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Self-esteem is judging yourself positively—“This is me; I am good.” Self-compassion has nothing to do with judgment or evaluation. It’s a way of relating to yourself kindly and with concern, in an interconnected way.
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Self-Compassion: The Key to Psychological Well-Being
Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series Exploring the Noetic Sciences, IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion. Much of the work in this area can be found in her recently published book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (William Morrow, 2011).
Vieten: I want to start with a basic question, but since you’ve studied it now for over a decade, it may not be as simple as it seems on the surface: What exactly is self-compassion?
Neff: It is a deep question. I didn’t come up with it; it’s a 2500-year-old idea. I first learned about self-compassion by learning about Buddhism. The thing that struck me in Buddhism is that they talk about compassion for self just as much as compassion for others. When I decided I wanted to do research on the topic, I read every Buddhist book I could get my hands on to try to get an understanding of what this practice of compassion is, and I came up with my three-component model to define self-compassion.
Basically, self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness, caring, nurturance, and concern, rather than being harshly judgmental or indifferent to your suffering. What distinguishes self-compassion from self-love or self-acceptance is that you frame your failures, your inadequacies, or the suffering in your life that’s not your fault in light of common humanity. Instead of feeling Oh, poor me, which is like self-pity, we understand that the human condition is tough. Humans aren’t perfect, and things go wrong. That’s the way it is for all of us. Also, people feel isolated, separated, and cutoff when they notice things about themselves that they don’t like or when something goes wrong. Another aspect of self-compassion is mindfulness. To have self-compassion, you have to be able to notice and become aware of your pain. A lot of people say, “Of course I’m aware of my pain,” but actually, in our culture’s stiff-upper-lip tradition, we’re often so busy solving the problem we don’t notice that the situation is really hard, especially when our pain comes from criticizing ourselves or seeing something about ourselves we don’t like. So we need to be mindful of the fact that we’re suffering; at the same time, we don’t want to get carried away in a personal drama that exaggerates the extent of our suffering. Self-compassion is seeing things as they are—no more, no less. That’s kind of a long-winded answer, but it’s necessary to think about all these facets of self-compassion to understand it in a more rich way.
Vieten: There may be a mistaken notion we have been raised with that the way to succeed, to move forward, and to improve one’s self is to be really hard on ourselves—to say, “You didn’t do well enough there,” “Do better next time,” “Here are all my flaws,” and “Here are all my shortcomings.” From your perspective on self-compassion, what do you say about that notion?
Neff: That’s very common. In fact, in my interviews with people, the number one reason they say they aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they won’t be motivated. They’re afraid they’ll just sit in front of the TV all day eating Ding Dongs. We use the motivation of fear to escape the punishment of flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. It’s easy to see this in the way parents motivate their children. Let’s say your 10-year-old son comes home from school with a poor grade on an exam. If you say, “You’re such a worthless good-for-nothing who will never amount to anything,” how will that motivate him? Is that going to make him try to do better? That used to be the parenting style for motivating kids. We know now that if you’re caring and compassionate—telling your son to try harder because you care about him and his well-being and want him to do better—it’s a very different way to motivate a child. The same thing occurs when we motivate ourselves. Instead of motivating with fear and the fear of self-criticism, we can motivate with care. We try to let go of maladaptive patterns, to apologize for mistakes, and to do better next time because we care about ourselves. We don't want to be stuck where we are, especially if that's painful.
There has been a lot of research now on this question, and it shows that self-compassion is absolutely associated with more motivation, more drive, and setting high standards for one’s self. Self-compassion is also strongly associated with less fear of failure. If you don't have to fear beating yourself up if you fail, you're much more willing to take risks and try challenging new tasks. So, the idea that self-compassion means we won’t be motivated is totally untrue—in fact, it’s the opposite.
Vieten: It also seems that compassion for others is a value found in most of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions—even from a secular point of view, this is considered a strength—whereas self-compassion hasn’t quite reached the threshold of becoming a value and can sometimes feel a bit selfish. There’s also an old adage that compassion for others starts with compassion for self. Would you unpack these ideas a bit?
Neff: First, isn’t it odd that with compassion, we feel it’s okay to be connected to others and have compassion for them, but when we relate to ourselves, we’re disconnected? I mean, if all human beings are worthy of compassion, doesn’t that include one’s self? Aren’t I a human being? So there’s a weird way in which this dichotomy between compassion for others and compassion for self separates us and isolates us from the rest of humanity.
