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Perfectionism, self-criticism, self-hatred. As an athlete, academic, or even a parent, finding the path to self-compassion can be easily interrupted. I can speak for myself – this is a lifelong journey. Today, we are so lucky to be guided by the brilliant psychologist and researcher, James Kirby.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey with perfectionism, grappling with the relentless pursuit of excellence while yearning for moments of self-care. James shared fascinating insights into how individuals, even in moments of triumph, may struggle with attributing their successes, often leading to a cycle of hyper-monitoring and self-criticism.

James is a psychologist and researcher who specializes in studying perfectionism, self-criticism, and compassion. He conducts research and also works directly with clients, helping them navigate the challenges of these psychological phenomena. Kirby’s expertise lies in understanding how perfectionism and self-criticism impact mental health and well-being, as well as exploring strategies for cultivating self-compassion and resilience.

The Dangers of Self-Criticism

James has dedicated his career to unraveling how these complex opinions of ourselves shape our mental health and overall well-being – and impact the world around us.

James shares that there are two types of self-criticism: inadequate self-criticism and hostile self-criticism. Inadequate self-criticism can still be associated with anxiety and depression when things aren’t going well, but it is aimed at self-correction, while hostile self-criticism involves more self-hatred and is much more strongly linked to poorer mental health outcomes. He also notes that inadequate self-criticism may help individuals keep going when things are okay, but can more easily tilt into hostile self-criticism when disappointments occur and successes are lacking.

The Path to Self-Compassion

We delved into the origins of outcome-focused behavior, tracing its roots back to childhood experiences and the development of overcompensation as a coping mechanism. It was eye-opening to explore the delicate balance between striving for greatness and the toll it can take on various facets of our lives.

Throughout our dialogue, the theme of self-compassion emerged as a guiding light. James introduced the concept of inadequate and hostile self-criticism, shedding light on their distinct impacts on mental health and well-being. Together, we unpacked strategies for challenging negative self-talk and fostering a kinder, more encouraging inner dialogue.

Our conversation took a poignant turn as we discussed the role of compassion in overcoming setbacks. James shared deeply personal experiences of navigating postnatal depression, highlighting the profound solace found in acts of self-compassion.

Replacing Self-Criticism with Kindness

As we explored the power of compassion in building connections and fostering empathy, we reflected on the barriers to kindness, such as shame and vulnerability. Yet, amidst these challenges, we found hope in the transformative impact of gratitude and compassion in nurturing healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Throughout our exchange, James and I embarked on a candid exploration of the human experience, offering invaluable insights into the complexities of our psyche. As we navigated the twists and turns of perfectionism and self-criticism, we inspired listeners to embrace kindness, resilience, and empathy in their own lives, paving the way for greater well-being and connection.

Here are a few key takeaways:

– There are two types of self-criticism – inadequate and hostile
– Self-compassion can help sustain goals by aiding recovery from setbacks
– Compassion is an active process of understanding and alleviating suffering
– Shame strongly impacts relationships
– Recognizing and appreciating unseen acts of compassion from partners can foster gratitude and positivity in relationships

Listen to James Kirby’s episode on self-criticism

If you found today’s episode enlightening and want to hear more, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to share this episode!

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– Learn more about James and his work
– Nurturing self compassion with Dr. Diana Hill
– How self-compassion is NOT letting yourself off the hook
– Navigating perfectionism with Thom Curran

Episode Chapters

  • Perfectionism, self-criticism, and goal-setting. (0:00)
  • The origins and trade-offs of outcome-focused behavior. (5:00)
  • Self-compassion and its impact on goal setting and motivation. (7:20)
  • Self-criticism types and their impact on mental health. (11:48)
  • Compassion and its role in overcoming setbacks. (22:14)
  • Friendship blocks and vulnerability. (33:27)
  • Parenting, relationships, and shame. (39:16)
  • Compassion in relationships and parenting. (47:06)
  • Gratitude and compassion in relationships. (53:13)

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Transcript: James Kirby

Sonya Looney 0:00
We’re just diving right in, but we’re just gonna pick up where we left off. Dr. Kirby. We’re just talking about the tyranny of the shoulds. And how a lot of times people just take responsibility for everything in their life. And so like when you say, I should have done this, I should have done that. It’s like, you feel like everything is up to you. And even like, everything with your success is up to you. And I think about like, racing, right? It’s like, I didn’t win the race. So it’s my fault. But there’s like lots of things that are not your that are not up to you that you don’t have control over.

James Kirby 0:30
No, that’s right. And that they should start early and can come with a real flutter, particularly when there’s a disappointment. It’s interesting, even when you have success, sometimes there can be a real tendency to attribute it to a lot of external factors and not even own to oneself, people can can really struggle with that, that kind of flip side of the coin. Yeah, I mean, those shoulds, you know, everyone’s got a different relationship to those, those should statements, some, some can kind of see it as just the, you know, a fun game we play with ourselves at times, and don’t attach too much meaning to it. But in instances where you’ve been hurt, because of something you’ve done, yeah, that’s when the shoots can really start to become way more powerful. And then we can hyper monitor, and really, you know, hyper evaluate, like, we’re really vigilant in that way, about the things we’ve done or not done. And in the key to protect yourself and successes. All you, you, you, you, you and you and of course that adds a whole bunch of angst and stress and can get quite depressing at times.

Sonya Looney 1:39
Yeah, I’m super fascinated, like, I won’t make the whole podcast about this. But like, for my master’s thesis, I’m focusing on perfectionism and sense of accomplishment. And how like, perfectionist can’t really experience a sense of accomplishment. So like, what are some other ways that we can think about our accomplishments that have nothing to do with the, like evaluation, the direct evaluation of is nothing good or bad? It’s like, so I’m really focusing on the meaning and purpose narrative side of things. And yeah, like, I’m really excited, but I’m thinking about exactly what we’re talking about, like the attribution of success or like the shoulds. and the Self, perfectionists have extremely high levels of self criticism. And, you know, there’s a lot of like, a lot of people listening can, can, are probably somewhere on the scale of in the multi-dimensional, you know, perfectionism scale. And how like, compassion is such a huge part of this, too.

