Kristin Neff: The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

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September 17, 2019

Kristin Neff: The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff September 17, 2019

Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas and the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. With Sounds True, she has recently published the audio program The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Kristin about why it’s so difficult for so many people to treat themselves with actual compassion. Kristin explains that self-compassion is not some form of self-indulgence or excuse for bad behavior; indeed, there are actually various forms of self-compassion that arise in different situations. Tami and Kristin explore the roots of wrathful or angry self-compassion, including the mythological figures that embody this concept. Finally, they discuss the most common blocks to self-assertive compassion and the necessity of taking occasional “self-compassion breaks” to cultivate a better relationship within. (64 minutes)

Kristin Neff, PhD, is currently an associate professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion nearly 20 years ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide. They coauthored the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive and Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. Her newest work focuses on how to balance self-acceptance with the courage to make needed change. In June 2021, she will publish Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.

For more information on self-compassion, including a self-compassion test, research articles, and practices, go to self-compassion.org.

Author photo © BonnitaPostma-2017

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The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

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The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Yin and Yang of Self Compassion by Kristin Neff Blog Header Photo

The concept of yin and yang is a perfect metaphor for the energies of self-compassion. Most people are familiar with the circle of yin and yang, black and white halves and a dot of each in between. The yin is the dark energy; it’s supposed to be more feminine, more of a passive energy, more the “being with.” And the white⁠—or yang⁠—is supposedly the more active energy, the masculine energy, doing things that make a change. But really these energies are not male or female, these energies are in every single person and actually all life forms.

A lot of these ideas come from Chris Germer—my close colleague, who developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program with me—and the things we have been talking about for a long time. And to give him credit, Chris actually⁠ came up with the idea that the main domains of yang self-compassion are protecting ourselves, providing ourselves with what we need, and motivating ourselves. What I have been doing with this model is developing each of these ideas in more detail.

Readers may know there are three basic components of self-compassion:

  • Kindness⁠—being kind to ourselves
  • Common Humanity⁠—remembering this is part of life
  • Mindfulness⁠—being mindful of our struggle or pain

And so these three components of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness take a different form, they feel different, and they have a different flavor depending on what form the self-compassion is taking.

For instance, when self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. The kindness is fierce: that’s the Momma Bear, “No! That is not OK. You will go no further.” Common humanity, that’s that “me too” feeling. We stand together with our brothers and sisters in strength, we are empowered by our connection with others. And then the mindfulness is that real sense of clarity, that “This is not OK.” So it’s a difference between loving, connected presence, and fierce, empowered clarity.

It feels different when you are providing for yourself, when you’re giving yourself what you truly, authentically need. In this case, the kindness feels very fulfilling and satisfying. When we give ourselves what we need, we feel fulfilled. With common humanity, we recognize that it’s a balanced way; in other words, we don’t just give to ourselves, and we don’t subordinate our needs to those of others, but we’re balanced. Common humanity allows us to balance our needs with others. And then mindfulness gives us a real sense of authenticity: “What do I need? Do I even know what I need?” When self-compassion is in full bloom while we are providing for our needs, it manifests as fulfilling, balanced authenticity. Again, it feels very different.

And last, if we’re motivating ourselves, kindness in motivation comes out as encouragement. It’s not kindness when someone needs to be motivated and they’re stuck, to just say, “Oh well, that’s fine.” Or to ourselves, if we aren’t feeling happy, to say, “Oh, that’s fine.” Kindness means we don’t criticize ourselves; we don’t call ourselves names, but we say “You can do it! I believe in you!” Kindness is a very encouraging quality. Common humanity kind of sees how things are related to each other. It actually comes from the bigger view of interdependence—the causes and conditions that come together to create our suffering. So, when we motivate ourselves, common humanity actually manifests as wisdom. We can see where we’re stuck, why we’re stuck, what mistakes we made—we kind of understand the bigger picture of what’s happening. And then, mindfulness, in this case, is vision. It gives us the vision to see what we need to change in order to help ourselves. So in this case, kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness feels like encouraging, wise vision.

