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Often the way we talk to ourselves internally is drastically different from how we speak to others. If a friend lost their job, you’d likely console them and lend encouragement and a helping hand. If it was you, would the conversation be the same? Or would you belittle yourself, fill with doubt, and feel angry? Turns out, self compassion is a skill most of us could use more of. Join us as today’s guest explains how to foster this skill, and the benefits of being a little more patient and understanding of yourself.
Dr. 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 nearly twenty years ago. She has been recognized as one of the most influential researchers in psychology worldwide. She is author of the bestselling book Self-Compassion. Along with her colleague Chris Germer, she developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program, taught internationally, and co-wroteThe Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Her newest book isFierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. For more info go to www.self-compassion.org.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling into the show today, we have Kristin Neff, who is currently an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of the bestselling book titled “Self-Compassion.” And her latest book is titled “Fierce Self-compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.” Kristin, welcome to the show.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Oh. Thanks so much for having me, Gabe. Happy to be here.
Gabe Howard: So in preparation for this show, I asked roughly ten people to define self-compassion and I got ten different answers. So I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Can you tell our listeners what self-compassion is?
Dr. Kristin Neff: Yeah. So the way I define it, it’s a particular way of relating the suffering. Passion means to suffer come means with. And so first of all, we relate to it mindfully. In other words, we’re aware that we’re feeling badly about ourselves or something difficult is happening in our lives. We remember that we aren’t alone, right? That’s different than self-pity. Self-pity is for me. Self-compassion is, hey, everyone struggles, everyone’s imperfect. And perhaps most importantly, we’re kind to ourself, we’re warm, we’re supportive when we’re having a difficult time, just like we would be to a good friend we cared about.
Gabe Howard: Now, in my little experiment, I, I sort of learned that many people believe that self-compassion is just like this free floating concept that everybody acknowledged that it existed. Nobody thought that it was fake, but they didn’t really think that it was backed up by research or that it had any science behind it at all. Is there science behind self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff: At last count, I think there was 4,200 studies and dissertations focused on self-compassion. So I’ve been at it for about 20 years now. It’s a whole entire field of study. So, yes, there’s a lot of science behind it that backs up that it’s very helpful for well-being, for physical well-being, for mental well-being, because basically what it does is it helps us handle our suffering, our pain, our difficulty, our feelings of distress in a productive manner. So we aren’t so overwhelmed by it, which leads to things like depression or anxiety, or it can lead to physical ailments as well. So it’s an amazingly powerful coping mechanism to get through the difficulties of life.
Gabe Howard: Now, I know that you said you’ve researched this for 20 years, 4,200 studies. I know there’s a lot, but can you help break it down for our listeners so that they can understand? I want to basically ask what the science and the research behind self-compassion is?
Dr. Kristin Neff: So either we use a self-report scale, the scale I developed the self-compassion scale. We correlate it with positive outcomes again like happiness, life satisfaction, less stress, maladaptive perfectionism, outcomes like that. But increasingly we’re using an experimental method. So we might put people in a self-compassionate frame of mind by saying, Think of something that’s upsetting you right now. Try to be mindful of this. Be aware that the difficulty is here. Remind yourself that you aren’t alone and say some words of kindness to yourself like you would say to a good friend. And what we see is when you do that to people, their mind state really changes. They become less full of shame. Their body changes, their cortisol reduces, their heart rate variability increases. They feel safer. They feel happier, just by holding that moment of suffering with kindness and warmth and support. And then, of course, the other way we research it is through clinical interventions. There’s been some really powerful either therapies or training programs, one of which I developed, that are designed to teach people how to be more self-compassionate. And we followed people who took our program for a year and we found that they were happier, they were more satisfied with their lives, they were less stressed, they were less depressed. They were more able to cope with their difficult emotions. So the research is very strong. Self-compassion leads to positive outcomes and reduces negative outcomes.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about the method that you developed. When you designed this method of research, you obviously had the goal in mind of helping people understand the self-compassion. How did you get from the concept of it to actual benefit for people to be more self-compassionate?
Dr. Kristin Neff: I started with the self-compassion scale, which is really, I think one of the first articles published on self-compassion. And that was designed just to get a general sense of is this a good state of mind? Do people who have this state of mind naturally, are they healthier? Are they happier? Are they less distressed? And so once that was established, actually met a colleague named Chris Germer who said, Hey, Kristin, I love your research on self-compassion, but it’s not enough. He said, you need to teach people to be more self-compassionate. It’s not enough just to know that it helps. How do you help people become more self-compassionate? So together we developed the Mindful Self-Compassion Program, which is designed specifically to help people become more self-compassionate. And that’s because again, self-compassion is not just a good idea, it’s a way of living your life. It’s actually a practice, it’s something you can do. And that’s partly what makes it so special.