James Kirby 2:34
We’re actually on this, we just completed running a compassion focus intervention, with university students high in perfectionism, trying to help them with that, particularly trying to help with the way they motivate themselves towards those perfectionistic goals, that self criticism you mentioned. And we had about, we had about 100 students through but it’s interesting in university settings, I think there’s this sense that I’m doing a study in a university, so I can just drop in and out whenever I want. I’m a huge student, I can drop in and out of my courses. So we had a lot of attrition in the program to Well, when I say attrition, like, like, drop out, but then they’d come back, I think there were just a lot of conflicts like particularly when assessment times come in, and so on. So there were those pragmatic factors. But one of the things that was really interesting, was a real kind of awareness of this predicament of knowing I do this. But I think it comes with good outcome, but look where I am. I know, it beats me down, and I feel miserable. And this is why I’m here. But at the same time, if I weren’t in this kind of perfectionistic, kind of frame of mind, we wouldn’t have gotten the sevens that I’ve managed in my courses. And so that is kind of on one level. And at the same, on the same level, we’re trying to go, Okay, let’s bring some self compassion in, to kind of help, you know, with the speed bumps along the way. But there’s still this sense that I can’t give that up for this right now. Particularly because my assessments due in a month, and I got to get it in, I’m happy to be compassionate, and start to do that stuff after I finished the assessment. And so you start these rules, right? But then, but then there’s another piece of assessment, then there’s another exam and then if it’s not University, well, I need to push myself to get the job or then get the promotion or secure the position. And so that that kind of horizon is never reached in terms of, you know, when I can stop and start to release these perfectionistic standards I have and it just is almost like an automatic pilot habit kind of process. When you’re looking at it in your PhD Are you trying to shift from the outcome to how people are making sense of what goals or values that they’re trying to pursue Sonya

Sonya Looney 4:59
Yeah, and I wish I was doing a PhD. I’m doing a master’s. That’s like another conversation for another day. It’s like, that’s something I really want to do. But I it’s like, well, I don’t want to move and all these different things. And I might just do like, my own fun research for fun when I’m done. And I don’t know, maybe I’ll talk to you about that later. But yeah, it’s like, it’s so easy to be outcome focused. And we always hear even with goal setting, like, even in sports, it’s like, well, don’t don’t set an outcome goal, like my goal is to win the race. It’s like focus on the process that can set things that are within your control. But even so, it’s not good enough, like focusing on the process, but then like, you judge your process. So even if you’re not judging an outcome, you’re judging your process. So I think it needs to be more than about, like, just focusing on the things that I can control. It’s like, what is underneath all of that? And how can I attribute that to something other than, like, How good was it?

James Kirby 5:52
Yeah, for sure. Oh, totally. And it’s interesting, like in, in, in some of the work we do with clients. So I kind of mentioned in the book as well, it’s kind of like, you know, if you were to close your eyes and travel back in time, you know, where was the first moment that this kind of striving really kind of shows itself? Like, when did you like When was your first memory of really knowing I had to, to get there. So it was all really outcome focused, and often, it can go back to, you know, childhood, you know, times when, you know, the whole class got a certain grade, or your best friend’s gold lid, and you didn’t, and you kind of felt really excluded or left out. And so it becomes a way of, you know, protecting yourself through sort of, you know, almost overcompensating, you know, by going, I’m gonna go all out and make sure this never happens again. And but then there are other reasons, they’re always different, really valid reasons for how this develops. But it’s surprising where you can kind of find those memories of when this kind of kicked off and, and then how it was successful. And that’s reinforcing. But of course, there are trade offs to using that approach.

Sonya Looney 7:06
Yeah, man, yeah, I want to just talk about this, but I’m gonna switch over, because maybe that can be a podcast for another day, because I could talk the entire time about that. I want to talk about more specifically about compassion more broadly. Like we hear about self compassion a lot, right? And like, what you were just talking about is, you know, if I’m, if I’m kind to myself, I need this harsh, critical drive in order to push myself so that I can be successful. And whether you’re a perfectionist or not, like I think a lot of people are driven by self criticism and harsh, harsh things that they’re saying to themselves. In their research, is that is that validated, like people are more successful, they’re harsh, or is it that they’re more successful, they’re kind to themselves,

James Kirby 7:47
ya know, people find it really difficult, you know, early on that self compassion, so like in groups we run, one of the first things we would do in the session is bring to bring to mind a memory of when you know, they have been self compassionate, or bring bring bring to mind a memory when someone’s being compassionate to them. And in those earlier groups, which we were running back in, think it must have been 2017 18, half the group would just be in tears or very angry. And then you debrief it after and they’d be like, there hasn’t been anyone who’s ever been compassionate to me, why would you get me to do

Speaker 1 8:27
that? Like, oh, God, you’re probably thinking, but

James Kirby 8:32
often, you know, we could bring to mind easily the memories of compassion going outwards. And so we’ve kind of shifted it to that. And so the key here is, a lot of people can struggle with one element of compassion. So people can be good at giving compassion towards other people. But then when they’re the target themselves, with the the self compassion or receiving compassion, that’s when they can start to when they’re the target themselves, find real difficulty, and there’s lots of different fears that resistances that people can have towards it. Now, when you look at it in research, one, one interesting one that comes to mind is for goal setting, if you’d like to get back into that, but those who are kind of engaged in, you know, goal setting around health and exercise for, you know, lifestyle, those who were low on self compassion and high on self criticism, if they missed the day of exercise later, so we call that like a lapse, I suppose. When they’re back at home later, they would then eat unhealthy foods as well. So they kind of compound, you know that, okay, well, I’ve had a bad day may as well let’s just let it all off today. We’ll start again tomorrow kind of thing. But you know, so they’ve missed the training. And then they’ve also at the same time eating unhealthy food, which is kind of not what they wanted. Whereas those high and self compassion, if they missed a day, they wouldn’t then do the eating of unhealthy behavior. And so part of it is is part of the kind of interpretation scenarios. Self Compassion is kind of relating to yourself in ways that are helpful, particularly when you’re experiencing some kind of failure or setback or disappointment, that can involve kindness 100%, it can also involve validating that distress, hey, you know, you’ve had a bloody hard day, you know, you’ve had this and this on, and then looking at encouraging the person to go, and what were you wanting to do? Again? What was the aim? What were you hoping to get out of it? What can we do to support that. And so that kind of validation coupled with encouragement can help us stay more towards pursuing goals instead of doing the exact opposite, which is what those with low self compassion had. But there’s a whole host of other research showing that self compassion very helpful, that self compassion related install is very helpful for, you know, making up amends, keeping yourself motivated on tests, in study, as well as other health behaviors.

