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Today, you’ll learn the difference between fierce self-compassion and tender self-compassion. In 2017, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Kristin Neff to talk about her book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” and the basics of self-compassion. This week, I had the opportunity to reconnect with Kristin, doing a deeper dive into self-compassion and learning more about her latest book “Fierce Self Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.” 

​​Kristin is a leader in the field of self-compassion research, creating a scale to measure the construct almost 20 years ago. With her colleague, Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, and she co-authored The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook as well as Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. She is also co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. She is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“There’s been a lot of research about self compassion in athletics. It’s really useful for athletes, but athletes are afraid of self compassion because they really think they need to be really hard and harsh with themselves to perform at their best. And what we know is it’s actually the opposite. So if you’re an athlete, of course you need to have really high standards for yourself. It doesn’t mean you accept a subpar performance, but you accept yourself even if your performance isn’t where you’d like it to be. So what happens if you’re an athlete is you beat yourself up and say, ‘I’m lame. I can’t do this.’ Well first of all, you lose confidence in yourself and that undermines your ability to do your best. You create performance anxiety which also undermines your ability to do your best. You may create ego defensiveness. You may not be able to see where you’re actually making mistakes because you don’t like to think badly of yourself.”

– Dr. Kristin Neff

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Key Takeaways

  • What is fierce self-compassion
  • How does self-compassion work in athletics and competitive environments
  • Self worth: Self esteem vs self-compassion
  • How to teach your kids self-compassion
  • Emotions associated with each type of compassion
  • How to get angry appropriately and express anger
  • Listening to your anger
  • Self-compassion in the social justice movements
  • Sexual assault and self-compassion
  • Avoidance of difficult emotions without identifying with them
  • Reframing vs. acceptance
  • Strategies for practicing self-compassion




Sonya Looney: Dr. Neff, welcome to the podcast.

Kristin Neff: Thanks for having me, Sonya. Glad to be here again.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, I guess I should say welcome back. The first time we recorded was actually in 2017. And it’s really fun to get to talk to you again because you have a newer book. I think it came out last year, right?

Kristin Neff: Yes, last summer.

Sonya Looney: Fierce Self Compassion. So for people who haven’t heard our first episode, can you kind of give us a primer on tender self compassion and then move into what fierce self compassion is?

Kristin Neff: Yes. Well, self compassion is basically compassion turned inward. It means being kind, warm, supportive towards yourself, remembering that part of being human means making mistakes and encountering difficulty in life. And, also mindfulness, in other words, being willing to turn toward it, kind of face your pain as opposed to fighting it endlessly or trying to ignore it. And so typically, when people think about self compassion, they think about self acceptance. This is what I like to call the tender side of self compassion, the ability to just be with ourselves, to soothe ourselves, to calm ourselves when we’re upset, to accept the fact that we’re flawed human beings worthy of kindness like everyone else. But what I started realizing is people didn’t understand that self compassion isn’t always soft and gentle. Sometimes compassion can be fierce. I like to call it mama bear compassion. Right. So tender self compassion is mother gentle, soothing, accepting. Mama bear is fierce, active, powerful. And part of the reason I came to see that this was so necessary was the Me Too Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movements. These are powerful, fierce movements that are self compassion movements. Compassion is concerned with the alleviation of suffering. So saying, hey, you aren’t going to harm me, I count, too – this is really an act of self compassion, but it takes a fierce and active form. So acceptance is more about acceptance of the person, whereas the action is more changing either behaviors or situations that are causing harm. And we really need both.

Sonya Looney: I actually have a note here. I wrote acceptance of self versus acceptance of actions and how those are different.

Kristin Neff: Behaviors and situations, right? So, for instance, dealing with burnout. So self compassion has been shown to be good for burnout. Part of it is kind of accepting yourself, soothing and calm yourself limits of all your stress. But that doesn’t mean you should just accept your situation. If you’re being overworked and underpaid, you also need to try to change the external situation in order to alleviate your suffering. So it’s always both acceptance and change. They go hand in hand, like Yin and Yang. I talk about that a lot in my book. Yin and Yang – yin is more of the gentle, accepting energy. Yang is more of the forceful, active energy. And if you don’t have both, they are out of balance.

Sonya Looney: So I wanted to ask you actually, because most people listening to this podcast are interested in athletics or they are athletes in some way, how does compassion and self compassion apply in competitive environments?

Kristin Neff: So actually, I have a dissertation student right now who’s writing up for study. She developed self compassion training program for NCAA athletes. There’s been actually a lot of research on self compassion in athletics. It’s really useful for athletes. But athletes are afraid of self compassion because they really think they need to be really hard and harsh themselves to perform at their best. And what we know is actually the opposite. So if you’re an athlete, of course, you have to have really high standards for yourself. It doesn’t mean you accept a subpar performance, but you accept yourself even if your performance isn’t where you would like it to be. So what happens if you’re an athlete? You beat yourself up and say, I’m lame, I can’t do this. Well, first of all, you lose confidence in yourself, and that undermines your ability to do your best. You create performance anxiety, which also undermines your ability to do your best. You may create, like ego defensiveness, you may not be willing to see actually where you are making mistakes because you don’t like to think badly of yourself. So what happens for athletes with self compassion? It’s kind of like, yeah, okay, so first of all, it kind of does work. Like a coach screaming his head off at you, they do something right. It kind of works like it’s short term compliance, but in the long term, it backfires because if it creates a lot of anxiety, it’s going to make it harder to do your best. So if you think of it as a coach, first of all, because really direct feedback, this is working, this is not working. If you’re compassionate to yourself, you’re not going to pretend your performance is okay when it’s not. But again, the bottom line is you’re okay even though your performance needs some work. And what that does is it gives you a sense of safety to first of all, say, okay, well, everyone makes mistakes, everyone fails, what can I learn from this? How can I do better next time? So for athletes, for instance, if you’re like, let’s say my dissertation student, she plays basketball. If you’re playing basketball and you miss a shot and maybe it’s like a really important free throw and you miss it and you beat yourself up, well, then you’re like out of the game before you get your head back. If you say, okay, what happens? I’ll just keep going, it’s okay, everyone miss shots, then it kind of allows you to keep in the game and give you the motivation you need to keep trying. There’s a lot of research that shows it’s actually a much more effective way to motivate yourself than with criticism.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, I had Ethan Cross on the show talking about emotional regulation. Those are just for people who didn’t hear that one and about self talk and ways that you can work on that and have more self compassionate self talk, especially in competitive environments. This kind of brings me to something that you brought up in, I think, both of your books, and it’s self-esteem versus self compassion and how there’s kind of a hierarchy there. Can you elaborate on that?

