Self-compassion is not self-pity. They are near enemies but are radically different. With self-pity we ask “why me?” No one has a perfect, problem-free life, but we do have connection with others who also suffer. Suffering is emotional as well as physical pain.
Mindfulness is the foundation of self compassion. Being with what is in the present moment without resistance. We need to have the courage to be present with what’s happening. Yet we are often fused with over identification of our storyline, we become one with the storyline. We need to step outside of ourselves for emotional balance.
In our culture self-compassion is often seen as selfish, or for sissies, or narcissistic.
The problem with Self-Esteem
Self-esteem gives us a sense of self-worth, but it involves a process of social comparison. If someone tells us we are average, that doesn’t feel great. We are always comparing ourselves to others. Self-esteem is contingent on our successes. What happens when we fail or are rejected. As soon as we fail, our self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely the time that we need that self-confidence the most. We often slide into perfectionism when comparing ourselves.
Self-compassion is strongly predictive of well-being. Not about judging yourself positively, it’s about relating to yourself kindly. Self-worth comes from being a flawed human being, worthy like all other flawed human beings. With self-compassion we can be a wreck like everyone else, but have a stable sense of self-worth, a source of strength, resilience, and coping. The link between self-worth and self-compassion is more stable over time.
The inner ally versus the inner enemy is a predictor of PTSD (as shown from research with veterans of the Iraq / Afghanistan wars).
Self-compassion isn’t about being self-indulgent, but about embracing healthy behaviors such as not overeating or abusing substances, or other addictions to self medicate. We can draw on a pool of compassion with more to give others if we have more to give ourselves. If we don’t recharge our own batteries we’ll burn out.
Self-critical people beat themselves up, and then beat themselves up for beating themselves up. Self criticism undermines our self-confidence and we can develop performance anxiety and shame. When we feel inadequate or fail, we feel threatened. Our threat-defense response is activated. The threat, or the problem is ourselves, so we attack ourselves to take care of the threat. Our tendency to be self-critical is really a desire to keep ourselves safe. We have other ways of being safe, such as the safety that comes with feeling good about ourselves, and that we belong, and connected to others; the attachment system: feeling loved and valued. We can drive our sense of safety, not from being perfect, or without threat, but from supporting and caring for ourselves, a more stable way to stay safe.
Human beings evolved the capacity to feel compassion, we are wired for compassion. It is part of our biology, but seems to have evolved more empathy for others. Maybe because self-concept is a later development in human evolution. To have compassion for ourselves, we’re doing second order processing. Many people are kind and compassionate to others, but very harsh on themselves.
Risk of narcissism?
Self-focus is not narcissism. The opposite is true. Self-compassion is made of three main components: being kind to oneself, as opposed to being harshly judgmental. Remembering our common humanity: life isn’t perfect, all people are imperfect, as opposed to being isolated in our imperfection. And being mindful when we’re suffering as opposed to being overidentified, lost, or fused with our storyline. Self-compassion doesn’t mean feeling superior to others, it just means all humans are imperfect and doing the best they can.
With self-compassion, it’s OK to fail. It’s “I made a mistake” rather than “I am a mistake”, and I am less likely to be afraid of failure. I’m willing to keep trying and to be motivated.There are strong cultural blocks to self-compassion.
One block is the idea that it is narcissistic or self-centered. We’re taught to focus on others rather than ourselves. Another block is that it will undermine our motivation. As if we are kind to ourselves, we won’t try hard to reach our goals. Research now shows that the exact opposite is the case.
When people are self-compassionate, they’re more likely to take care of themselves, they’re not self-indulgent. They’re more likely to be motivated to reach their goals because they’re less afraid of failure, because it’s safe to fail. Self-compassion is one of the strongest sources of resilience that we have. Self-compassion can be learned and sustained. It is an initial shift in mindset, and developing a habit.