Sonya Looney 10:54
Yeah, I love that. And I like how you describe it, because I think there’s people that are a bit skeptic or the people that are like, Oh, this is woowoo, I don’t want to put my hand on my heart and tell myself that I love myself or whatever. And I, like I am somebody who has practiced and cultivated self compassion, that’s, and it’s really helped me. But I like the way you describe it as like validating the emotion, or the thing using common humanity, like, hey, like, you’re having a hard time and using like, you like the distant self talk, like you’re having a hard time. And, you know, everybody has a hard day, instead of like, making it so me focus, like I like I suck, and all the negative things that lead to like the What the hell effect, I’ll just screw it, I’ll just, I’ll just do everything now off the way that I wanted to. And then I love how you talked about refocusing your attention to like, where you want to go, instead of like, focusing on how this thing is off the rails now?

James Kirby 11:47
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. I mean, I mean, the other part to that with the self criticism, and it was a good point, you may we distinguish in the work, we do two different types of self criticism. So there is a basic self criticism, where you still kind of have a deep lightness for yourself, but you’re kind of critical to improve yourself. And we see that a lot in athletes, actually. So some of the work we’ve been doing with elite athletes and so on tend to be high on that form of self criticism, where it’s all geared towards self correction. Right, we would suggest there are other ways you can move towards self correction. But, you know, in that kind of form of self criticism, we sometimes call you know, the way that kind of engaging, like an inadequate kind of self criticism is sometimes what we would call it, that is still associated with anxiety, depression, but not to the same degree as the other form self criticism, which is a self hatred kind of criticism. And that’s a different type of prison, where you’re really attacking of yourself really hostile towards yourself with what it is that you’ve done. So, you know, in the kind of more, you know, inadequate self criticism that might be, why do you do that, for that was so dumb, whereas the hostile would be going for you going and labeling you as absolute eff up and so on, and really go now that kind of bomb, the self hatred, the more attacking and aggressive criticism that’s much more associated with depression and anxiety, and when things are going well, that inadequate self cares, and that’s okay, it’s when things aren’t going particularly well. But you’re not getting those runs on the board or the successes, that’s when it can easily kind of tilt into that more hatred form of criticism. So the function of the inadequate criticism is to try to keep you going, right? And that 10 cents work, okay, if you’re doing well, and you have a likeness for yourself, and you’re getting input from other people to say, you are great. You’re, we like you as a person kind of thing. But you know, that the function of the self hatred is almost to, you know, expel you or kind of, you know, remove something from you. So, you know, we would see this in our body weight chain groups, for example. So these are people in bigger bodies, having a lot of body weight, shame. And they’d be very high on self hatred, criticism, and they would just grab parts of their body and go, if I could just cut this out, you know, then my life would be better. And it’s like, well, you’re treating that mean, that’s part of you, firstly, that you’re referring to, but you’re almost treating that part of you as like an out group something to be expelled or extinguished. And that’s when we can really start to do some, you know, very awful things to ourselves. When we’re kind of driven through that kind of self hatred, criticism.

Sonya Looney 14:54
Well, I didn’t even know there’s two types of self criticism. So it’s really helpful to learn that like a kind of a clarifying question around the first type, the inadequacy piece is that a lot of people want to improve. Like, that’s one of the reasons we set goals like we are in, you know, depending on what you like, what you believe it’s like humans are meant to continue to pursue their potential. And that requires, that requires not accepting completely where you are, and wanting to move forward. But you know, there’s, there’s nuance there, it’s like, well, I want to improve, maybe, is it coming from an inadequacy? Is it coming from a desire, some other desire to just curiosity, like, where is that coming from? And where’s the line between inadequacy and acceptance? And then how you use that to move forward in a way that’s productive? Yeah,

James Kirby 15:41
absolutely. So we definitely have goals. And one way we measure this is, in some of the research we do is, is not only have a look at the criticism, the types of criticism, but also how they’re striving towards their goals. And so often, what you can find is, with this striving to achieve goals, is some people are striving to to avoid looking inferior, so I need to achieve this. So people don’t see me as a quote unquote, loser or see me as just someone who comes in second third. Because then the fear is, if I were to, people won’t see me as being, you know, a good person or won’t be seen in the ways that I want to. So that’s, that’s what we would call striving to avoid inferiority. Whereas other people who’ve got more secure base, we’d be striving, you know, for goals, because they’re wanting them and they’re striving from a secure base, and it’s kind of like an if they don’t get it, it’s kind of a, it’s alright, you know, I’m still a good person, you know, who I am as a person is not attached to this outcome. And you’re just driving because these are things that are important to you and our value too. So that there are kind of two different types of striving we can see as you pursue goals, and you don’t necessarily just have to be in one or the other. Sometimes, depending on the you know, the context, you know, you can differ. So you know, you’re at work, you might be striving to avoid inferiority, I don’t want to look like I’m the worst, you know, staff member, or whatever it is, I’ve got to get a grant or something to show that I’m not useless. Whereas you know, at home as a father, you might feel like you’re striving to be the best dad you can be, and you feel really comfortable with that, and things are going well. So there will be those contextual factors as as well. But yeah, when you start to pair some of these things together, so you’ve got an inadequacy, self criticism, or hatred, but a lot of inadequacy of self criticism, you’re striving to avoid inferiority. So your goals are kind of really contingent on outcome. And if they’re not getting that, you know, there’s a kind of reinforcing, I’m not as good as others. And then I feel like I’m going to start to be excluded, not picked, not seen as being favorable. That’s when it can start to come together and make things a bit more challenging on the mental health front. You