Kristin Neff: Well, so you might say that sense of self-worth comes both from self compassion and self-esteem, but their sources are very different. So self compassion, it’s like we recognize that we’re unconditionally worthy just because we’re a flawed human being. All human beings are intrinsically worthy of compassion, care, kindness. Self esteem is a judgment or an evaluation of worthiness. In other words, I may be worthy and may not be worthy. And typically, that judgment is based on things like, do other people like me? Do I look the way I want to look? Am I successful at the things that I care about, right? And if we aren’t, then our self esteem takes a hit. So our self esteem can be unstable. It’s only as good as our latest success. And then the other thing about self-esteem is it tends to be comparative. It’s not okay to be average. We have to be special and above average to have self esteem. So we’re constantly jockeying for a position compared to other people, and that can lead to things like bullying or other nasty behaviors. We’re self compassion. It’s like feeling connected to others. I’m a flawed human being. Other people are flawed human beings. No one is better than anyone else in the sense that we’re all worthy of compassionate response. So the research shows that it’s a much more stable and healthy source of self worth. I mean, self esteem in itself is not bad, right? By judging yourself positively, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that a lot of people use unhealthy ways in order to judge themselves positively. Like, it got to look perfect or everyone has to like me, we still need the real inauthenticity and other problems.

Sonya Looney: There’s a lot of issues with hanging your self worth o a lot of different external validations, especially ones that you may not be able to control.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, exactly. Like getting older. Tell me about it. Right. So culture values youth and beauty, and as you get older, it’s an issue for a lot of women, especially women, because obviously society treats men and women differently. And so really, if you invest your self esteem and, again, what other people think of you or how you look or again, your ability to perform at the top all the time, then your self esteem is going to take a hit when circumstances change. And so self compassion is much more stable. And it’s really intrinsic. It comes from the inside, not the outside.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, I think something that’s really interesting is that your book is actually geared for women because women struggle more with self compassion. But I would say that in general, probably most people don’t unconditionally accept and love themselves without putting in some work. So in terms of – two part question – number one, how can we help our kids start with a place of come from a place of unconditional self love and self compassion? And then number two, like, what practices can people put into place to practice that in their own lives?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Well, really the best way to teach our kids about self compassion is A, to treat them compassionately and B, to treat ourselves compassionately. Right. So with children, if they get the message….so in terms of how you relate to your children, you really do need that dual message. I love you unconditionally. You can fail your school grades, and I still love you. But, compassion isn’t just about loving someone unconditionally. It’s also wanting the best for someone. So doing what you can to help them achieve their best. So it’s like, okay, I still love you even though you failed your math grade, but I really want you to do better so you can go to college to fulfill your dreams, how can I help? It’s a healthy attitude. And so children and we have research that shows that children who feel unconditionally accepted and supported by their parents are more likely to unconditionally accept, to support themselves when they’re older. And then also, modeling is a really important way to teach self compassion. So maybe you’re really compassionate to your kids and you never call them names and you let them know that you’re there and supportive. But when you drop a glass and say, I’m such an idiot, well, then you’re modeling that, well, that’s the way we’re supposed to be with ourselves. There’s something good about being hard on ourselves. And we do have those messages in our society. We think that somehow being self deprecating is like humble. We confuse it. Calling yourself names is not being humble. Humble is okay. Everyone is an imperfect human being. Self compassion is humble. But calling yourself names, judging yourself, it actually doesn’t help. And when you do that in front of your children, they do get that message that that’s the way we’re supposed to be; it’s a good thing.

Sonya Looney: So in your book, you kind of outlined different emotions that are associated with tender self compassion versus fierce self compassion. Do you mind outlining those for us?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So for instance, self compassion is, what do I need right now? When you’re feeling some types of emotions, it’s not a clear cut answer, but typically fierce and tender self compassion work a little differently. So, for instance, when you’re feeling really hurt, when your feelings are really hurt, or you’re feeling shame, it’s really helpful to have that tender self acceptance. That feeling you’re okay. I accept you just the way you are. This will pass. Kind of a calming, soothing energy. Or just when you’re really distressed, it can help to calm down with that sense of gentle acceptance, like a mother holding her crying child. But other emotions are actually more in the service of fierce elf compassion, like anger in particular. I write a lot about anger in this book, partly because of my own journey with anger. I, just, by genetics, have a disposition toward reactive anger, even though I’m not supposed to be. I’m a mindfulness and compassion teacher. I’m supposed to be Ms. Zen all the time. But I’m not. That’s just my nature. And for years, I kind of tried to give myself compassion for it, didn’t accept it. And then at one point, I realized, wait a second. Yeah, okay, of course reactivate can have a problem. It’s not like I don’t recognize that and try to control it if I’m hurting someone. But it’s also a power source. So anger is a very useful energy. It evolved to, first of all, it helps us be brave. It reduces the fear response, it energizes us, it focuses us. And that power source is really closely tied to all the things I’ve achieved in my life as well. And that’s the fierce, action-oriented side of compassion. So something like anger is in the service of self compassion if it prevents harm. It’s just when it starts to cause harm, that’s no longer compassionate. And yes, the line is blurry, and I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. But women especially, because we’ve been so socialized not to get angry or not to be too fierce or not to be too powerful, we’re really taught we shouldn’t be this way. And this harms women because it means we’re only half human. We need to get angry. Look at social injustice or global warming. We need to be energized and focused and courageous in terms of how we take on these challenges. Again, just trying not to cross the line into actually harming anyone else in the process.