Let me give an example of this last domain. If you care about yourself and you don’t want to suffer, you’re going to want to make needed changes. You’re going to want to reach your goals. You’re going to want to be your best self. I mean, just like a parent wants that for their child, we want that for ourselves. Also we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. Because, again, if we remember that the reason we do it, the reason maybe if you’ve ever been hard on yourself, is because you want to be safe and you want to be happy. And there’s a part of you that thinks maybe this will help. If you’re really harsh on yourself, maybe you’ll pay attention and remember and do something different. It’s natural, but it’s just not very effective, right?

So if you think about it, what voice is more effective? A voice telling you how bad you are, who’s belittling you, who’s really mean? Or a voice that’s encouraging, supportive, “You can do it”? We’re going to listen more to that encouraging and supportive voice. We’re also going to be able to take in what that voice is saying more readily than a voice who’s just shutting us down.

There’s a wisdom element, too. Self-compassion taps into constructive criticism.

What mistakes did I make?

How can I do it better next time?

That’s a caring, understanding, compassionate approach. What self-criticism tends to do, is it just gives us not very wise information. Just like, “You’re bad. You did it wrong. Do it better next time.” It doesn’t say what to do differently or how to do it differently. Or it doesn’t see the bigger picture of all the causes and conditions that led to this outcome. That’s actually pretty lousy information. Kindness, on the other hand, yields a kind of wisdom. “Oh, I see. I did this. Maybe I can try this different next time and that would lead to a better effect.” It’s actually much more informational to give wise encouragement as opposed to the belittling name-calling.

Then also, the thing about having the vision. What we know—actually you probably know this from positive psychology, is that negative emotions tend to narrow our focus. It limits what we can see. We only see what we did wrong and how we’re wrong. We can’t actually see possibilities because the negative emotion actually has the function, evolutionarily actually, of narrowing our vision. Positive emotions—kindness, safety, warmth—they have the effect of broadening our perspective so that we can have a larger vision so that we can see the possibilities so that we might get an idea of, “Oh, I can try this. This may really work better for me.” The research we’ve done really backs up that this kind of encouraging, wise voice of compassionate motivation is actually much more effective and more sustainable in motivating ourselves to change.

This is an excerpt from the Insights at the Edge podcast episode with Kristin Neff, author of The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion: Cultivating Kindness and Strength in the Face of Difficulty.

Kristin Neff, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a practitioner in the Insight Meditation tradition. She is the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. A true pioneer in the field, over 15 years ago she first identified self-compassion as a measurable trait, and now there are over 2000 published studies on its benefits. Kristin is a cofounder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and gives talks and teaches workshops on self-compassion worldwide. In addition to her research, she has developed an eight‑week program to teach self‑compassion skills called Mindful Self-Compassion. The program, co‑created with her colleague Chris Germer, has been taken by tens of thousands of people worldwide. Kristin and Chris recently co-authored The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, an immediate bestseller. Learn more at self-compassion.org.

Listen to The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion today!

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Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion Kristin Neff Pinterest

Kristin Neff: The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas and the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. With Sounds True, she has recently published the audio program The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Kristin about why it’s so difficult for so many people to treat themselves with actual compassion. Kristin explains that self-compassion is not some form of self-indulgence or excuse for bad behavior; indeed, there are actually various forms of self-compassion that arise in different situations. Tami and Kristin explore the roots of wrathful or angry self-compassion, including the mythological figures that embody this concept. Finally, they discuss the most common blocks to self-assertive compassion and the necessity of taking occasional “self-compassion breaks” to cultivate a better relationship within. (64 minutes)

Kristin Neff: The Liberating Power of Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff is a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas and a practitioner of Buddhist meditation. The book and documentary The Horse Boy chronicle Kristin and her family’s extraordinary journey to help her autistic son. With Sounds True, Kristin has created the audio program Self-Compassion Step by Step, which includes clinical evidence of the importance of self-compassion along with techniques and exercises for cultivating this pivotal quality. In this interview, Tami Simon and Kristin talk about the vital distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, three pillars of self-compassion, ‘self-compassion breaks,’ and the importance of recognizing our common humanity during difficulties that feel unique and isolating. (68 minutes)