Sonya Looney 18:01
also talked about, there’s ways that people can can strive better in that first type of criticism. You know, instead of criticizing yourself and coming from a place of inadequacy, there’s other things you can do. So what are those things? Yeah,

James Kirby 18:15
so one of them can be, you know, self compassion. Another one is, like we spend some time on as well as self reassurance. And so self reassurance is like a cognitive kind of self compassion, relating style, really, and you know, self reassurance is reminding you of your good things. You know, often when we’re caught up in the moment of criticism, you’re not remembering all the good things, he has focused on whatever that thing is that you didn’t go well that you didn’t get, and you just go for the jugular. Whereas self reassurance is much more textured by warmth. And it’s also recognizing that, hey, you know, you’ve done really well look where you’ve got to look what position you put yourself in, or it’s reminding you of that, goodness, I suppose. So that’s one thing you can you can start to do. And then the other one is also you know, through that self compassion, you can bring in that kindness as well. That’s, of course, very important. And some people that will be dead easy to do. But for others, they can kind of really push back against the kindness and see that as being a difficulty. And so one of the things could be okay, let’s unpack that, Where’s that coming from? But also there are just many different ways to be self compassionate. So you know, being kind is one of those but another as we mentioned earlier, it could be validating and also encouraging. So like, for example, my son and my son and my daughter is moving into just riding her bike without the training wheels, and, you know, there’s a few crashes they’re pulling over. And in those instances when she falls over, you know, I don’t yell at her go, you failed, you idiot. Doing this half an hour kind of, you know, which would be the the criticism, right? That would be the critical way to kind of yell at all that tends to do is increase activation of, you know, defenses, and physiologically, you kind of just see activation of that sympathetic stuff, higher heart rate, and so on. And also, it just continues to pay, and you’re really going for longer in the amygdala, the insulin and cingulate and stuff. And so that just compounds all of the pain. Whereas if you come in differently, you get quality validated, and it’s like, geez, you know, that must really hurt, how’s your knee, and then you, you know, connect with what she was doing? Well, geez, you were gone great down that road is doing so well, I reckon you could jump back on and give it another go. And you might have that encouraging, instilling belief enables her to kind of not only feel, you know, calm, but also gives her the sense of confidence when there’s something dangerous or risky, right. So she’s doing something dangerous and risky, she can actually physically hurt us. So, but if we want her to, to keep going with this, and to try to do it, you know, coming in with self compassion, or that compassionate relating with her, is really going to give her the belief that she can do it. So I was like, let’s do that for yourself. You know, if it works outwardly towards other people, why not take that on yourself. Now, a lot of people struggle with that, because the anger embedded in the criticism feels very powerful. And so when they’re in that anger state and letting it rip, it feels strong, it feels powerful. And you’re disappointed, too. So it’s a way to displace that disappointment. And when you’re in that kind of position, it’s very hard not to let that run the show.

Sonya Looney 21:43
It also makes me think a bit, you know, coming from positive psychology, World of optimism, like if you are really hard on yourself, it might be hard to be optimistic that things are going to be better. And then it might be hard to be hopeful that you actually have like the agency and the ability to get better. But if you’re encouraging and kind to yourself, like oh, I just screwed up that I screwed that up. But that’s okay. And I’m still learning that like, empowers you to continue being optimistic that you can keep going instead of I suck, maybe I should just quit.

James Kirby 22:14
Exactly. I mean, there was a recent study he’d done in Australia. It’s like, something like 90% of Australians set goals on New Year’s Day, like New Year’s resolution, and only about 7% of those actually get kind of met of those goals, like you know, it’s just a massive drop. And so we kind of can set these, these goals. And there’s a lot in how you go about doing that, of course. But one of the key things with self compassion is immediately people have this sense that self compassion. I don’t know how this got connected. But a lot of people immediately think self compassion is letting yourself off the hook. It means you no longer strive or want things. It means you accept mediocrity, like it, there’s all these kind of myths that are associated with it, which just are so far from the truth. It’s not funny when you start to look at it scientifically. But also, if you look at the definition of it self compassion and compassion, it’s all about trying to prevent suffering and alleviate suffering. And so why would it want you to just kind of, you know, not pursue the things that are important for you things that make you want to flourish in life and, and when you are experiencing disappointment, why would it want to, you know, compound that with further pain, as opposed to try to lift you up and keep you going so towards your goals. So self compassion plays a really important role in helping us sustain those goals. You know, so because you’re gonna have a setback at some point, despite all of the work, despite all the perfectionism, and that’s the scary thing with perfectionism. They know, like, when you’re in that kind of awful cycle, I can’t let it go. Because if I do, then something bad will happen. And it’s kind of like, so I just have to, you know, to trap I have to stay attached. And so it’s kind of like, well, what are you going to do? Or how are you going to help yourself at those moments, and that’s where self compassion to be, you know, can be the secret almost, to keeping you moving towards those things that are important. I

Sonya Looney 24:12
love how you’ve talked about how compassion is more than just a feeling. And that compassion is actually active. Can you talk about that?