Sonya Looney: That part of the book really spoke to me because I don’t know if I have a difficult time expressing anger, because if somebody has wronged me, I’m able to communicate. I do it in a very calm way, like talking in the same type of tone that you and I are talking. But I also think that when I do that, people don’t realize how upset and angry I actually am. And I’ve been socialized because one of my family members, female family members, is a complete hothead, uses anger to get her way, blows up at everybody. And I never want to be like that because I don’t want to hurt somebody. So what is an appropriate way to express anger and to have communication around your anger where people know that you’re upset but without hurting somebody?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So a lot of it is your focus is it to focus on the behavior or the person? Right. So the moment anger becomes personal, then it starts to be harmful. Now, it is true that if you’re angry at the situation and it doesn’t make it personal, people can still be frightened by it. So you do as much as possible want to try not to frighten people. On the other hand, there are different points of view on this. But if you feel that you’re angry and as long as you aren’t calling anyone names, you aren’t harming someone, you’re trying as much as possible to express it in a way that’s not harmful, you can’t really control other people’s reactions to you. One of the big problems with women’s anger is that people don’t like us when we’re angry and we want to be liked. And so we kind of start being inauthentic in order to get people to like us. So in a way, self compassion can be a radical act. It might say, hey, I’m going to be true to what I feel, even if you don’t like me for it. And that’s a little scary, but that’s part of where this leads, if you’re really true to yourself. And so it’s a dance, and it’s not either or. And you try to get balanced. You try not to harm people. But personally, if it works for you to express your anger super calmly and that’s authentic for you, that’s great. But if it’s not authentic, you may play a little bit with what would it look like if you were authentically angry and you express the fact that you’re angry. But again, try not to harm others. By the way, I’m not an anger expert. I’m not an anger expert. I’m just someone who struggles with anger. So don’t ask it all to me for total advice. So I’m just saying I really care about the issues because I know anger can be an expression of love because it means you care about something and we can’t forget that.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, it’s okay to get angry, even, and especially, if you’re a woman. And like you said, in our society, there’s a gender construct that it’s not okay to be angry. It’s not okay to express if you’re upset with something. And actually reading your book has helped me be a little bit more vocal about things that do upset me, not just in my personal life, but about social justice issues or just stereotyping against women and things like that. And it helped me feel like it’s okay for me to say something and it’s okay if people don’t like it and don’t like me because of it.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, exactly. That’s a little scary. But when you’re self compassionate, you like yourself. And again, don’t want to take any of these to an extreme. It’s also true that old saying “you attract more flies of sugar rather than vinegar.” So you have to also be skillful and tactful and all those things also apply. So it’s complicated. I’m not going to pretend it’s not complicated, but I think what needs to shift, especially for women, is that we need to be able to own our anger… All we have to do is own it. So in other words, the more we own our anger, the more we’re less taken over by it. So what happens is we don’t own our anger and we suppress it. We suppress it, and then it overtakes us, and then we just blow up and then we have no ability to try to mitigate its negative effects. But if we own it, I have the right to be angry. Anger is a natural emotion. It’s the self protective emotion. It’s Mama Bear rising up to say, this is not okay. And then when you own it, it’s more chance of being able to express it in a way that’s actually effective.

Sonya Looney: It makes me think of two things whenever you say that. Number one, I said just a second ago like, well, people might not like me if I’m expressing my anger or my disagreement about something, but it’s focusing on self esteem and not self compassion, then you’re too afraid to upset somebody because that actually could impact your self esteem and self worth. Versus, if you have that self compassion, then it is okay for you to say something that isn’t harmful on purpose to somebody else. You’re not trying to attack somebody else but just standing up for yourself. And maybe that person doesn’t like you anymore because of it. But you had to practice self compassion for yourself to say, no, I’m not going to be a doormat and it’s not okay to treat me this way or treat other people this way.

Kristin Neff: That’s right. Yeah. And so, for instance, not everyone likes me. I’m actually a little more Yang than Yin. And I’ve kind of accepted that because what’s more important to me is that I’m authentic to who I truly am as opposed to being a people pleaser, for instance. But I probably would make a lousy politician for that reason, especially if you’re a woman. And there is a double standard. Look at Brett Kavanaugh. He got angry and it got him elected to the Supreme Court. Whereas if a woman gets angry, it’s like, oh, she’s crazy. And so that is the reality. We can’t pretend it’s not there and we need to work with it. So what the research shows is if women are able to balance the fierceness of tenderness, like, maybe you stand up for yourself and to really voice your opinion, but you immediately say, oh, how are your kids? So if you consciously balance the fierce and tender, people are more accepting of a woman’s fierceness than if it’s just fierce without no tenderness. And it’s not fair because men don’t have to do that. That is just the way things are. It’s good to be aware of what’s happening, right? In terms of a lot of us, an inside job, maybe even decide, okay, maybe at work, I can’t express anger. It’s going to get me fired. But you can at least know you’re angry. Whether or not you express it, how you express it, now, that’s a matter of skill and tact and all those things. But owning your anger, accepting yourself, even though you’re angry, then that actually helps you be whatever reaction you have to be more authentic.