As for whether or not self-compassion is associated with compassion for others, it’s actually quite mixed. My research shows that many people are compassionate to others but not to themselves. There isn’t a clear link between self-compassion and compassion for others. There are a lot of people who are very caring, such as many mothers and nurses, who are really hard on themselves. Compassion is shown to be linked to other things, though. One very strong one is perspective-taking. When you have compassion for yourself, you’re taking the perspective of a “compassionate other” toward yourself. That tendency to take perspective, to see things from multiple points of view, is strongly associated with self-compassion.
Vieten: What's the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem?
Neff: I can talk for a long time about this one. One of the reasons I got interested in studying self-compassion is because it changed my life personally when I started learning about it in my Buddhist meditation group. As luck would have it, I did a postdoc with Susan Harter, one of the country’s leading researchers on self-esteem. I learned that psychology has fallen out of love with self-esteem. Certainly if you don't have it, you’ll be depressed and anxious, which is not a good thing, but the big question is how do you get it? There’s an epidemic of narcissism in our culture. All the emphasis on self-esteem over the last twenty years or so has led to the highest levels of narcissism ever recorded, especially among college students—and this is a problem. People who are prejudiced, for example, have very high self-esteem; that’s how they get their self-esteem—“I’m better than you.” Bullies often have high self-esteem, which they get in the same way.
There’s something called the better-than-average affect, which refers to how everyone needs to feel special or above average just to feel okay about themselves. For example, let’s say I meet up with you, Cassie, and say, “Oh wow, your outfit looks really average today,” you’d be horrified, right? You’d be insulted. If someone calls us average, it feels like a blow to our egos. What that shows is that we all have to feel better than average in order to feel okay about ourselves. How do we do that? We subtly put other people down, and we subtly puff ourselves up. We subtly find ways to feel we’re better than others to maintain our self-esteem. Self-esteem is actually problematic, and the research is now very clear on that.
Self-esteem is judging yourself positively—“This is me; I am good.” Self-compassion has nothing to do with judgment or evaluation. It’s a way of relating to yourself kindly and with concern, in an interconnected way. Self-compassion isn’t about good or bad—in fact, when you fail, that’s exactly when self-compassion is needed. That’s one important difference: self-esteem is a kind of judgment, while self-compassion is a way of relating.
I think the research is encouraging because it shows that self-compassion does all the good things self-esteem does. In other words, if you have high levels of self-compassion, or self-esteem, you won’t be depressed or anxious, and it’s unlikely to get so bad that you would fall into a psychological abyss and think about suicide. But self-compassion doesn’t include the problems self-esteem brings. Self-compassion is not at all associated with narcissism. It’s associated with interconnectedness as opposed to feelings of isolation. People who are self-compassionate don’t feel better than other people. Self-compassion also manifests better in relationships than self-esteem does. If you think about the fights we have, they’re often about our egos, right? And they’re often with the people we love. I could go on and on, so to sum it up, I would say self-compassion has the benefits of self-esteem without self-esteem’s drawbacks.
Vieten: What are some of the questions you might ask someone or we might ask ourselves to evaluate—for lack of a better word—a person’s level of self-compassion? I know that you’ve developed a measurement of self-compassion that is now widely used by researchers. If you would say more about this, it may help people to begin to differentiate self-compassion from other constructs.
Neff: Right. Some of the questions go like this. Do you tend to be kind to yourself or harsh and judgmental? Do you tend to feel isolated and cut off from others when you notice something bad about yourself, or do you feel connected to other people and recognize that you’re only human, which is okay? The different questions in the measurement get at the three core components:
- Are you kind to yourself or self-judgmental?
- Do you see yourself as an isolated human being or as part of the human family?
- Are you aware of your suffering in a balanced way, without ruminating or exaggerating the pain of what’s happening?
We ask those types of questions in the scale. By the way, anyone can take the scale and have the score calculated on my website.