James Kirby 24:19
Yeah, absolutely. So when we talk about compassion, we kind of talk about Okay, the first part is engaging with the distress or the suffering so you want to know what’s going on. So you know, what’s the cause of the suffering you know, what’s at the base of it, because that will give you more information about you know, okay, what is going on for this person or for yourself, like, what is actually going on? Like, can I engage with what’s going on? And then once you better once you know that you just don’t stay there. That of course can be helpful they can can make you feel validated because you’ve been singing or you’ve listened to yourself and your own pain. So that’s really important. But then the second part is then okay, well, what can I possibly do to help, you know, alleviate some of this stress or suffering? So what skills could I learn to help me with this situation going forward, and there’s a whole bunch of different practices one can do or skills one one can then do. But you know, to give to give an example, you know, I do a lot of work and parenting, and so on. And, you know, sometimes there’ll be instances where mothers that will come to therapy, and there’ll be feeling or experiencing, I should say, sort of almost like a postnatal depression, post birth. And that’s a that’s an awful kind of experience, where there’s a real sense that I can’t have a real bond with my child, there’s no feeling there’s no love, that’s been ripped away. And of course, that’s bloody terrible. And so there’s this kind of what’s wrong with me, there must be you know, I’m defective in some way, or, you know, they deserve better. And all of this kind of stuff immediately comes to the surface. Now, in that instance, here is a mother in therapy, motivated, driven, to try to get a bond going with their child, but they’re just not feeling it, right. And so we would try to, from a compassion kind of focused approach kind of connect to that, actually, you being an incredibly brave and courageous, this is something which is not pleasant, which is not easy to talk about. And it’s something that you strongly dislike about yourself, but here you are talking about it. Because you’re deeply motivated to be the best mother you can be for your child so that they can have the upbringing that you kind of hoping in wanting, that’s compassion. So that compassionate, motivational force is still bringing you in here. Doesn’t feel good, I feel bloody terrible. But look at what you’re doing. It’s incredible. And so it sometimes it’s kind of really important to kind of get a sense that yes, you can experience compassionate feeling. But compassion is more than an emotion. And in fact, when you’re motivated to address suffering, many different emotions will come with that sometimes, there’s almost a numbness in case of the postnatal depression example. But in other instances, approaching suffering can feel very anxiety provoking, you know, if it’s something around a transgression, say, you know, intimate partner violence, for example, that can be a lot of anger in that, you know, how dare something like this happen. But we don’t act out on the emotion, we’re coming from a place of, of compassionate motivation, which is, okay, let’s understand what the heck’s going on. And then after we’ve done that, what could be helpful at reducing the suffering, not compounding it or making it worse, and that’s really much easier said than done. You know, when we see things, some of us like to jump in immediately, you know, try to rescue. And, of course, if you do that, you know, you might actually make things worse. So sometimes it’s sitting with that distress can be really important as you start to understand better the person yourself and what’s going on. So you can make a better decision about what’s the best course of action. But yeah, that’s it’s bloody hard.

Sonya Looney 28:16
So what I’m hearing is that compassion doesn’t always have positive emotions associated with it.

James Kirby 28:21
No, it’s this this temporality part of it. So it’s kind of like, after you’ve done it, there can be a lot of wonderful positive emotional experiences. So for example, sometimes it’s can it’s kind of more connected to sort of like in the positive psychology realm, very much more to like a Eudaimonia kind of, you know, take we’re doing things that really matter, things that are really important to us, and being a caring or compassionate friend, or partner, or, or parent is really important to me. And at times when they’re suffering, I don’t, I don’t engage with that, you know, with joy. But obviously, we wouldn’t want that. And it would be odd. Imagine being the doctor and you come in and your patients on the, on the bed, and they’re like wriggling and pain and distress and you’re walking and smiling, going, hey, yeah,

Speaker 1 29:09
are you going? Yeah, it would be great.

James Kirby 29:16
congruent. So you try to come in and kind of match it in that regard, but after it, and you start to see the person benefiting from it, it can really come with sometimes it’s referred to as the warm glow. So you can kind of get this physiologically warm glow experience, you know, because it really felt good doing it. And then, you know, there can be all sorts of different experiences like happiness, pride, and so on, from having done. Those compassionate actions and, and, you know, so what a lot of us struggle with big transition moments like, you know, when you transition to retirement, there’s this sense of, I’m no longer helping or contributing or making a difference. And so you know, compassionate actions can be really help, you know with that, with addressing this idea that you are important, you are valuable, you know, you are making a difference in the lives of others. And that’s a really important motivation for humans.

Sonya Looney 30:13
I also was curious about just building community because, you know, loneliness is a huge problem. And a lot of us want to feel connected to another person or in a community. So like, how can compassion help somebody build, like a friend group or deepen a relationship with a friend so that they don’t feel so lonely? Yeah,

James Kirby 30:33
that’s a great, great question. You know, in the way the societies have kind of really been developed, particularly Western kind of, you know, individualistic kind of cultures, there’s much more kind of single unit dwellings built in Unit complexes, as opposed to, you know, two, three bedroom complexes. So, you know, a lot of the way we’re building society is around a lot of, you know, solo living and individual living, and, of course, that completely different to how we’re designed to kind of live our lives as humans. So we sometimes refer to that as evolutionary mismatch. And so like, you know, we’re surrounded by a sea of strangers when no one knows each other’s names, and we kind of live individually. Because we can move location, geographic location, very easy to pursue the things that are important to us. But you lose that close network of friends or community where you all know each other, you can all turn into each other at different times. If someone’s busy, you know, you can go to Jane, if Jane’s too busy, you can go to Joe, etc. And then so when there’s kind of, you know, single residential living in big kind of, you know, million population cities, where we’re kind of focused on work with our iPhones just on the trains, or whatever, it kind of takes away from all of that kind of, kind of community aspect. And that’s no one’s fault, per se, it’s just like how we’re developing. So we have to be very thoughtful about the different policies we’re putting into place and also town planning to kind of encourage brain space open space to bring people out into so that they’ve got space to connect and do things that they wouldn’t otherwise have. So you know, the way that we do design buildings, and spaces, in offices and in our suburbs is really important at creating opportunities for connection to happen. And one of the things with depressed people is that they’ll often experience a sense of immense loneliness, and disconnection. So one of the things that we might do behavioral activation is one of the best treatments out there for depression, but you can kind of look at what actions or what behaviors you might do. And some of those behaviors, there’s been some studies on Okay, let’s do random acts of kindness or random acts of compassion, where we’re getting you to do something, but we’re getting you to do something to help or be of benefit of another person. And so that’s, that’s good that that has a two pronged effect. One is it can make you feel like you’re contributing and making a difference again, and forming connection with people around you. But it also takes you away from your own ruminative mind focuses you on another, and it can reduce those depressive symptoms as well, as well as increasing well being. So there are many different angles you can go at for it. But yeah, compassion can be a gateway to help open connection.