Sonya Looney: It sounds like just having mindfulness around anger. Like, what is the feeling in my body? Oh, this is anger that’s popping up and then learning not to feel shameful because of it.

Kristin Neff: And honoring it, that’s something. Honoring the anger, really. Again, how you express it is a a different matter, but honoring it, saying, thank you for protecting me. Thank you for caring about me. This is a form of love. This is a form of compassion. This is my Mama Bear who’s rising up. That in and of itself is really useful.

Sonya Looney: Yes. And I also think just like the anger piece is good insight into what value is being threatened. So you can actually use the anger as a learning process instead of just like this thing that’s just like there’s so much anger in me. And I noticed my anger, but ahh.

Kristin Neff: So anger serves a really good communication function. I mean, evolutionarily, the reason it develops, it is says something is wrong. So if you listen to your anger and what it has to tell you is what’s not working in this situation, then you can learn from that and hopefully communicate that to others.

Sonya Looney: Do you think that it is becoming more acceptable for women to be more fierce over the years?

Kristin Neff: I think slowly, yeah. I think a lot of our role models now are more fierce, like, in the media than they used to be. But there’s still a pretty big bias against women’s anger. For instance, the idea that men are agentic and women are communal, which is basically women are tender, men are fierce. It hasn’t changed in 30 years. There’s more acceptance of people breaking those gender norms. But if you ask which of these traits are associated with male versus female, that hasn’t changed. So that’s kind of scary because a lot of these biases are unconscious. So, for instance, a women do it just as much as men. Women don’t like angry women or women who are too powerful, or women who promote themselves and say, hey, I accomplished this because unconsciously it’s like, oh, that woman, she’s really fierce. Oh, she must not be tender, which means she’s not a good woman. I don’t like her. And we do it to each other, and we’re totally unaware of it. Behavior that should be totally acceptable in a man is unacceptable in a woman. And also the reverse. Right. So we have to remember, men are also harmed by the fact that they can’t be tender. There’s a reason only 15% of the people that show up to my workshops are men, because men aren’t allowed to think about things like self compassion. Oh, that’s soft. That’s a girl thing. Even though self compassion is one of the most powerful and effective coping resources we have available to us, men are cut off from this tool, this powerful tool, this resource, because of gender role socialization. So it harms everyone.

Sonya Looney: So how do we fix this? I know it’s a big question. Probably doesn’t have an answer.

Kristin Neff: I think it has to start with ourselves. It has to start with us just saying, hey, I’m not going to accept this anymore. I’m not going to accept these limiting gender role stereotypes. I’m going to consciously honor my fears and gender side. I’m going to try to balance them. I’m going to try to raise my kids to honor both. I’m going to try to accept it in other people. I’m going to try to be aware of my own unconscious biases. That’s really all we can do. But it’s a place to start. And by the way, these things also apply to race. All these unconscious biases and who’s agentic and who’s not, who’s supposed to be helpful versus who’s supposed to be in charge. We have to constantly question, would I have the same reaction with someone else of a different race or gender? And if the answer is no, then we got to really think about that and what’s going on here.

Sonya Looney: Yeah. That requires a lot of personal responsibility.

Kristin Neff: It does.

Sonya Looney: But I do think that the narrative and the dialogue, especially in the last two years, is opening up. There has been a lot of really challenging things that have happened and really bad things that have happened. But I do see that there are some positive things coming out of that, too.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. And so the whole social justice movement, I think self compassion has a huge role to play. On both sides of the equation…So for instance, if we’re a victim of injustice, let’s say my role as a woman, so I can see how I might be treated and fairly, self compassion, especially the fierce self compassion helps us stand up for what’s right. But also I’m a white woman. Right. So exploring how my privilege is kind of being on the side of the oppressor, my identity with being white, how that plays a role. And I think that’s where tender self compassion can be really useful, because we don’t want to face it. I mean, I’m not racist. What are you talking about? It’s like the shame is so intense that we don’t feel strong enough to look at it. So we just like to just either turn away, not a problem, everything’s fine, or we get really reactive. And so to really own up to the pain of that, you need a lot of self compassion. Well, yeah. It’s not me personally. It’s part of a larger system. Paul Gilbert has a great saying, “It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.” And that’s self compassion. We don’t need to blame ourselves or hate ourselves because we’re part of this unfair system. But we have to take responsibility. We have to be brave enough to try to see what’s happening and then really be committed to trying to change it.

Sonya Looney: That comes back to, again, acceptance of self. But you don’t have to accept the actions.

Kristin Neff: Exactly, right.

Sonya Looney: Your own actions.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Maybe you just did a micro-aggression. Right. And you don’t want to admit that you did a micro-aggression if you’re going to slam yourself. But if you can accept yourself, I’m still okay. But my micro-aggression wasn’t okay, then it’s much more able to say, oh, I’m so sorry, or try to learn about it or do whatever you need to do to try not to repeat it. So I think it’s just really important, this idea of fierce and tender self compassion, both as hopefully we’re trying to move toward a little more equality in this world.

Sonya Looney: And like you said, for both sides, both genders, both need to be able to access that and to try to balance perfect balance doesn’t exist, but just the awareness and trying to trend in one direction or another, whichever way you need. Yeah.

Kristin Neff: Self compassion is a process. It’s not about getting it right. It’s about opening your heart. So we’re going to get it wrong again and again and again. We just do our best and we keep on trying because it’s really how we relate to failure that is the moment of self compassion. It’s not necessarily about getting it right.