Gabe Howard: Why is self-compassion so important? Why is it a good thing for people to practice? And can it resolve problems in people’s lives?
Dr. Kristin Neff: Well, it’s not magic dust.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Dr. Kristin Neff: It doesn’t work you give yourself compassion, and your life is suddenly no problem for me. But what it does really importantly is it helps you relate to problems in a more effective manner. So let’s say you get fired from your job. Okay. Yeah. It’s not going to magically make your job reappear, but first of all, it’ll help prevent you from going into a negative spiral of, I’m a failure, I’m a loser, I am worthless. So if you go into that negative spiral, it’s going to be much harder for you to pick yourself up and get another job, right? It might lead to serious problems like alcoholism or other types of maladaptive coping. So it helps you deal with difficulty not only by not blaming yourself but also by recognizing, hey, this is part of the human experience. People get fired, it happens. This is really key here. What can I learn from this experience? So by normalizing suffering, by normalizing imperfection, by recognizing that this is something that we all go through, we shouldn’t expect not to. Then it actually helps to learn and grow from our challenges and helps to motivate us in a healthy, sustainable manner.
Gabe Howard: I like that. I like that a lot. Now, I understand that in your research you came up with the components of self-compassion. Like you, you broke it down as the kids in the I don’t know, I think the nineties would say, what are the components of self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff: So self-compassion means that you’re kind as opposed to judgmental toward yourself, right? So you’re kind of warm as opposed to cold. It also means that you feel connected to humanity. You remember that you aren’t alone. It’s so funny, even though we all, we all know logically that everyone’s imperfect and everyone struggles in life in the moment that it’s happening, we unconsciously feel like everyone else is leading a normal, happy life or perfect life. And it’s just me who screwed up. So it really reminds us, it frames our experience in light of the shared human experience. And then the third component, as I mentioned, is mindfulness, right? So the ability to, first of all, just be aware this is really hard right now, and you may think that’s obvious, but it’s often not. Either we’re just stiff upper lipping it, you know, I’m just gonna focus and barrel through. We don’t pause to say, Hey, I’m hurting. What do I need right now? Or else we kind of get overwhelmed by our emotions. We get lost in them, we ruminate on them. So there’s no perspective from which to step outside of ourselves and say, Hey, what would be most helpful right now? So the three components are kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. It’s not rocket science. These are actually simple things we can do. They’re just hard to remember to do them.
Gabe Howard: When you explain it like that, you’re right. It’s not rocket science, but it’s it’s one of the. What is that board game that says, you know, minutes to learn, a lifetime to master? When I hear you talk, I’m like, Oh, that’s so simple. It makes sense. But as as somebody who just beats up on himself constantly, I know that the practice is much, much, much more difficult than the understanding. Is there
Dr. Kristin Neff: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: A simple tool that somebody can use to practice self-compassion? Like what are some examples of what that would look like if somebody was being self compassionate?
Dr. Kristin Neff: So I’ll give you two simple, simple tools. Right. You can just write a paragraph to yourself with mindfulness and remembering common humanity and kindness. That would be one. If you’re someone who beat yourself up. First of all, I’d like to say, please don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up because it helps to understand why we do it. We do it because we think somehow it’s going to keep us safe. You know that we’re going to change our behavior so that we’ll get ourselves in line. Or it maybe will blunt the impact of others judgments if we judge yourself first. It’s kind of natural that we criticize ourselves and hope it’s going to help. But just like corporal punishment, you know, maybe short term, it gets compliance. But in the long term, it leads to lots of maladaptive behaviors like anxiety, procrastination, etc. So one thing you could do is very simply say, Gabe, if you want to call yourself Gabe.
Gabe Howard: That’s my name, I like calling myself Gabe.
Dr. Kristin Neff: [Laughter] You know, would I say this to a good friend I cared about? And if I did say this to good friend I care about, what would the impact likely be on that? Would it really be helpful? You’d probably say no, I wouldn’t say that and it wouldn’t be helpful. Well, what would I say if I really cared about my friend and I wanted to help that friend get through the difficult situation? You probably know what to say. You probably know that tone of voice. You’d probably say something like, Hey, it’s okay. It’s only human. Everyone makes mistakes. I’m sure you could learn from this. There may be other factors that led into this. I believe in you. I’m here to help. Those types of supportive statements, you would just naturally use them because you would intuitively know that they’re going to be more effective than saying you stupid idiot to your friend. How is that going to help your friend? So that’s a very simple way to think. What are the consequences of what I’m saying to myself and how could I reframe it to be more helpful? So that’s more cognitive.