I think it’s essentially about listening to yourself. Most people’s self-critical voice is so embedded, because they’ve grown up with it all their lives, that they don’t even notice it. So, notice how you talk to yourself. What happens if you look in the mirror and you see you’ve gained ten pounds, or you’ve messed up in some way, or the guy doesn’t call you back on a date? What’s the inner voice saying? Is it saying you’re good for nothing, terrible, that you’ll never make it, that you’re in some way stupid? Or is it saying, hey, everyone goes through difficult situations, so it’s okay. What is your inner voice like?
Vieten: Would you talk about the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual components of self-compassion? I work with people who especially need to address the cognitive component, reframing their thoughts about themselves. But there are also the emotional and spiritual components. Would you talk a bit about these three levels of self-compassion and maybe about how they arise and how we can cultivate them?
Neff: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common therapeutic approach, where you try to get people to ask if their thoughts are true and then perhaps to think differently in order to change things. Self-compassion has that component of mindfulness, but it is also about accepting yourself—even your negative, judgmental, critical thoughts—as you are. Self-compassion is about more than changing your thoughts. For instance, let’s say you notice a critical voice. Instead of saying, “I will not be critical,” you want to start to notice the pain of that self-criticism. Then feelings of sympathy and compassion for that pain naturally arise. It’s a much more organic process, an accepting process, than just trying to change your cognitions.
In terms of the emotional component, compassion feels good. It involves care, kindness, and connectedness. Something interesting about the emotional component—which we don’t know for sure yet, but lots of hints are evident—is that part of what’s happening when you give yourself compassion is you release oxytocin, that feel-good hormone which makes us feel safe, secure, loved, and accepting. When you give yourself a hug to support yourself, when you're kind to yourself, or generally when you just really care about yourself, you’re actually changing your biochemistry.
I don’t talk about the spiritual component much in my academic work because most academics aren’t interested in that, but, as I said, I learned about self-compassion in a Buddhist group. In my work, I talk about a sense of common humanity versus isolation. If you look at that from a spiritual point of view, it is the idea of no-self. We often see ourselves as separate individuals with separate qualities, as clearly bounded individuals. The spiritual path moves us toward understanding that we are part of an interconnected whole, that we are one point of consciousness experiencing this unfolding of life inside us and around us, but that we can’t really draw clear boundaries between me and not-me. The idea of a separate self is in many ways an illusion. As we gain spiritual insight into that, we are liberated from a lot of self-judgments about not being good enough and from striving to feel better than other people. If we take self-compassion far enough, it moves us toward seeing that, hey, I’m not responsible for everything that happens to me. I’m not responsible for the mistakes I make at some level because it may be my genetics, my history, or my circumstances. Everything I do is always connected to a larger interdependent whole. The spiritual dimension of self-compassion is about seeing others and ourselves as part of a universal unfolding life experience.
Vieten: We can take your premise—self-compassion is a good thing—and risk forcing ourselves into a self-compassionate stance. We can criticize ourselves for not being self-compassionate enough.
Vieten: It’s the same kind of process that happens with altruism and compassion for others. There are two kinds. One is altruism or compassion that is born of duty and obligation, and the other arises naturally from seeing things as they truly are. Do you have any recommendations to help people connect to a place within themselves from which self-compassion arises naturally—so that it’s not a process of effort but more of a natural arising of what one sees to be true about the nature of reality and our connection to others?
Neff: Learning to be more self-compassionate is obviously a big topic. I am working on developing an eight-week training program to help people do that. It’s important to recognize that self-compassion is not about changing yourself but about accepting yourself. Ironically, once you accept your perfectly flawed self and the fact that you have very little control—we have a little control but not a whole lot—you gain the emotional stability, peace of mind, and sense of care and nurturing that actually help you to change. It’s one of these strange things that the more you accept yourself, the freer you are to actually change in a nurturing way that is for the better.
As for specific recommendations, I like physical gestures of affection because they don’t involve the mind, which so easily goes off on a tangent and starts ruminating. So, I tell people to do simple things; for instance, if you’re having a bad thought about yourself, or somebody rejects you, or something is really hard, just put your hand on your heart or give yourself a little hug. Get in touch with the warmth there and connect with that feeling of caring for yourself. Some people have a very hard time doing this, and they have to practice it over time. I also think it helps release enough oxytocin to get that little boost.
I don’t have any data to prove this, but I believe that at our core we are caring human beings. That’s our true nature, but the mind runs amuck and scares that loving-kindness and connectedness with the fear and self-judgments of our competitive world.