Sonya Looney: There is a statistic in your book that really surprised me. And correct me if I wrote it down wrong, but I read one fourth of women have experienced sexual assault.

 Kristin Neff: Yes.

Sonya Looney: That is a very high percentage.

Kristin Neff: It’s incredibly high percentage. Yeah. Most of those are from people we know, like a date or someone in a relationship with or a family member. It’s horrific. And this is partly why I was so inspired to write this book, because I had my own experience with someone that I knew and I trusted. He turned out to be a predator. I was so shocked and really just taken aback by it because I had no idea. Absolutely no idea he was. Well, actually, I say that actually there were hints, but I didn’t look at them because then I talk a lot about this, that as women were socialized. Oh, that’s just the way men are. Kind of sweeping things under the way, not really willing to look and see clearly because it’s uncomfortable. And that’s why women need to get angry. We need to be fierce because it is so common. Sexual assault, sexual harassment is so common. Just think about it, for years and years and years, we just kind of accepted it. Well, that’s just the way things are. And finally we’re saying no, it’s not okay. We’re going to stand up, we’re going to say no, and we are not going to let this continue.

But again, it just takes a lot of awareness, a lot of bravery and a lot of willingness to take risks and say no and just really voice when something is not okay. And by the way, I just have to say. it is messy. Right. I think sometimes some people maybe their behavior wasn’t egregious and it gets misinterpreted and say we have to be careful. One thing about fierce self compassion is if we aren’t careful, it can slip into, like, self righteousness. I’m right and you’re wrong. And if it’s truly compassionate, there also has to be an open mindedness to it, a willingness to see, well, I think that’s wrong, but I’m willing to reconsider it if other evidence comes to light. So it’s a messy process. And again, I’m not someone with all the answers. I’m really about how self compassion can help us through this really messy, difficult process.

Sonya Looney: Yeah. And have conversations around this. How can others to stand up for themselves? Because I truly feel like with sexual assault and sexual harassment, a lot of…I’ve experienced that myself, especially in the workplace. My background is in engineering and cycling. Those are both male dominated areas. And you don’t want to speak up and say anything because you’re afraid that there’s going to be negative consequences. And there probably will be negative consequences if you do speak up.

Kristin Neff: I mean, that is the thing. So there are negative consequences. And so any particular woman, what she decides to do or not to do is really her own choice based on her circumstances. Like, if you’re going to lose your job and you got to feed your kids, you can’t speak up, but there may be something you can do. The really important thing is internally seeing it and acknowledging it and allowing yourself to be angry about it. The real danger comes when we just sweep it under the rug. We just want to turn away because it’s too uncomfortable, and then things will just never change. But if you’re aware of it and you allow yourself to be angry about it and you don’t internalize any of the messages. I am not an object. You’re treating me like an object, but I am not an object. Right. And really just really standing up for yourself, then there’s more chance when there’s a moment where maybe you can do something that’s not going to have terrible consequences that you will.

Sonya Looney: I think differentiating between that and learned helplessness is really important.

Kristin Neff: Exactly right. Yeah. Learned helplessness. When you just feel, well, that’s just the way things are. There’s nothing I can do, which is really how women were with sexual harassment for years and years and years. And then finally it’s changing. The reason they call it the Me Too movement and the reason it is a compassion movement…so compassion is inherently connected. It’s not about me. It’s about us. Like the difference between pity and compassion – pity is poor you or poor me, compassion is well, we’re all in this together. And if you look at these social justice movements like Me Too or Black Lives Matter, they’re collective movements. And part of our empowerment comes from recognizing I’m not an isolated individual. I’m connected to many, many other people who are in a similar situation as I am. And so that’s another reason why self compassion can help. When you remember, hey, I’m not alone, it’s not just me, and the more people do start talking to each other and risk talking to each other and allow themselves to be vulnerable to people who seem safe to be vulnerable with, the more empowered we’ll be.

Sonya Looney: We briefly touched on if you’ve done a micro-aggression, but can you talk more specifically about Black Lives Matter and how this fierce self compassion plays a role there?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. I’m not Black, obviously, so I don’t want to speak for people who are. But my understanding is more from the perspective of a white person trying to come to terms with history of white privilege. But I do know, for instance, at the Center for Mindful Self Compassion, which is a nonprofit we started, amazing Black woman named Sydney Spears, who really did a lot of work on how self compassion can help in movements for social justice, kind of from the perspective of a Black woman, which is slightly different. But basically, if you just take the three components of self compassion and it works every way, the first component is mindfulness, which is clarity. Right. So in this situation, it’s clarity being clear what’s happening, whether it’s that I’m being treated unfairly or that I have an unconscious bias, I’m treating others unfairly. Americans do not want to acknowledge what’s happening in this country. We’d really rather stick our heads in the sand if we could get away with it. And by the way, clarity doesn’t mean you necessarily know what’s right. It’s tricky because you have to say this is not okay. At the same time, you have to be open to understanding that you may not have the right view on the situation. So I’m not pretending it’s not challenging, but you need to be willing to look and investigate. So that’s mindfulness. The second is common humanity, right. Remembering that everyone is a human being worthy of respect. So whether you’re Black or white, whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I didn’t come up with this. Right. Look at Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, these great social justice movements, they got their strength from saying these movements are based on compassion. We aren’t going to hate the people who have been oppressing us. They’re human beings, too. But nonetheless, human rights are intrinsic, and everyone’s rights need to be defended and stood up for. So that common humanity piece is so important that it keeps it just from being us against them. We are all in this together. All human beings need to be treated with compassion and understanding, including people who are harming others. And then finally the kindness…so kindness, where does kindness come in? Well, kindness in the context of protection or social justice, manifests bravery and courage. Right? There’s that quality of heart. So quality of heart sometimes is tender. But why do they call it courage, which is all about like a quality of heart. So being brave, being courageous. When you have that sense of kindness, it gives you the safety to take risks. The risk to speak up, for instance, or the motivation to do something to stop harm. A firefighter who jumps into a burning building to save people. This is an act of courage and an act of kindness and an act of compassion. So that’s more the act of quality that comes forth in these contexts. So I don’t know if that helps explain it. But again, it’s all very complex. And I haven’t even begun to talk about how power and equality and wealth inequality. And there’s so much that goes into this. My agenda is actually quite humble, which is really just to say that I really strongly believe that cultivating self compassion, this sense of kindness, support, warmth, protection, motivation, meeting our needs, cultivating this quality can help us deal with the complexity of what’s going on in our world today.