The best tool we have to learn self-compassion is that we know how to be compassionate to others, especially close friends, to be kind, supportive, understanding, empathetic, what tone do we use, etc. How does self-compassion take away some of our personal suffering. If we’re angry, depressed, fearful, we can hold the painful emotions in a loving, connected presence. It calms, soothes and comforts ourselves. Instead of just feeling the suffering, we’re also feeling the presence that’s holding the suffering. These are ironically positive emotions we’re generating in the face of suffering. Compassion in the brain is a positive emotion. It helps us bear negative emotions. We are with ourselves as we go through suffering. Benefits include giving us more perspective, allowing us to see more possible ways to resolve situations. It doesn’t try to resist negative emotions. Or force them to go away. Which doesn’t work. As humans, we are wired to respond to warmth and love and care. We are meeting our deepest needs in a very powerful way.
When compassion is generated internally rather than externally, it is always available, and our own voice usually has the most impact on us.We often tune out other’s messages and voices if we don’t believe them.
When we change our internal dialog, there’s a more powerful and immediate impact on our state of mind.
Formal meditation practices are a well-researched and central way to develop compassion for others, and self-compassion. There are also a lot of informal practices such as putting your hand on your heart, or using a series of phrases to ourselves to remind us of the benefits of self-compassion, or writing a letter to ourselves. There are more access points to learning self-compassion than through formal meditation. People who learn informal self-compassion practice are more likely to stick to a meditation practice. Lots of different doorways into the same room.
Self-compassion in relationships. People who score higher on the Neff-Germer self-compassion scale are generally rated higher by their partners as being better partners in relationships. When we depend on other people to meet all our needs, we get upset if they don’t meet them in exactly the way we expect them to. If we can meet some of our needs directly, then we aren’t so dependent on our partner to do everything correctly all the time. We have more emotional resources available not only to help ourselves, but to help our partner. It is possible to be compassionate to others, and not very caring to ourselves. It's a common pattern. Unfortunately, it's a road to burnout.
Work with caregivers.
Self-care for caregivers is not always available when needed, such as a hot shower, or a massage, or a week at a retreat. It’s important to use a resource that can be used in the moment when we are caring for someone who is suffering. Breathe in compassion for ourselves, and breathe out compassion for the other - easy flow as opposed to compassion just being directed outward. Adding the self-compassion element helps to mitigate empathy overload.
Parents should be conscious of what they model for their children. Our brains are wired for emotional resonance.
(Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer have developed a Mindful Self-compassion program for teens). See also compassion scale on Kristen Neff’s website.
Self-compassion break (hand gestures)
Think of a source of stress in your life, but not something too traumatic for this exercise.
Hands over heart is most common, but hand over fist over heart, or both hands on belly, or both hands on face can also help us self soothe. We acknowledge to ourselves that this is a moment of pain, when we can name what’s happening, this is mindfulness. Struggling and suffering are parts of life. Suffering is a normal part of being human. Everyone suffers. None of us is alone. We need to say to ourselves: May I be kind to myself. What do I need in this moment? Patience? Courage? To accept myself more? Wishing it for myself. What would I say to a close friend? We are naturally more compassionate with close friends. Tone of voice is useful.
The three components of self-compassion can be thought of as “Loving connected presence”
Using these hand gestures can certainly feel awkward at first but it helps you to begin to form new habits. It starts to feel natural to be nice to yourself using a source of resilience, coping, self-confidence, strength, and is actually good for physical health and our immune system (new research).
There’s also the pervasive cynical view that “self-compassion is all hearts and flowers”. Self-deprecation will not help us. Self-criticism is like pulling the rug out under ourselves.
We can’t easily get rid of the voice of our inner critic. And it’s often necessary in that it’s trying to point out some danger to us. It’s like a two-year-old tantruming to try to get help, but it’s counterproductive. We need to acknowledge the inner critic. The human brain is wired for compassion and connection. We should not try to fight it, but don’t let it be the only voice in our heads.
What do these mood states feel like:
Hold your hands as fists in front of you.
What is the feeling you have with your fists out? Is it tension, aggression, stress, self criticism?
Hold your hands in front of you open towards the sky. This is a metaphorical gesture for mindfulness and openness.
Hold both arms out as an invitation to hug someone. This is common humanity.
Hold both hands over your heart. This is a gesture of self-kindness.
Self-compassion gives you a center of gravity. It helps you get through difficult times with a sense of balance and support.