Dr. Kristin Neff: But what’s really also effective is you can go the physiological route. So part of what’s happening when we beat ourselves up is our threat defense system is activated, which is linked to the sympathetic nervous system. Right. Fight, flight or freeze. We’re fighting ourselves, thinking that somehow we’re going to attack the problem, which is ourselves. We flee in shame from the judgments of others, or we kind of freeze and get stuck in rumination. So one way to alter the physiological response is just to use some sort of touch. Human beings are really designed to interpret touch as a signal of care to help us. Think of a baby whose parents rock and hold that baby to calm the baby down. Or we can do that for ourselves. We can put our hands on our heart or hold our own hand, or maybe cradle our face or even a self hug. I mean, it seems kind of silly, but it really works because our body sometimes gets the message of safety and care and support before our heads do, and that can be actually really powerful.
Gabe Howard: Is there a relationship between self-compassion and self-esteem?
Dr. Kristin Neff: There is. They aren’t exactly the same thing. So if compassion is concerned with alleviation of suffering, in this case, our own, and self-esteem is a positive evaluation of worth. Well, in some ways, if you’re more self-compassionate, you’re going to have higher self-esteem. Right? You’re going to feel worthy if you feel worthy of a compassionate response. But the type of worthiness is unconditional. In other words, you have self-compassion when you succeed and when you fail, when you get it right and when you get it wrong. Unfortunately, global self-esteem, judgments of worth, are more often than not contingent. They’re contingent on other people liking us, approving of us, getting it right. When we fail, our self-esteem deserts us. It’s a fair weather friend. Also with self-esteem, we need to feel special and above average, better than others to have self-esteem. Wheras, self-compassion, it’s just like we just have to be a flawed human being like everyone else. What we know from the research is that self-compassion is usually a more stable source of self-worth than self-esteem. It leads to actually better outcomes in terms of reacting positively to negative feedback, situations like that, precisely because it’s more stable and unconditional.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of the best-selling book, “Self-Compassion,” Kristin Neff.You are the expert on self-compassion, and I know that self-compassion can look many different ways. We talk about the concept of self-care, for example, but when does self-compassion cross over into self-indulgence or selfishness or putting yourself first? Because I, from my viewpoint, it seems like there’s very thin lines separating those things.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Actually the fear that it’s selfish or it’s going to undermine your motivation or make you self-indulgent, or that you’ll stop caring about other people. These are major blocks to self-compassion that our culture puts out. The research shows it is the exact opposite. So let’s take self-indulgence. So self-indulgence is giving yourself short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term harm. And so if it’s harming you in the long run, like eating all the cupcakes, you want, something like that. It’s not self-compassionate. So what we know is self-compassionate people that eat better, they exercise more. They’re more motivated to keep going after setbacks because they realize it’s only human to fail. They have more resources to give to others. When you beat yourself up all the time, you’re drained and depleted by your negative mind state. Whereas if you give yourself compassion for your own difficulty, you actually have more resources to keep giving to others. So you have to be careful, the mind can trick you about anything. Is staying in bed because you don’t want to go to work really self-compassionate? Are you causing yourself suffering or you’re preventing suffering? And so luckily, one of the things self-compassion also gives you is authenticity. You’re more able to say, you know, actually, I think I’m just being kind of self-indulgent right now. I think I’ll get up and get out of bed and go to work. But somedays you may actually need to stay in. So self-compassion is asking, What do I need for my health and well-being? Again, long term, not short term. And then when you answer that question honestly, it’s going to lead to better outcomes.
Gabe Howard: I think that many people think that they have to be hard on themselves to to move forward. And , by many people that that’s that’s me. You know, I have to have that drive. You know, what are you doing, and move forward? We see it in sports and movies and everywhere else. What do you say to people who believe that if they’re self-compassionate, they will become lazy or lack motivation?
Dr. Kristin Neff: That’s very common. In fact, that’s the number one block to self-compassion people experience. They think they won’t be able to motivate themselves. So you might say the motivation of self-criticism comes from fear. Fear of either beating yourself up or fear of being inadequate. Whereas the motivation of self-compassion comes from care, I want to achieve my goals because it’s important to me and I really I would like to develop to my full potential. And although both work, I have to acknowledge self-criticism kind of works. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. But it has a lot of long-term negative consequences. So if you’re always beating yourself up whenever you don’t meet your expectations, you’re going to develop performance anxiety, which is going to undermine your ability to do your best. Or you may develop fear of failure. You stop taking risks because of potential consequences or you start procrastinating, right? So with self-compassion, we don’t motivate change because we’re not good enough. I mean, as a person, we’re good enough. But maybe our behavior needs some work or maybe our situation needs some change. So the focus is on how can I change my behaviors or situations in a way that’s going to make me happiest and healthiest? And the big thing this gives you and this is so key, if we beat ourselves up when we fail, we’re going to be so full of shame. That shame interferes with our ability to learn from our mistakes. If we’re compassionate about failure, okay, I didn’t reach my goals. Well, it’s human. It happens to everyone. What can I learn from this? This actually leads to a growth mindset. It also leads to more grit. The ability to get through challenges in the long run is actually a much more effective and sustainable motivator. And again, there’s a lot of research that backs this up. You don’t have to take my word for it.