Sonya Looney 33:27
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is adult friendship. A lot of adults, it’s different whenever you’re trying to make friends when you’re like 30, or 40. Because before it’s like you’re in school, living probably near people your age in the same phase of life, like if you went to university or something. But then you have these adults who maybe they have kids are super busy, they’re working, they have their schedule is packed, and it’s they’re just trying to make friends, but it’s very hard to make time. And then also along those lines, it’s like, well, how do you deepen a relationship? How do you have intimacy in a friendship? And that requires vulnerability. But I also think that that requires compassion that goes both ways. So you know, speaking, I’ll just talk about myself for a second. It’s like, I have no problem being vulnerable, like saying, Oh, I’m having a hard time right now. I love offering support. But if one of my friends tries to offer me support, or I don’t want to go too deep into like, Oh, I’m having a hard time, but I don’t want you to give, I don’t want you to like say, oh, like what can I do or try to? Because I don’t I’m afraid of receiving that compassion. And that is a block and building intimacy in relationships. And I think that a lot of people do that. And even and this is like a second part of this commenting question is that even with receiving gratitude, if somebody says, Thank you so much for doing this thing for me, we deflect it or like I like your shirt, we deflect it. So like, we don’t want to receive gratitude. We don’t want to receive compassion and that is blocking us from developing these more intimate relationships. So like, how can people and I I work with that. Oh, I

James Kirby 35:05
mean, it’s such a fabulous point, you may Oh, my goodness is interesting, isn’t it we can be, you know, we can be so on the front foot at offering it to the other person, we’re just, you know, we’re almost Sherlock Holmes esque in our ability to notice something’s not quite right, what’s going on? You’ve read it there. But then when the roles are reversed, and it’s coming at you, it’s like, get the hell out of my space. What are you doing? So the way we give compassion, receive compassion, can can, there can be differences there. And sometimes when we’re in a group, we kind of talk about how do you show compassion? How would you like to receive it, and sometimes on the receiving end, you will get people say, I want space, which goes completely against the idea of connection, right? You’re kind of like, you know, when we see someone else we want to approach help, what can I do, but when it’s me, just leave me alone. Let me work it through. And sometimes that’s fine. You know, that’s, that is what we kind of need. But it is a way of creating distance and blocking. And also, the other person loses the chance to feel helpful and provide something you know, that could be of meaning for them. You know, there’s lots of reasons why we can block it one way is, like you said, you know, I don’t want to get into it right now I’m trying to do all these things, I’m barely holding it together, if I start to open up, I’m going to become overwhelmed with emotion, so now’s not the time. So that can be a reason, often people will block it. Another one can be, particularly if it’s from a stranger, it can be a case of, we can feel a sense of debt, because often that that help is kind of reciprocal, like, you know that that’s kind of like where a lot of that reciprocal altruism kind of comes from. So it’s kind of like, you know, I’ll help you, but because we’re neighbors, and I’ll see you tomorrow, you can help me, so I know it’s going to be repaid. Whereas, you know, if we feel like we’re not going to see them for a while or a long time, there can be a sense of, I’ll never get to repay that help. And so rather than feel the burden, or the debt, I’ll just say no. Which is also, you know, not not wonderful. But with those close friends, it adds, it’s everyone will have their own reasons, but it’s kind of the question we would ask in therapy is, or in the group is, you know, what, what’s your greatest fear of letting it in, what do you think would happen, and then you can start to explore that a little bit more and get get some of those, you know, really valid reasons. And sometimes it’s the fact that they’ve let people in before, and then they’ve been hurt by that person. You know, they’ve been hurt by that person who they trusted. So they trusted them that they’d let them in. But then they’ve gossip to other people about it. And there’s been that hurt. And so it’s kind of like, you know, some of the learning there is, you know, better keep my distance because if I let people in, they’ll find things out and share and people will look at me differently. And I can’t have that. I won’t be seen as James anymore BC, I’ll be seen as James, the gambler, or whatever it might be whatever the you know, the struggle could be that you’ve shared. So there’s all that kind of in it. But we often do struggle with letting Varian another one is at work like a classic ones with doctors, and this would be a shut up after this one. But in the medical profession, they stress to their eyeballs with everything that’s going on. But they’re often wearing masks to show that they’re not struggling, you know, because if they’re seen as struggling, or if they’re seen as having something going wrong with their mental health, they’re kind of seen as being a less competent doctor, and they will start to get less referrals. And so there are some really valid reasons why we don’t let people know we’re struggling, because then people will see us differently, treat us differently. And that can have really important work ramifications as well. Really interesting. Friendships or blocks, the friendships and what you said on mums. When you become a mum, that’s your loneliness increases initially after becoming a mom because you lose all those adult friendships.

Sonya Looney 39:16
And you’re sick all the time. So you can’t see anybody.

James Kirby 39:19
You can’t see or you can’t go out to the movies you got through all this stuff. And parents are very judgmental, unfortunately, like, you know, there’s always a sense of, you know, why are you co sleeping or why haven’t you moved them onto solids yet for, you know, why are you still breastfeeding? Like you get hit with all of these questions which have an element of judgment under the surface, which isn’t enjoyable.

Sonya Looney 39:43
I almost want to like, steal your time and do another one just on just on parenting and in relationships with your partner because I think there’s a lot there. I want to comment on what you just said first before I ask a couple questions about that. So like It’s hard for people to receive compassion for multiple reasons people should, if the listener, you, you’re listening and you’re like, oh my gosh, that’s me. Dr. Kirby said, Hey, like, we need to just think back to why this might be happening. Like, that’s what you would do in a group therapy situation, but just trying to understand where that’s coming from. And it could come from, you know, I have to repay this, like, I don’t know, if I want to repay this, it could be, this is going to be too much of a burden to other people, if I open up, I don’t want to burden them with my emotions. If I opened, if I open up, it’s going to be overwhelming. And I’m not going to be able to control have a sense of control over that anymore. Or like, I really this is this was fascinating to hear you say this, like my competence might be at stake, people’s view of my competence might be at stake if I receive support, if I’m having a hard time. And that’s that one is actually really interesting. Because, you know, when you think about like self determination theory, and like, you know, autonomy competence relatedness and like, why people set goals in the first place? Well, I need to prove that I’m competent. Well, now, if they say, Well, I, you know, I’m suffering a little bit, and now my competence is, is on the line, they’re gonna push it all away.