Sonya Looney: I mean, we’re not going to be able to give people all the answers. Period, let alone

Kristin Neff: A lot of people know a hell of a lot more than I do about self compassion. And I do know that it helps. So intentionally cultivating this quality can help give us the resources needed to take on these really big, challenging, complicated issues.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, I like that you had fierce compassion broken down as protect, provide, and motivate, because that really helps. That brings up an energy whenever you even say those words.

Kristin Neff: That’s right. Yeah. So compassion takes a different form depending on what type of suffering is present. Again, so sometimes what’s needed is tenderness. Sometimes it’s what’s needed is to get angry. Sometimes what’s needed is to say no. Sometimes what’s needed is to say yes. So, for instance, another way that women can struggle with self compassion is for socialized to be self sacrificing. Others needs come first. People like a self sacrificing woman. And by the way, don’t think that that’s by accident. Women are socialized to be self sacrificing so she’ll also stay in her place. And raise the kids and meet the needs of the husband without wanting too much for herself. And so part of self compassion is my needs count, too, not more than those of others, but at least as much as others. And then so sometimes maybe I need to say no to you and yes to myself. Maybe I need to follow my dreams or take those dance classes or whatever it is. Really asking yourself what authentically fulfills me. And being willing to spend time and energy and effort to meet your needs, that’s a really important part of self compassion.

Sonya Looney: Yeah, I think about that in relationships and even in my relationship. Like my husband, he’s an awesome guy, very supportive of women. He runs his own business and his executive team, he’s the only man. But there’s still just biases that exist, like we talked about, that you don’t even realize. And as women, I will find myself, because we have an almost two year old son, I’ll find myself just like, doing, I guess, people pleasing or just trying to make it everything as easy as possible for him, which makes me feel happy. But there are times where I realized I probably should have stood up for myself. Not that I’m angry about it, but I just realized that I didn’t put my needs first in a time where I probably should have. And it’s not his job necessarily to recognize that; it’s my job because he might not even realize that’s happening. And then that takes self compassion when you realize that to not beat yourself up, to be like, oh, why didn’t I stand up for myself? Or why didn’t I even realize this?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. And of course, because we’re socialized not to. Right. So much of this is general socialization. It’s a long process, but just awareness is the first really important step, just that you’re noticing it is huge. And then realizing that you have the right to speak up, that you’re worthy of getting your needs met, and that maybe your husband will like you a little bit less in the moment when you speak up. And is that okay? All the reason, of course, all of this is balanced. This need for self esteem, this need for people to like us, this idea that we aren’t okay unless other people validate us and like us, that does a lot of damage. If we really start to truly feel that I am okay as I am. Maybe my behaviors need a little work, but I am okay as I am and I’m worthy as I am and it’s okay if other people don’t like me because I like myself. That gives you a type of freedom that’s really just amazing. I must say that that is one thing I’ve gotten over the years of my self compassion practices is I’m a pretty authentic person. I’m not always tactful, and I would like to learn to be more tactful that would probably help me. But I’m authentic, and that gives me a sense of freedom that I just cherish.

Sonya Looney: I want to talk again about avoidance of difficult emotions. We talked specifically about avoiding anger, but I think a lot of people do avoid difficult emotions and maybe don’t even realize they’re doing it. Can you talk again about how that’s so damaging and how people can actually be brave enough to feel those emotions and to accept those emotions without identifying with them?

Kristin Neff: First of all, it’s completely natural that we don’t want to face difficult emotions. I mean, even an amoeba will move away from a toxic petri dish. So this is the most natural biological reaction. And when something is negative or toxic, we want to get away from it. Unfortunately, what happens, especially for human beings, is if we feel a difficult emotion and we don’t acknowledge it and we repress it, it actually just grows stronger. So either our body holds it right and it manifests some sort of physical ailment, or it like it gets depressed and then it comes out and explodes at one point later, or we become depressed. Or the other extreme is we get lost in it, we become really emotionally reactive and unstable. So all of these things are not the outcomes we want. So what we know is the more we can accept our difficult emotions, the less overwhelmed we are by them. So we need to accept them and also support ourselves through them. So for instance, let’s say, well, COVID is a good example. So all the pressure and stress and trauma of COVID, what we know from the research is people with more self compassion have been less overwhelmed by COVID, better able to cope with it. Why? Okay, let’s just take an example. Okay. I am so tired of wearing this mask. You have that thought, you have that feeling. So you could just fight, I shouldn’t have to wear this mask pandemic, and then you store all that tension in your body and it’s going to make you really stressed. Another approach to self compassion would be approach be, oh, man, it sucks. I really don’t want to wear my mask, but I need to because it’s going to help keep me healthy. So kind of like, okay, so I put on the mask and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s not as bad when you’re there with yourself, with warmth and support as opposed to just fighting against the situation or fighting against yourself. So just little moments like that, as simple as having to put on that mask and the emotions that come up, you can either acknowledge them, accept them, giving yourself warmth and support because they’re hard, and then you can keep going. Or you can fight it or you can suppress it, and then unfortunately, it’s not going to make mask wearing any easier. It’s just going to make it a lot more uncomfortable and a lot more stressful than it would have been in the first place because you still got to wear the mask or you get COVID, whatever. But anyway, we won’t go there.