Gabe Howard: What advice do you have for the people that are just like, No, I’m not doing it. I don’t deserve self-compassion. This is all namby-pamby anyways. It’s fine. I’m not buying into this. I recognize that those people probably aren’t listening. But we all know that person, right? What can we say to them?
Dr. Kristin Neff: Mm. Well, I mean, you can’t shove this down anyone’s throat, right? People have to be ready to make this shift. But you could kind of gently ask, well, how is your current way of dealing with things working for you? You know, is it really helping? Are you happy? Are you healthy? Do you think it’s actually serving you? People have to decide that their current way of relating to the imperfection of life isn’t working before they’re open to maybe trying something new. So I think just asking the right questions. Another good one is, well, would you say that your child or your friend? Again, what do you think the impact would be? And since you realize that’s the exact same impact that’s happening for you. So once people get a little curious about the effects of how they’re treating themselves, then they might be more open to working consciously with treating themselves in a more supportive and effective way.
Gabe Howard: I really like what you said there about how you can’t shove it down anybody’s throat. I, I think of the really, really happy people in my own life that are just they’re just constantly peppering me with, you know, it’s kindness right? They’re. I feel so badly, even as I say it, they’re just trying to be nice. But but I can unequivocally say that it doesn’t work. But the people that have pointed out that my current method isn’t serving me, eventually I do get around to saying, All right, what do you recommend? And
Dr. Kristin Neff: Right.
Gabe Howard: That does seem to move the needle better than just constantly being told I’m bad.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Well, again, you certainly don’t want to feel bad because you’re bad to yourself. You don’t want to beat yourself up for beating yourself up. It’s so natural. People think, some part of them at least, thinks it’s helping. The problem is, is it’s actually not helping very much. And there are more effective ways to help ourselves. So we really just need to cultivate that sense of self-compassion, the desire for our own well-being and happiness. And luckily, we’ve developed practices and tools to help that happen. And again, it’s not as hard as you might think. That’s the really good news, because you already know how to do it for other people. Hopefully, you’ve learned how to be compassionate and supportive, maybe to your children or to friends you care about. So you already have the tools in your toolbox. You just have to give yourself permission and remember to use those tools with yourself.
Gabe Howard: Perfect. This was wonderful. Thank you. Thank you so much. This was great.
Dr. Kristin Neff: You’re welcome. Good. Maybe. Maybe you should get the workbook?
Gabe Howard: I know. I was thinking that as you were talking, I’m like, oh, I’m going to have to I’m going to have to do this. I’ve come a long way. I mean,
Dr. Kristin Neff: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Sincerely, I’vee come a long way from where I started because I was the person who was the meaner I am to myself, the more I achieve, which
Dr. Kristin Neff: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: There was no correlation there at all. I was just meaner to myself. The achievement was based on hard work, right? Not on being
Dr. Kristin Neff: Right.
Gabe Howard: A jerk to myself.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Right. Yeah, it’s like that, coach. The reason the coach is good is because they give you good advice. The mean coach is probably just going to trip you up versus the supportive coach. It’s really important to get that accurate feedback. But one given in the context of support versus shame, obviously support is going to be more effective than shame, that’s kind of a no brainer for other people.
Gabe Howard: Yeah. [Laughter]
Dr. Kristin Neff: We forget it with ourselves.
Gabe Howard: I can sincerely say that being more self compassionate has benefited my life, and I have a long way to go. But it’s, it’s helped a lot.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Good. Glad to hear it.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for helping us understand self-compassion. I know that your books are available on Amazon because everything’s available on Amazon, but where can folks find you on the web?
Dr. Kristin Neff: Well, if you just Google self-compassion, because I got in early, all the algorithms lead to me. So my website Self-Compassion.org. You can take the self-compassion scale that I developed if you want to find out how high or low you are. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of PDFs of research articles on self-compassion. I have lots of practices, downloadable audio files. You can do meditations or short practices. I’ve got videos, so it’s really the place to start. And then there’s also links to the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, which is the nonprofit I started that provides self-compassion training if you want to go further.
Gabe Howard: Thank you again so much for being here.
Dr. Kristin Neff: Thank you for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you are very welcome, Kristin, and thank you to our listeners.
Gabe Howard: My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award-winning public speaker who may be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because everything is or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Please recommend the show to a friends, family members and colleagues anyone who would benefit from listening to a very cool mental health podcast. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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