You only need to read a few of the posts on this blog to know that I am not a newbie at self-development. I’ve attended workshops in The Work of Byron Katie, The Sedona Method and Non-Violent Communication. I’ve meditated, and released tension with yoga. I’ve also read copious books by other writers, psychologists, coaches and one by a hypnotherapist.
I’ve got something from all of it.
- I’ve learned that nobody can make me angry, sad, fearful – only I can do that to myself.
- I’ve learned that I can forgive a person even if I don’t condone their actions.
- I’ve learned that it is my story of what happens that I react to, not what really happens.
- I’ve learned that what I focus on is what I experience.
- I’ve seen that whatever I dislike in someone else is what I deny or repress in myself.
- I’ve learned that it’s okay to have feelings – even feelings of anger, shame, fear, sadness, frustration and so on.
- I’ve even learned that I can forgive myself.
Overall, my life is far calmer than it used to be and most days I have moments or even hours of pure joy.
And yet, and yet… sometimes when things went wrong or I didn’t manage to handle something as well as I would have liked, I found myself drifting back to the feeling that I ought to be better at all of the above.
Then I read Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff.
Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas in Austin. She has spent over a decade studying the effects of having or not having compassion for ourselves, and has also had contact with other academics making similar studies. So when she writes about the effects of self-compassion, it is with some degree of authority. This doesn’t stop some critics disliking her book or calling it pseudo science. One reviewer cites the fact she references her own research as a reason to avoid the book!
In a way these complaints about Neff’s book are a reflection of the general self-hatred that fills our world. Early in the book, Neff presents an exercise that will reveal the extent of your own self-compassion (or lack of it.) You may find that although you are compassionate towards yourself in some areas of your life, you aren’t in others. At the end of this exercise she writes: “If you feel you lack sufficient self-compassion, check in with yourself – are you criticizing yourself for this, too?”
Is there anyone on this planet who hasn’t beaten herself (or himself) up for beating herself (or himself) up? Neff realises that, and so she gently reminds us to stop the criticism and to try to have compassion for how hard it is to be an imperfect human in a society that demands perfection. All of us are striving for the impossible. Neff reminds us again and again to be gentle on ourselves as we do that.
The Format of Self Compassion
Each chapter of Self Compassion includes information and research findings, Neff’s own experience, and a few exercises for readers to use. It’s not necessary to do every exercise to begin feeling more compassion for yourself, but if this is your first experience of self-development then it’s probably a good idea to do as many as you can.
The book begins with a look at what happens when we constantly evaluate ourselves. Because this is so prevalent, we tend to think we should judge ourselves, but the pain it creates leads us to lash out at others. Trying to evaluate ourselves positively isn’t the answer either: Neff describes the constant need to try to see ourselves in a positive light as: “like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, and then a crash.”
In Neff’s introductory chapters I was struck by her description of the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion. She’s not the first person to point out the dangers of the “self-esteem movement” that has created an overload of narcissism in our societies, but I found her definitions of self-esteem and self-compassion particularly useful.
Self-esteem is obtained by achieving, and often leads to striving to be “above average.” It emphasises differences between ourselves and others, so creates a feeling of separation; self-compassion emphasises what we have in common with others, and so creates a sense of connection. If we gain high self-esteem by creating a fragile, inflated self-image, to maintain this we must be continually pushing away anything that would cause our self-image to shatter. This feels threatening and exhausting, and self-esteem deserts us just when we need it most: when things go wrong, when we don’t win the glittering prize.
Self-compassion, on the other hand is there when we need it. Neff describes it as: “a refuge from the endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’”
With self-compassion you recognise you are suffering, that it is part of being human, and you are kind to yourself.
Neff describes the core components of self-compassion as: self-kindness, recognition of our common humanity, and mindfulness. [Neff’s italics.] Her definition of mindfulness is worth exploring: “that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.”
Many people avoid self-compassion because they imagine it will lead to whining and self-indulgence. But by Neff’s definition of mindfulness, this is not self-compassion.
This is something I struggled to see for many years, and so would get caught up in indulging myself in an attempt at self-kindness, only to feel guilt-ridden afterwards. I’m not alone in this. Only last week someone said to me, “I do have a sense of self-worth. I do believe I deserve a treat.”
Trying to compensate for low feelings of self-worth by treating ourselves is not self-kindness.
Eating a whole box of candy when you are trying to lose weight is self-indulgence and thwarts you goal; recognising how hard it feels to be dieting, soothing yourself and reminding yourself how well you are doing is self-kindness.
In the section on mindfulness, Neff includes exercises that can help you to use mindfulness and self-compassion to get through this type of painful experience.
Many of us criticize ourselves to try and motivate ourselves into achieving goals, but Neff says self-compassion is a more effective at motivating us because “its driving force is love not fear.” [Neff’s italics.] It actually releases hormones that make us feel more secure and able to act, whereas self-criticism does the opposite. It stimulates the flight-or-fight response and releases stress hormones.
In the later sections of Self Compassion, Neff shows how it affects various aspects of life: how we relate to others, in parenting and in love and sex. For example, in the chapter on parenting, Neff says that while it’s important to apologize to our children when that’s warranted, it’s equally important “not to be overly critical of ourselves either. Especially in front of our children.”
This chapter includes an exercise on how to develop compassion for our parenting mistakes, and suggestions on how to correct your children in a way that fosters their own self-compassion. If you are familiar with Non-violent Communication or similar ways to empathise with your children, much of this chapter will be familiar to you. However, the first step is always to have compassion for yourself. This, I’d say, makes any empathy technique far more effective. At times in the past, I’d get so caught up in trying to empathise that I lost sight of my own need for it and would end up feeling lost. Self-compassion is a bit like oxygen: air stewards advise that in the event of an oxygen failure we should put on our own masks before helping others – otherwise we won’t be able to. Now, our family as whole is just so much calmer than it was before I read that book.
Neff is a parent herself, and her son is autistic. She relates experiences with her son throughout the book, not just in the parenting section, and I think her honest observations are useful for any parents, not just those with autistic children. Neff’s husband is a keen horse-rider, and towards the end of the book she describes how contact with horses has helped their son. More unconventionally they took their son to a shamanistic healer in Mongolia, where, to Neff’s surprise, her son was healed of many of his dysfunctions. Neff stresses that he is not cured of autism and describes it as: “a gift, if you allow it to be.”
She follows this up with an exercise designed to help you see the silver lining in whichever cloud you may find yourself in. It is fitting that this chapter comes towards the end, after we’ve read about self-compassion. So often we try to see the silver lining right away, and that ignores our suffering and leaves us feeling unheard. In my experience, when we take care of our need for compassion, the silver lining reveals itself.
Finally, because much of the book is about learning how to treat ourselves kindly during inadequacy and failure, the last chapter focuses on learning to appreciate ourselves. Self-appreciation, she says, “celebrates our strengths as humans” while self-compassion accepts our weaknesses.
Self-compassion requires a radical shift in how we view the world.
If we look at life with the idea that there should be constant self-improvement it means we can never be enough, others are never enough, the world is never enough.
When we look at the life with compassion, there can still be improvement, but instead of right and wrong or good and bad, what is right here now is enough.
Does it work? Read my post from one year on
For an update on how reading this book changed things for me and my family read: Self Compassion: Does it work?