Sonya Looney: What about, like, there’s the acceptance piece and then there’s the reframing piece. So, like, you just told two different explanatory styles of what you could say to yourself about the mask. There’s also the acceptance of the fact that you don’t want to wear the mask, you’re tired of it or whatever the emotion is. So, like, where is the line where reframing becomes an avoidance of acceptance?

Kristin Neff: All right. I like the term for that spiritual bypass. So sometimes people… the only way out is through. So reframing can be very helpful when you reframe the situation so that it’s not that bad. I actually looked at from this point of view, it actually makes sense. And that’s useful. Cognitive reframing is useful, but if it’s done to avoid feeling and emotion, that has already been generated… So we don’t control whether or not we feel emotions. We would like to think we do, but we don’t. Emotions are just generated by this mind body process. We don’t have a lot of control over not whether we’re feeling it. So if you use cognitive reframing so that we think we don’t feel this way, but the emotion has actually been generated, like we really are feeling the shame or the pain or the fear, then that emotion is there and our body is feeling it. And so what can happen is if we don’t acknowledge that it can either get stored in the body as tension and that reframing is kind of a subtle form of resistance so that maybe what happens is when we’re in a moment where we aren’t cognitive aware enough to reframe, that we might explode or it might lead to something like depression or it might intensify. Cognitive reframing is good, but it should be done alongside allowing yourself to feel and accept your emotions, not as a way to avoid your emotions. But we’re really tricky. We’re funky monkeys. I like to say we can fool ourselves very easily if we aren’t aware. You got to kind of try to see what’s actually going on in my mind and heart.

Sonya Looney: There’s a lot of mind body connection when it comes to emotions.

Kristin Neff: Absolutely.

Sonya Looney: Can you talk about some of the self compassion practices that actually connect that?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Well, so all of this, whether their difficult emotions or their self compassion, they’re always interacting with the nervous system, for instance. So we’ve got very simplified things. We’ve got two main nervous system reactions. We have sympathetic reactivity, which is the fight or freeze response. So when we get angry or upset, either at life or ourselves, it increases cortisol. It increases heart pressure. It can lead to things like heart attacks. So that’s basically when we’re agitated and stressed. But we also have what’s called sympathetic nervous system reactivity, which is kind of more related to the relaxation response, the care response, where we increase in heart rate variability, our cortisol levels go down, we feel safe, and we feel connected to others. So self criticism, which is the opposite of self compassion, activates sympathetic response. Self compassion actually calms us down physiologically. It increases heart rate variability, it lowers cortisol. So this is just happening when we do this emotionally. But one of the ways to practice self compassion that taps into this is through physical touch, because as human beings, physical touch is one of the primary ways we communicate care to others, like to a loved one or to an infant. When you give yourself touch, like touching your face or putting your hands on your heart or holding yourself, in other words, we kind of drop into our bodies out of our heads, it really communicates the sense of care in many ways, a more direct and powerful way. We’re actually working directly on our physiology. It is touchy feely, I admit it, but for a reason. It’s because it’s scientifically valid to use the system that’s going to make the most immediate impact, which is on your physiology.

Sonya Looney: So I noticed in your book you gave special areas like the heart and the solar plexus. Can you talk more about those areas and how you came to those?

Kristin Neff: Well, people are different, right. So people respond to touch very differently. In general, I found that most people tend to find the hard area good place to touch if you want to give yourself tender compassion, because our heart, we feel a lot of that pain. And the love, which has a tender quality, the solar plexus, which is about two inches below your roof cage, it’s like your energetic center. So, for instance, in martial arts, a lot of times they talk about finding your center, which is your energetic center. This can be really good for centering yourself so that you can take action. So sometimes putting your hands on your solar plexus can be good if you want to kind of ground and stabilize yourself so you can feel this fierce energy. But everyone really is different. We tell people, find a touch that works for you, which feels supportive. Whereas some people for fierce self compassion, they like putting fist on their heart with the hand over it, like strength of love. That can be a nice integrative type of touch. Folding your arms, the power pose, it’s kind of like your self compassion pose. It’s really just whatever works. There’s no scientific support that one type of touch engenders one type of compassion more than the other. That’s just my observations.

Sonya Looney: It sounds like you just have to pay attention to your own body and where you feel things. Yes, I noticed, personally, I was excited when you said solar plexus, because in a lot of the meditation practices I’ve done where it’s like you’re trying to focus on your body, they’ll say put one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. But I feel like almost all of my emotion in my solar plexus.

Kristin Neff: Yes, your belly, which is actually low, the belly is actually not a good place, especially because a lot of us have judgments about it. The solar plexus, which is about a few inches above the belly button, your energetic center, I find more helpful, but it depends on who you are.