Tami’s Takeaway
In any moment of self-criticism or self-blame, a “go-to move” that is immediately effective and state-changing is to gently touch your arm, stroke your face, or place your hand on your heart (any form of soothing touch). This activates our mammalian “tend and befriend” system, releases oxytocin, and shifts us out of the threat-defense system. Try it next time you feel self-critical. Gently touching your body can shift your state of mind—fast!

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Be What You Want to Receive: Three Ways to Experiment ...

At a time when we’re marinating in trauma and dealing with the test of a lifetime, we all wish things were different. When what we want from life is a million mile march from what it actually is, it can seem like we need a massive intervention to keep facing what’s at hand. 

But research shows that small things can make a big difference. Just like stress is cumulative, so are the daily steps we take to grow and give.

Microdoses of bravery add up. To start, consider moving from asking what will the world offer me, to what will I offer the world? Tiny bits of strategic courage are sources of nourishment that can help you become what you want to receive. 

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is a tall order, but worth doing. Microdosing bravery can help us build the strength and stamina that helps us heal, create, and liberate from fear, despair, and isolation. 

Here are three ways you can experiment with microdosing bravery including journal prompts for reflection.

Worth the Risk - Be What You Want to Receive

 

BE LOVE. 

Loneliness is being called “the new smoking,” a modern health risk. For some, the global pandemic has strengthened relationships, allowing for bonding and teamwork like never before. For others, it’s wreaked havoc: leading to feeling smothered and stuck. For those living alone, distancing has been brutal, making love feel far from reach. Loss, whether through death, divorce, breakups, or other factors, singes our hearts. We can become avoidant and skeptical of our future potential to love and be loved. 

When we strive to embody love, it’s essential to keep an open mind and heart. Loving connections are protective factors to our well-being. Consider these microdoses of bravery to strengthen your relationships, your sense of belonging, and the co-creation of new love paradigms in your life:

  • Get real. Go through your friends on social media and make a list of all the real people in your life with whom you can be yourself. Make a conscious effort to spend time outside of social media. Thank them for being so real to you and vow you’ll do the same.
  • Spark connection. Initiate a conversation with a partner or friend to see if you can build greater intimacy or camaraderie. To improve your connection, ask them what would mean a lot to them, and offer your own thoughts too.
  • Seek affinity relationships. Write a short poem or essay about yourself to clarify your various identities and then seek an affinity connection. Invite that person for coffee. Don’t shy away from sharing yourself and nudging them to do the same.
  • Be innovative. Create your own bravery microdose to help you be love.

Take note:

Write down what you chose to do and reflect on how it cultivated love in your life. Consider sharing this with someone you trust to help you maximize your efforts.

BE HEALING. 

The level of trauma at hand has ravaged our lives, making healing feel elusive on a good day, impossible on a bad. Given the magnitude of suffering at hand, healing should not be trivialized as a three-step process. Healing requires enormous courage. Microdosing bravery can help us reach out and tap in to the many forms of restoration available to us.  

Understanding how resilience works is a helpful way to begin healing. Gone are the days when it was viewed as a character trait—something you’re born with or not. There’s a lot of hype about being gritty and never letting anyone see you sweat that gets in the way of us finding the right support. Here are some ways to microdose bravery to foster healing and build resilience:

  • Recognize you’re not alone. The biggest lie our difficulties tell us is that we’re the only ones dealing with such intense suffering. All of us are living in a global mental health crisis, with exorbitant pressures and crushing circumstances. Suffering is part of our shared humanity. Finding solidarity and safe community can serve as a catalyst to healing. As we get traction in our own healing process, our acts of courage can be nourishing and healing to those around us.
  • Self-advocate. Healing requires intentional change in our communication. Many of us are comfortable and willing to give help, but few are asking for it. Identify one trusted person in your life that you know has the emotional maturity and skills to listen and support you. Tell them what you’re going through and work with them to identify potential roads toward healing, such as therapy, strategic behavioral change, and targeted self-care.
  • Set boundaries. Untreated trauma and unresolved issues can haunt us and impair the quality of our lives. By paying attention to what we say yes and no to, we can ensure we are leaving space for growth after we’ve gone through significant stressors. Find language to courageously share what you can commit to, and what you cannot. Enlist support to help you firmly protect your time so that you can devote attention to healing and restoration.
  • Identify resources. Take some time to scan your direct environment for things that nurture and sustain you. Select one or two things that can be microdosed to build your bravery.

Take note:

Write down things that help you experience healing. How can you continue to build off this?

BE A LIBERATOR. 

Society can project a lot onto us, caging us into patterns of conformity that can become harmful. Freedom to live as our truest selves isn’t something that comes with safety or ease. The work of unhooking from social prescriptions and ills can be fraught and exhausting. Still, when we find the courage to call out injustice and fight for a more humane world, we can experience exuberance and help change paradigms.

When we strive to liberate, we realize that we must dismantle oppression. That we must advocate for inclusivity and human reverence, particularly for social identities that are marginalized and harmed. Constrained living hinders human progress, individually and collectively. Consider these microdoses of bravery to liberate from social constructs that are harmful:

  • Let go. Take inventory of so-called social “norms” and become less apt to cower in the face of social impositions that are dismissive and destructive toward “difference.” Embrace your own multidimensionality, and that of humanity.
  • Speak up. We all have opportunities to be active contributors rather than passive bystanders in the world. Practicing accountability means that we call out injustice and work to eradicate forms of human suffering and imprisonment—whether based on race, gender, orientation, age, place of origin, or other social identity categories.
  • Practice human reverence. Move from me to we. See the glory and wonder across the human spectrum. Honor varied identities and perspectives. Work to find and engage in diverse relationships, rather than staying insular or spending time with those that look like, love like, and think like you. Become a liberator by standing fervently with those who’ve been marginalized, oppressed, or discriminated against. Seek ways to forge change, bit by bit.
  • Break Free. Create your own bravery microdose to help you liberate.

Take note:

What do you need to be liberated from? Do you know someone who is struggling in a similar way? How might you join forces and work together to become freer?

Author Kristen LeeKristen Lee, EdD, LICSW, is an award-winning Behavioral Science and Leadership professor, clinician, researcher, activist, comedian, author of Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World, and host of Crackin’ Up. She has over two decades of clinical experience in mental health, and twelve years of teaching and leadership roles in higher education, focusing on underserved populations. She leads the Behavior Science program at Northeastern University. For more, visit kristenlee.com.

 

 

 

 

Book - Worth the Risk

 

Learn More

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Microdosing Bravery

Kristen Lee, EdD, LICSW, is an award-winning behavioral science and leadership professor, clinician, researcher, activist, comedian, and the author of Reset, Mentalligence, and with Sounds True, her newest book, Worth the Risk. The host of Crackin’ Up, she has over two decades of clinical experience in mental health and twelve years of teaching and leadership roles in higher education, focusing on underserved populations. She leads the Behavior Science program at Northeastern University. 

In this podcast, Kristen Lee joins Sounds True founder Tami Simon to talk about how strategically “microdosing” risk can cultivate courage and resilience in the face of challenge and adversity. Kristen and Tami discuss: embodying a sense of gumption and spirit; bringing mental health out of the shadows; measuring our risks against our values; how risk can nurture resilience; the importance of safe relationships; finding the right balance between being on the edge and being safe; anxiety as a “frenemy,” and how self-acceptance and compassion support healing and change; microdosing bravery in our creative pursuits; freeing ourselves from the need for external validation; moving from being a spectator to an active changemaker in the world and looking for ways we can begin our own process of active contribution; confronting your biases and prejudices; the illusion of perfection; the cult of overachievement; the new psychological safety; and more.

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