James Kirby 41:16
Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right. Wow, yeah. And that’s why it can be difficult to make really meaningful friendships at work. So you’ve got your work buddies, and maintain to be good at this. I’m one of these and it’s kind of like, we don’t do so well at keeping the bonds of friendships outside of work. And then all of a sudden, we just kind of fall into just the friends we have at work. But those friendships still, do they have the deepness to them, or is there still an element of can’t be truly trusting or vulnerable with this other person, because if they know too much, well, they know all of these other people in my work setting, and then that’s a real risk and danger. And so we play it safe, we stay in, you know, areas of conversation, which are without controversy, so there’s no kind of issues. But are they really the deep, meaningful friendships that are really important to happiness and well being? Often not, so it’s kind of like that, it’s not a case of they’re bad, it’s a case of we need all of it, we just need a diversity of different connections, you know, intimate, close friends, as well as, you know, work colleagues, etc, to help give us all those different flavors of life, which are so, you know, fun and different and rewarding.

Sonya Looney 42:29
I think you actually talked about shame. Like, if I, you know, if I like show my, like something that’s I’m struggling with, well, now I feel shame, I feel shame of either showing the emotion or I feel shame that I’m actually struggling with something.

James Kirby 42:44
A shame is a big one. So shame is where we feel like, people see us as less than, you know. And so that can that can show itself in different ways again, but humans are absolutely driven to want to belong to people be connected with people to feel loved, and supported by people. And shame is a strong disconnector, it makes you feel alone, people don’t want to be around you, you’re seen as different, ugly, less than inferior, and then there’s this real separation. So shame is a kind of really awful experience to have, and a lot of us will do things to or keep things to avoid shame. So we kind of talk about sometimes there’s external shame. So that’s what I think you’ll think of me if you knew something about me. And, you know, a good example often and this is some work we’ve done with LGBT iq plus people is kind of like, you know, I’m fine with my sexuality, but I’m worried about what someone else thinks about my sexuality. And if they know about it, they would see me as being you know, inferior or less than, so we call that external shame. But the reverse can also happen where you’re internally ashamed of why am I like this? Why do I have to be like this, but the people around you are very accepting and you know, would be completely supportive and in loving of you saying, this is you this is your life, you know, come on, then. So okay, it can go both ways, but mostly shame kicks off externally and then we can kind of internalize those rules or norms, but then through criticism, you know, really keep that kind of spiral of shame permeating big time and leading us to stop doing things you know, that we would value or really like to do like a classic one in our groups is because we’re in Australia with the beaches a lot want to get to the beach and swim but they always say to people will see me as a big whale on you know, on the sand and so I can’t get into my swimmers. And it’s like, it’s terrible. There’s something that you would love to do. But the the, you know, the shame is so strong that you think everyone will be looking at you in such a derogatory manner that you couldn’t you can’t do what what it is that you’d love to do and jump in the water? And of course, you know, one of it is they’re wanting to do it partly for their health, partly for joy. But it’s just, it’s a shocker.

Sonya Looney 45:09
Yeah, yeah, that’s a real problem. And whenever you just, it just, I think I just kept thinking about like self acceptance. But that’s a hard thing to do. Right? It’s like, easy to say, oh, yeah, just accept yourself. And you know, you can work to improve as well, but like, Accept where you are in the moment. But it’s not that simple. No,

James Kirby 45:30
it’s not. I mean, I think you’ve hit a really important point here. There’s self acceptance. But there’s also recognizing that, you know, humans rely on other people, like we rely on other people from the moment we come into the world to the moment we leave this world, we rely on support and help with strangers a lot of the time. And it’s a case of, I can accept myself, but if, if Sonya doesn’t accept me, in who I believe I am, well, then that comes at a that comes at a cost. And that cost could mean losing that support, or I have to go find another support. And as you mentioned earlier, it’s really hard, particularly as an adult, just finding new groups of support. And particularly, we’re very kinship, driven, you know, so we really want the supportive mom or dad, you know, it’s bi directional. You know, it’s kind of like, parents want the most out of us. But we also want the most out of our parents. And it’s kind of like, if we end up pursuing something that they don’t like, there’s a cost in there in that, and that could be a fracturing of the relationship for a period of time. So it makes it makes it very difficult sometimes that, you know, it’s easy to say, Oh, well, you just got to, you know, understand that this is who you are, and follow your dreams. But it’s like, I don’t know, if I want mom and dad out of my life for the next three years. You know, though it’s not, it’s not a simple thing we rely in, we’re regulated by people around us. And that’s critical. So we can have that element of self acceptance. And I’m all for that. But it’s also recognizing, you know, we need algorithms. And sometimes if that other person doesn’t accept that could be a signal find someone else, but it’s not that easy. Yeah.

Sonya Looney 47:06
And then, like, I think about continued contingencies of self worth, and like, approval of others is one of those things, I’m only worthy if other people approve of me. And like, that is so hard. Yeah. That’s a Oh,

James Kirby 47:19
it’s absolutely. And that kind of connects to that striving to avoid and fear inferiority, you know, it’s kind of like, I need to keep doing things around my world, to show the people that I am worthy of being, you know, connected with. And that’s a, that just puts you at greater vulnerability. We sometimes talk about submissive compassion, which is kind of like this idea that I have to be compassionate to everyone around me. And that’s my strategy, to not be excluded. So you know, you can always rely on James because he’s going to help you. And so it’s kind of like, or he’ll always make the time to come and help you. And so you’re kind of included in groups. Because they’ll know your help, you’ll help them when they’re having a hard time. But that means you’re putting everyone else’s needs before yourself. And then, you know, you no longer seen for who you are, but rather, you know, I can just benefit from you, because you helped me when I need it. So the friendships always going one way kind of thing.

Sonya Looney 48:25
I can’t believe how we’re almost out of time here. Like, I feel like we just got started. Do you have time for one more question? Yeah, sure. So yeah, yeah. So it’s, this is back to almost like the parenting realm. So like, whenever people have kids, there’s a lot of things that get complicated if you don’t think about them, or address them. And one of those things can be your own relationship. And I remember like, I was hesitant to have kids because I have the best partner in the world and like the best relationship, and I was like, Well, if I put kids in this, this is gonna put potential strain. And I don’t want it to change. I like it the way it is. And you know, you always hear people complaining about, you know, so and so didn’t do this. And all this resentment that happens between people, especially if you drop in a challenge. So like, I think compassion is such an important part of this, like self compassion, yes, but also compassion towards your partner, when everybody is just trying to do their best, and expectations are high, and everybody’s exhausted. It’s so important to give your partner compassion, but how do you when you are feeling like resentful or exhausted or like you wish they would just do this thing? To give them compassion for where they’re at? Because they might be struggling in ways that you don’t know like, how do we offer that and cultivate that?

