Self Compassion - Kristen Neff on the benefits of Kindness

If ever you needed to see the benefits of someone practicing what they preach, look no further than Kristin Neff. Describing herself as a ‘self-compassion evangelist’, Kristen’s career has been devoted to the study of self-compassion and the benefits that practicing self-compassion can bring.  As a case in point, some time zone confusion led to us calling Kristen for an interview an hour earlier than planned. Picking up the unexpected phone call at 8am in Austin, Texas – ‘Oh yeah that’s fine we can go ahead now’ she says breezily.

Kristen’s journey into the world of self-compassion came about as she was completing a PhD at Berkeley, a pressure-filled period which had her feeling ‘pretty stressed out’. To remedy it Kristin thought she would try some Buddhist meditation, ‘the very first night I went to this group the leader talked the importance of being compassionate to yourself as well as others’.

It was a turning point for Kristen, ‘I pretty much immediately started trying to be kinder to myself’ she says, ‘and it is not an exaggeration to say it changed my life. It really changed how I related to myself and therefore how I was able to relate to my life experience’.

The three component model for compassion

As little research in the area had been done, Kristin set about finding a way to codify the Buddhist texts that she was immersing herself in, in order to come up with an academic model to measure self-compassion. The working definition of self-compassion arrived at with has three components: ‘The first is “Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement”’ she says ‘and that means treating yourself just like you would treat a friend - with a caring, supportive attitude - and actively soothing and comforting yourself instead of harshly criticising yourself’.

The second element she defines as ‘Common Humanity vs. Isolation’ – ‘the sense of common humanity is essential to what compassion is’ she says ‘it is recognising that suffering is part of the human condition’. This is especially evident when things don’t go to plan: ‘when we face difficulty in our lives, we often immediately think – something is wrong, this shouldn’t be happening – we feel isolated and feel as if everybody else is having a better time of it’. That line of response promotes a sense of disconnection and isolation suggests Kristin, ‘whereas if you look frame your experience in light of the shared human experience then suffering can actually be a way to connect you with others’.

The final component of the model looks at where we sit on the scale of ‘Mindfulness vs. Over-identification’. ‘I really feel like you need some mindfulness in order to be self-compassionate’ says Kristin, ‘you need to notice your suffering… often we can be lost in our own self-judgement or in problem-solving that we don’t even tune into our own pain’. Mindfulness practice can offer a way to ‘turn towards the pain, and be with it, but also not exaggerate it and run away with a dramatic storyline about how terrible this is’ she suggests.

A culture of competition

While being mindful, being kind to ourselves, and recognising our common humanity may sound like very simple tasks, the reality is anything but.  ‘Compassion is part of our biological heritage’ says Kristin, ‘it is built into our brains’. But then why do we find it so difficult to regularly feel that way? ‘In Western culture we have a very competitive ethos’ says Kristin, ‘just think of sports culture where you have to be number one to win. But I would hesitate to say that it is just a Western phenomenon. In Japan for example, they really value modesty. But most people think that they are more modest than average – so it is kind of a twisted thing – it becomes a competition to be more modest than average’.

A culture built upon competitiveness and comparison – whether that is for money or for modesty – cannot be a healthy one suggests Kristin. ‘Most people don’t get their self-worth from being a human being’, she says ‘they get it from being special and above average, and that can link in to being narcissistic and superior. And in that system, self-worth is totally contingent. When they succeed they feel a sense of self-worth, but when they fail then it goes out the window’.

‘If you get your sense of self-worth though comparing yourself with others then you are doomed from the start. Because it is very unlikely that you will be happy being average – you’ll want to be above average. And the reality is that we can’t all be above average at everything all the time’.

A culture of compassion

The alternative then is to work towards a sense of self-worth that does not stem from competition or comparison – a kind of intrinsic sense of self-worth, and Kristin believes that is possible if we open our hearts and minds to embracing a more compassionate worldview.

‘That is why self-compassion research is proving to be so much more stable’ she says ‘because it is there when you fail as well as when as you succeed’.