Vieten: I separated self-compassion into cognitive, emotional, and spiritual components, but you are saying that there is also a physiological component. Do you have any studies on that?
Neff: Tom Gilbert, a brilliant man who studies self-compassion in England, is just starting to do research on self-compassion, oxytocin, and opiates. We can’t yet say for sure, but there is a lot of research on similar things. For example, when you give or receive a hug, your oxytocin rises. Giving or receiving affection raises oxytocin. An interesting study by Richie Davidson showed that people with higher levels of self-compassion had higher activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with empathy and perspective taking, so there do seem to be some physiological correlates for self-compassion. We’re still in the beginning stages of research, though.
Vieten: There is this notion of compassion fatigue for people who are of service in the world. Maybe self-compassion is one of the antidotes for compassion fatigue.
Neff: There is actually data on that now, showing that caregivers who are more self-compassionate are less likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. If you think about it, it makes sense. Self-compassion is recharging your batteries. If you don’t take the time to recharge your batteries, recoup, and reduce stress, you will burn out. Your battery will be empty, and you will have nothing to give to others. When you meet your own needs, you will come from a replenished and much more loving mind-set, and that means you’ll have more to give. Data shows that in romantic relationships people who are more self-compassionate--meaning they can meet a lot of their own emotional needs and aren’t reliant on a partner to meet them—are much more able to be kind, giving, accepting, and noncontrolling in the relationship. Self-compassionate people have more to give because they give to themselves first.
Vieten: As a parent and a psychotherapist, I’m interested in any data or suggestions on how to cultivate self-compassion in children and clients—as well as in friends and loved ones.
Neff: Well, there are a few questions there. To anyone who is a therapist, I recommend reading Christopher Germer’s book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, which he coauthored with Sharon Salzberg. Germer is a therapist who talks a lot about how he helps his clients develop more self-compassion. (We’re actually very good colleagues and are developing a self-compassion training program together).
I suspect that helping children develop self-compassion would be similar to how it would be done for adults, but there hasn’t been a lot of work in this area yet. For parents, I would say that compassion for yourself as a parent is important. My son is autistic, and I can tell you that if I didn’t have a self-compassion practice, I don't know how I would get through this. Having a child with autism is an extreme situation, but all parents encounter difficulty with their kids. My son used to throw a tantrum for hours on end. Other parents used to stare at him, and I had to stand up on planes and apologize to everyone and explain that my son is autistic. People would shoot me dirty looks and assume that I was a bad parent. It was incredibly difficult. I got through it by constantly giving myself compassion: I know this is really hard, Kristin, but you’re not the only one. All parents have troubles. It’s part of the human condition as a parent to have troubles and struggles. Some people can’t feed their children. That type of thinking gave me the strength to get through. The more you give yourself compassion as a parent, the more resources you have to give to your child.
Also, we do have a bit of data on the importance of modeling. Children who grow up with critical parents—whether they are critical of their children or themselves—are more self-critical and have less compassion as adults. But when parents model self-compassion—something like, “Oh, I forgot the milk. Well, everyone does it. It’s only human, and I'll try to remember next time”—children get the message that it’s okay to be imperfect because everyone is.
Here’s the beautiful paradox of self-compassion: by accepting yourself, your situation, and your feelings as they are, you embrace the pain with loving-kindness. Loving-kindness feels pretty good, right? So, even though you aren’t making the pain go away—you aren’t trying to change it—you are adding this element of loving-kindness to the suffering. I like to use the metaphor of dark chocolate. Why is dark chocolate so good? Its bitterness is surrounded by sweetness. I think part of the transformational power of self-compassion comes from accepting your suffering with loving-kindness, which allows you to be less stuck in negativity. That wave of loving-kindness holds the pain in such a way that leads to new ideas and insights and more capacity to cope. It’s so beautiful that it works that way!
Vieten: It’s also revolutionary in the face of traditional notions of how people get better and happier. So much of our psychological work has been about decreasing and eliminating symptoms and negative thought patterns. What you’re saying is that it may more about wrapping those symptoms and patterns in a warm blanket of self-compassion.
Neff: There is a lot of research showing that self-compassion is strongly associated with both happiness and optimism, even though self-compassion is all about accepting your suffering. Again, a beautiful paradox!