Self-Compassion: three doors to changing your relationship with yourself

Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion has been a major touchstone for many of us in the mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) field.  For years, her website has been a rich resource for information on self-compassion, updates on her research, and the on-going development of her self-compassion scale. Now, in her new book, Neff presents the details of what constitutes self-compassion, how it differs from self-esteem, and why it’s an important practice for all of us who want to live with more resilience and love more honestly.

This book is a welcomed consolidation of Neff’s work.  It pulls together her theory of self-compassion and she avoids the pitfall of self-esteem researchers by not assuming self-compassion as a unitary construct.  By Neff’s definition, self-compassion is comprised of self-kindness, realization of our common humanity, and mindfulness.  All three factors can be operationalized and therefore examined for their contribution to the concept of self-compassion.

Self-kindness is defined as the cessation of the constant flow of self-denigration, the stopping of harsh judgments, and ending of our internal war through relentless self-criticism.  It doesn’t stop there.  It includes “actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need.”  Neff points out that we are biologically wired to care, to provide soothing and nurturance.  She brings into the arena the classic research by psychologist Harry Harlow and the attachment studies by John Bowlby.  Studies of the role of oxytocin support the role of biochemistry in the forming of parental and social bonds.  And finally, fMRI studies show that self-criticism is associated with brain areas associated with error processing and problem solving; self-kindness is associated with brain areas related to compassion, showing us we are worthy of care.

Common Humanity is the acknowledgment of the interconnected nature of our lives.  It introduces the role of others into our life.  When we can see we share our suffering with everyone else and we suffer “with” them, isolation and anguish are reduced.  This aspect of self-compassion allows a differentiation from self-pity because the recognition of interconnectedness eliminates personalizing the suffering.  Neff pulls together the research on in- and out-groups, social comparison, and perfectionism to show how we create arbitrary barriers and an elevated sense of our uniqueness.  She addresses the complexity of interconnectedness and our fear of what it means to be part of a whole.  “Many people are scared to acknowledge their essential interconnectedness, because it means they must admit they don’t have complete control over how they think and act.”

Mindfulness is the third component of self-compassion.  Being aware of the suffering we are experiencing in the moment opens us to choosing appropriate self-care, self-cherishing actions.  Our tendency to run away from painful emotions, to distract and dislodge ourselves from the center of our attention causes difficulties.  Through mindfulness practices, we learn to be the sky behind the wildly soaring and diving bird of our mind.  Awareness of our difficult emotions can let us be conscious of choices we can make to prevent emotional harm through our reactivity to the person or situation.  Neff refers to our reactive thoughts as “pixels of light dancing on a screen” which is very useful in highlighting the fleeting nature of their existence. 

Neff summarizes self-compassion as having three doorways into our suffering:

  • Give yourself kindness
  • Remind yourself of your commonality with others
  • Hold thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness

Probably the most intriguing chapter in Self-Compassion is the one on Self-Esteem where Neff takes apart – rather forcefully and with some interesting data – the idea that self-esteem is as useful as we have believed it to be.  Over the past two decades at least, we have been entranced by the concept of self-esteem and there have been many programs that purported to boost self-esteem as if it was something objective.  Neff’s work stood in counterpoint to the claims self-esteem made as the cornerstone of well-being.  This must have been difficult given the massive drive to prove suffering was caused (especially among children) by poor self-worth and despite its role in confidence and self-perception never having been satisfactorily established.  Neff shows that the ability to adapt and be resilient arises more from self-compassion than from having confidence or a strongly positive view of oneself.  Interestingly, she quotes studies too that suggest high self-esteem, but not high self-compassion, is associated with higher levels of narcissism. 

Finally and poignantly, Neff writes about her own personal journey at the end of each chapter, using her life experiences as a means of showing how she has had to practice.  And, it also gives insight to the development of her thoughts on this aspect of being human.  Neff’s son is autistic and their story is documented in “The Horse Boy.”   The stories about her life and the challenges she faced create an intimacy with Neff that is at once confirmatory of our common humanity and re-assuring that her exercises do work.

The exercises in Self-Compassion are powerful; I have completed many of them and have felt noticeable changes in my approach to myself.  These exercises are also powerful tools to open up avenues of discussion and exploration in therapy.  Writing a letter to myself from the perspective of someone who cares about me, identifying the trickster of self-esteem who leads me astray, practicing self-compassion for my body have been fascinating journeys into self-awareness.  The exercises can be done repeatedly so they form a portfolio of an impermanent self.

If you decide to try the exercises in the book, I’d suggest taking it slowly and perhaps starting by testing how self-compassionate you are by taking the self-compassion test here.  It’s a good baseline and a motivator to start on this journey of being nice to yourself. You deserve it!

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