‘If you think about how we were in child-rearing – we had this motto of “spare the rod and spoil the child”. And now there is enough evidence to show that the rod doesn’t help children to grow to be healthy and happy, it makes them insecurely attached. And you need to reason with your child as opposed to punishing them. People have gotten that picture, especially when it comes to children, but not when it comes to themselves. So we still have that harsh mentality to ourselves even though we know it doesn’t work very well. It has so many adverse consequences in the long run’.

Kristen has developed a system workshops and training programmes that are running across the world, which teach people essential skills in self-compassion. ‘Usually the people that come to my workshops are mindfulness practitioners, therapists, and health care professionals. They tend to be people that have mastered being compassionate to others, but I find that I’ll meet people that are often very self-critical’ she says, ‘often they have used self-criticism through their lives, thinking that it is the way to keep themselves in line. And that works to an extent – self-criticism may have helped them get through school and do many other things, but now they are really ready to learn a more effective way to motivate themselves. There is research to show that the number one block to self-compassion is a belief that it will undermine your motivation, or that being more compassionate will make you passive or complacent. And the research is showing the opposite in fact, that self-criticism is not a good motivator at all’.

Building a practice of compassion

‘Most people have a lot of experience in being compassionate, especially to others. They know what to say, they know what tone of voice to use, and they know how to be encouraging and supportive. So often a really simple exercise is to think: what if you had a close friend who was in this exact same situation? What would you say? And how would you say it? People can then access that and practice treating themselves in this way. It does feel a little weird at first, but it does become habitual. You start noticing when you are harsh with yourself, and after you build the habit, it feels more natural to be friendly and supportive to yourself’.

‘I have been surprised because it seems to be easier than I thought it would be for people to learn to be self-compassionate. Granted, these are people who are coming to the workshops, so they have made some internal decision that they are ready to make the change’.

‘Another really easy way to access self-compassion is physiologically. Dacher Keltner is a professor working out of UC Berkeley and he finds that there are three main triggers of the compassion response. They are physical warmth, gentle touch, and soothing vocalisation. We share this with all other mammals. This is something that we are programmed to respond to. We feel safe and we release oxytocin and it allows us to feel a sense of compassion and bonding’.

‘So when we feel upset it is useful for us to find some physical gesture. Like putting our hand on our heart, or holding our own hands together, or self-hugging – people are really different in terms of what feels soothing so people need to experiment a little to find what works for them. But often just the simple physical touch – feeling the warmth and gentle pressure of your hands – is enough to change your physiology to activate this self-soothing system that paves the way for more compassionate language’.

‘Sometimes our head cannot go there because it is too full of the storyline – I am terrible, or the situation is awful – but if you put your hands on your heart and if you can say – hey it’s going to be OK, I’m here for you – and then it makes it a lot easier to turn on that system. And I always have to warn – it feels weird, it feels touchy-feely - but it works. You are using touch to calm down the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system and make it easier to use compassionate language. So gentle touch, thinking of the kind of advice that you would give to a friend, and speaking to yourself in the way you would speak to a friend that you cared about – especially with a warm tone – these are steps that can be easy enough to access and can be tremendously powerful’.

The benefits of developing a more compassionate worldview seem plentiful, both to ourselves and to the wider society. ‘‘When people feel really threatened then all their compassionate instincts get overwhelmed by the threat defence. There are a lot of people really scared in this country’ reflects Kristin, ‘and it is interesting because one of the main functions of compassion is to make us feel safe. So if we can help develop self-compassion, then one of the main benefits of that is that it can help us feel safe. We have our own back, and we feel like we can draw on our own support system instead of cutting ourselves down all the time. And theoretically that sense of safety allows us to be our best self and not just operate from our scared, and often worst, self’.

About the author: 

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, being the first one to operationally define and measure the construct over a decade ago, and she is the author of the best-selling book ‘Self-Compassion’. In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she has developed an eight-week program to teach self-compassion skills in daily life, co-created with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, called Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). Courses and training in Mindful Self-Compassion are held around the world, including in Ireland. For more information see