James Kirby 49:44
I mean, exactly, you know, you’ve kind of you’ve kind of summed up so perfectly there it is. It is tricky, isn’t it? And it’s, each incident isn’t in isolation. You know, it’s kind of like he didn’t do it today, but he hasn’t done it. Three months either, so they have a way of building as well. There was a really cool study done with newlyweds. So, you know, they’re still I suppose, and that lovey dovey stage, but they got them to do practice, they got them to the diaries every day for I think it was two weeks, 10 days or two weeks, something like that. And then we’d do it independently, both partners. And they would have to rate their emotions for the day, positive or negative. And then whether or not they acted compassionately towards their partner, or received compassion from their partner that day, and what the research has found when, when there was a hit, where the partner said, I acted compassionately. And the other partner said, I received it, so that would be a hit. On those days, they found there was more positivity in the in the day for both partners and less negativity. On days where there was like a miss no compassion, and I didn’t, sorry, I’m not like here, whereas there were both misses, like getting given and I didn’t receive it, that’s when there was more negativity, and, and less positivity. But on days, where there was kind of a miss, where there was a sense of the person said, I acted compassionately. But the partner said, I didn’t receive it. What they found both ways was that positivity wasn’t higher, but negativity was less, in so what they kind of integrated was in that’s a really important thing. It’s compassion focused on reducing suffering, right. So that’s really cool that there was less suffering on those days or less negative emotion. But what they’re kind of indicated is often partners are doing things to benefit each other. And we don’t even recognize it or see it. Like my son yesterday, he was running around the kitchen with his soccer ball. And he knows he’s not supposed to do that. But it was done on anyway. And he was running around in our bench, like his head’s at the exact same point of the this talk got, and I just knew you’re just going to smash his head into the silo. So I just put my head on the corner of the bench, because I was talking to Cassie, my wife, just to be you know, just to make sure nothing bad would happen. And sure enough, he hit my hand with his head, but just kept going. But there was part of me that wanted to pull him up and go, Hey, buddy, you should think me right now. Just stopped you from suffering there, in your head against the bed. So on day, sometimes it’s hard to recognize and see it, although we’ve benefited from the compassion from our partner. So it does make a difference. But obviously, it’s better if you can both see and recognize I’ve received it. But you know, on those days where things aren’t going well, it’s sometimes hard, almost impossible to consider, or hasn’t my partner been doing anything during the day to try to help the family or help me that I wouldn’t have easily have recognized and sometimes too, the answer for that is depressingly Well, no. You know, but in some instances, if for the most part, the relationships going pretty well. You can find those moments, they’re just in the darkness, we don’t see them so much. So there are things you can do to help that but it’s, it’s it’s frightfully hard at times the relationship changes, doesn’t it?

Sonya Looney 53:13
Yeah, it’s really interesting to hear about, like, it’s like a lack of gratitude for the compassion. And so if you think about, like, you know, you hear all the time, like gratitude practices, write down three good things, but if you could, like direct it towards like, looking for ways that your partner display compassion, and be grateful for that, that might be a way to, like, shift the focus towards something good. Or, like, something I’ve done in the past is like, I know that I’m wrong, like I’m looking for all the ways that that so and so didn’t meet my expectation and you know, that not only in like a relationship, but just in general, like if you’re working in a group or whatever, and actually would write down all the ways I would force myself to pay attention to all the things that are going well because you’re negative, you’re just going to be zero. So zeroed on to like the negative, and like the confirmation of the see they didn’t do it again. And you miss all the things that they did do.

Unknown Speaker 54:01
Oh, bingo. Oh, I totally. I mean, I had that.

James Kirby 54:06
You know, like, why are you cooking this for the kids don’t eat there’s gonna be a nightmare. But all of a sudden, you lose hang on she went to all that effort made the meal for us for goodness, which enabled me to go for a jog and it’s like all of these things unlocked out of the things which are really important but of course that negativity but why did you do this now they’re going to be you know what I mean? Just past the bank. Most kids love that. But my kids whatever reason. Getting

Sonya Looney 54:32
kids to eat is a whole other spend all this time making even food they’ve eaten like 1000 times and then you make it like I don’t want this. Why

Speaker 1 54:47
it’s so tricky. Any don’t get me started. Yeah, I’m with you. Yeah.

Sonya Looney 54:52
Well, where can people find your book and your work? Like I just think it’s amazing that you see clients and you do research It’s just a lot like doing both at the same time, like, wow, that’s hard.

James Kirby 55:06
Oh, yeah, no, um, I mean, part of the research is getting to run the groups or do the individual sessions, which is great, but definitely don’t. My practice usually is only on a Friday morning now because I have to manage the, for the research kind of thing. So not as, but it’s still amazing to be able to do but I couldn’t imagine not doing both, you know, if it was just one or the other. But yeah, just if you just typed in James Comey on Google, choose compassion that that should show up. I think internationally, it’s more Kindle is the easiest way to kind of get it to not worry about posi channeling but you know, my emails are pretty easy to access to I’m not the best at responding but if anyone wanted to reach out of course they can and I’ll try my best Sonya knows how bad I can be responding I’m so sorry in advance.

Sonya Looney 55:56
I’m gonna and I’m gonna actually bother you again in like six months to do an entire one on just put compassion and families because I think that would be really helpful podcast, I would absolutely.

James Kirby 56:06
Say no, that would be unbelievable. I love that. This is like

Sonya Looney 56:09
the top of the funnel and now we need to start like sifting down a little bit. Yeah, definitely. Thanks so much. This was so much fun, and I learned a lot.

James Kirby 56:17
Oh, thank you. It was awesome.

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