Sonya Looney: Are there any journaling practices you recommend for self compassion?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So we have a practice called the self compassionate letter, which can be very attractive. Actually, one study found that if you write yourself a self compassionate letter for seven days straight, it reduces depression for three months and increases happiness for six months, which is a pretty good bang for your buck. Basically, a self compassion letter is, you think of something that you’re struggling with. Well, usually the reason you write self compassion letter is because something is troubling you and you write yourself a letter with the three components of self compassion. So the first is mindfulness. So this would just be kind of validating this is really hard. This hurts. This is what I’m feeling, kind of turning toward it as opposed to suppressing it, but also with some balance. You aren’t lost in it. You aren’t drowning in the difficult emotion. You’ve got some perspective. Oh, this is really hard for you right now. It’s really validating it. And then common humanity, reminding yourself that you aren’t alone. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this or for having a situation like this happen. All people are imperfect. All people live imperfect lives. We know that logically, but we forget, just reminding yourself that you aren’t alone. Very huge. And then words of kindness, which might be the type of thing you would say to a good friend you cared about who’s going through the same situation. And again, you have to play with it to find out what feels comfortable for you. So I’m comfortable using terms of endearment. I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you. I love you just the way you are. Other people that may feel a little too sappy, they might just use some other sort of language. But the idea is the language is warm, supportive, and encouraging, as opposed to, like, judgmental. And then if you do that, it can really dramatically change how you’re able to cope with the difficult situation you’re experiencing.

Sonya Looney: I’ve also found that there’s all these different great meditation apps out there, and then there’s lots of different instructors that talk about self compassion, and there’s both male and female instructors that do that. And everybody’s approach is different. So for the men listening, it actually might be helpful to listen to more like masculine leaning or identifying meditation instructors because they might be able to give you language. Or women who don’t like the ooey gooey part, finding more of a language that resonates with you because you have to find what works for you.

Kristin Neff: Exactly.

Sonya Looney: I have to say for me, that the ooey gooey stuff. I don’t like that. But for me, just saying it’s okay. It’s really basic.

Kristin Neff: Yes.

Sonya Looney: And then practicing it. And like, a lot of people listening, they ride bikes or they’re runners, and there’s a lot of judgment that happens whenever you’re out there if things aren’t going well. And instead of going down the rabbit hole of, I suck. It’s like just saying it’s okay or whatever it is. I’m sorry, sweetie. Or like, it’s okay, sweet. Whatever it is that works for you and finding out

Kristin Neff: Or I got your back or something like that. Get through this or learn and grow, you know? So on my website, I have a lot of both fierce self compassion practices, which are much more kind of that powerful energy, and they’ve got tender ones. Chris Germer, who’s my colleague who developed mindful self compassion program with me, he has a website. Dan Harris, who’s very well known. He did the app 10% Happier. He’s all about self compassion now. I was on a show a few years ago, and he was like, kind of skeptical, and now he’s bought into it. So his new book is going to be about self compassion. So there are a lot of voices out there, which is great.

Sonya Looney: I’m a big Dan Harris fan, and I actually heard that episode that you guys recorded. And one of his books is Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. And it’s really interesting to hear his journey. And I’m excited about that book.

So I have one more question. It’s actually about working with Chris Germer because he also is working as your partner. Right. Is that the right word or your colleague?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. It’s not my romantic partner, but we’re my best friends and my work husband, you might call.

Sonya Looney: In the business. The recent book was kind of fierce self compassion for women. Did he have any role when you were writing this book and giving his perspective?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Well, so we developed a lot of these ideas together. First, we talked about it as the Yin and Yang of self compassion because it’s related to gender, but you don’t want to gender them because that’s the whole problem, is that we gender these things. So we talked about Yin and Yang, the way of getting away from terms like masculine and feminine. And so we developed some of the ideas together. I decided to write… he probably wouldn’t have written the book for women only. Right. I think in some ways I think he’s glad I did, but he would write a very different book about fierce and tender self compassion coming from a man’s perspective. So, yeah, his insights have been great, but he’s kind of joking, I’m more Yang than Yin and he’s more Yin than Yang. So just because you identify as a particular gender doesn’t mean that you identify with the gender stereotypes of that gender. And then again, you put gender identity into it. Maybe you’re socialized as a man, but you identify as being a woman, and then your gender socialization really didn’t match who you feel you were. But it doesn’t match who anyone is because people aren’t just one way. They’re both right. Anyway. But, yeah. So that’s been really great. And he’s helped me a lot. But it is written for women because the blocks are different for women than they are for men. Men feel entitled to meet their own needs. Women don’t. Men are allowed to get angry, to speak up for themselves. Women are socialized not to do that. Men don’t, especially white men don’t face the same sorts of prejudices that women do. So it’s a different experience. One of the things that’s happening with self compassion teaching and research is it’s starting to become more instead of being just general, one size fits all, starting to get more nuanced. So, for instance, we have affinity groups for people like the LGBTQ+ community. They might have a self compassion group because the issues, the types of suffering are different if that’s your experience or if you’re a person of color or if you’re not physically able in some way. In other words, as the type of suffering differs, when you come together in a group, as a community, to practice around the shared type of suffering, it can be really powerful. And it’s going to look different. The language you use, the examples you use, how you approach it, it’s going to be different depending on what the situation is. And that’s really exciting, I think.

Sonya Looney: Yeah. Like, it must be really freeing for people.

Kristin Neff: Athletes, it looks different. Athletes, health care providers, teachers, it’s different. So that’s really what’s happening now, which is I’m just so excited about. I think it’ll really help strengthen self compassion practice when it becomes specific and not just general.

Sonya Looney: Can you give your website and any other places people can find some of these resources?

Kristin Neff: Yes. So if you Google self compassion, you’ll find my website. I have a self compassion test you can take. I have about 20 different practices, both fierce and tender. I have a lot of research on there, hundreds of research articles, if you’re interested in research. I’ve got videos that’s really a good place to start. And then I also link from my website to the center for mindful self compassion, which is the place to get training. If you want to take, you can take, for instance, a 10-week online mindful self compassion course online, through the Mindful Self Compassion, so that’s probably the best place to start.

Sonya Looney: Well, thanks so much for your time and for all the energy and effort that you’ve put out into the world Because it really has made a massive difference and there’s the ripple effect of that is just profound. So thank you so much and thank you. It’s my honor to get to chat with you.

Kristin Neff: Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun.

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