Building Self-Compassion: Our Interview with Dr. Kristin Neff

“If I have an emotionally upsetting experience, I don’t get so derailed by it.”

Dr. Kristin Neff is a leading researcher in self-compassion, “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” You tap into your self-compassion when you forgive yourself for a mistake or muster up confidence to overcome a challenge like she has in raising her autistic son. In her research, Neff breaks down self-compassion into three elements: kindness toward oneself, recognition that suffering is something that we all go through, and mindfulness. She explained to us more about what it means to be self-compassionate, how she trains people to build self-compassion, and why it’s such an important life skill.

Why does your body and brain react the way it does to self-criticism?

There are a few ways that it happens. One is that we tend to identify with our thoughts, so the system which is designed to protect our bodily self gets triggered when there is a threat to our self concept. Our body really reacts the same way [that it does when it sees a physical threat]. When our threat system is triggered, we basically have three ways of reacting. One would be to FIGHT, which takes the form of self-criticism. One is FLIGHT, which would be avoiding thinking about the issue but still feeling really stressed from it. One example is procrastination. The third would reaction would be to FREEZE. When people freeze mentally, you usually observe rumination. You’ll get stuck in this loop of thinking, with the false noti0n that if you think about it for the 67th time the problem will go away.

Can self-criticism be helpful?

There’s lots of pressure out there but we don’t need to add any more pressure by beating ourselves up. Usually there is enough stress inherent with deadlines and the nature of situations that we don’t need to artificially create more. It really depends how you are defining criticism when you ask that. There is absolutely a benefit to constructive criticism. Is there a benefit to negative criticism? I don’t know. I think that people think there is an it does work to the extent that if you are so afraid of your inner critic that it might lead you to take some action. But what would it look like if you motivated yourself because you wanted to do well, because you cared and you wanted to reach your full potential, instead of acting out of fear?
The best set of studies out there is a paper by Breines and Chen. It’s a nice study because it’s all experimental, whereas many studies in the subject matter use self-report scales. The researchers didn’t have people criticize themselves. Instead, she had a self esteem boost control and a neutral control. The lack of self compassion is criticism. And she found that people who are induced to be more self-compassionate about a failure do better — they’re more motivated and they try harder at the task. In our own research, we have self report data that shows that self-compassion is linked to less fear of failure and more perceived competence, two hugely motivational variables.

What drives you to self-censor or self-criticize?

It comes from a variety of sources. For some people, it might the internalized voice of someone who criticized them in the past. We know that parental criticism is linked to lower self-compassion, for instance. Another reason you might criticize yourself is to “beat the other person to the punch” so to speak. Let’s say that you are an artists and you are afraid that someone will comment negatively on your work; you might criticize yourself publicly before they have a chance. That takes some of the emotional weight out of hearing it from others.
I think that if you start looking at the inner critic, the inner critic knows what is right and what should be done. Sometimes it’s easier to feel that you should have been perfect, which implies that you could have been perfect, rather than to accept the reality that as human beings, we aren’t perfect.
Another problem with self-compassion is that people usually have compassion for others but not for themselves. They tend to exclude themselves from the circle of compassion.

Why is that?

That’s a good question. For one, it’s not encouraged in our culture to have self-compassion. People sometimes think that it’s selfish or narcissistic to love yourself too much. Or they think that they will to lose motivation if they are kind to themselves. But they don’t have any of those concerns with compassion for others!

Are there any cultures that do encourage self-compassion? What have you learned from studying them?

There is very little cross culture research, but we know that practicing Buddhists have more self-compassion than the general public. We did one study looking at Thailand, Taiwan, and the United States. In Thailand, they take their Buddhism very seriously. For instance, men are supposed to go on a week-long meditation retreat before getting married. It’s really part of their culture. People in Thailand had the highest levels of self-compassion. But it’s not just an East-West thing, because people in Taiwan had the lowest levels of self-compassion. In fact, it was found that in a lot of Asian cultures criticism has really seemed to be a virtue that people practice. Americans are more in-between. In all three cultures, self-compassion was linked to higher life satisfaction.

What is the connection between mindfulness and self-compassion?

Well mindfulness is a core component of self-compassion. You can’t have self-compassion without mindfulness. You have to be aware that you are suffering, you’ve got to turn toward it and be with it certainly long enough to respond to the suffering with compassion. We know that the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program raises self-compassion even though there isn’t a lot of explicit instruction around self-compassion. You receive a bit of loving kindness meditation on the retreat day. It’s mainly conveyed through teacher warmth. For some people, that seems to be enough, but for people who tend to really lack self-compassion, it seems to be and we have pilot data that suggests that they need more explicit practice around self-compassion. So if you were to take our self-compassion workshop, it’s pretty radically different from a traditional mindfulness workshop. We give a lot of exercises in which you call up a difficult situation in your life and practice self-compassion.
What was interesting in 0ur study of the self-compassion program is that there was no difference between formal meditation and informal practice in terms of how much self-compassion was gained. The informal practice might be something like putting your hand on your heart when you are suffering, using self-compassionate language toward yourself, dealing compassionately with your inner critic and trying to understand what it’s trying to tell you. We have a lot of practices that don’t require being on a cushion, so to speak, and that are typically shorter. They were equally predictive and both Chris and I were surprised by that.

How does meditation build self-compassion?

That’s a good question. It depends on what type of meditation you are talking about. I also don’t think that we have the answer to that scientifically yet.
One type of meditation that people have looked at is loving kindness or Metta meditation. Loving-kindness meditation is aimed at increasing loving-kindness (tenderness and consideration toward others). The research has shown that this kind of meditation increases self-compassion.
In our self-compassion program, we adapt a lot of meditations to increase self-compassion in particular. So how does the meditation increase it? I suppose by training the brain to have more positive emotional experiences toward oneself.

How do you modify traditional mindfulness meditations to build self-compassion?

We have two ways of adapting loving kindness meditation. The first is to target, or think thoughts toward, a loved one — it’s very easy to feel loving kindness toward a loved one. You imagine yourself with the loved one, you kind of slip yourself in.Then you switch your focus from the loved one and you to just focusing on yourself. We then give people an exercise to think about what’s deeply meaningful for them and what they yearn to hear from others. It makes them feel loved, validated, and accepted, and they use that as the basis for coming up with their own phrases that they can then say to themselves.
We also have a variation of a breath meditation that we call affectionate breathing. So it is a breath meditation but we layer in a lot of things like putting your hand on your heart, get your oxytocin flowing, being very gentle when they bring their mind back, which they do in mindfulness meditation too, but using metaphors of like, imagine your attention was a little child that had wandered off, and the gentleness with which you would usher that child back. So that’s mindfulness with a little bit more explicit affection in there, it’s not as radically different.
And then our third core meditation is called giving and receiving compassion. You might say it’s a variation on tong glen. With tong glen, you breathe in the suffering of others and you transform it and breathe out compassion. We found that this was a more advanced practice. So instead we have people breathe compassion for themselves and breathe out compassion for others. We use this as the basis for both compassionate listening and relationships and also for caregivers.

How does meditation give you a competitive edge?

Does it give me a competitive edge? Well, it depends again how you are defining competition. Meditation allows me to be more productive and do better work. So that you could say provides a competitive edge. Does it mean that somehow I can outsmart the competition more? I think sometimes it may not or it may makes me want to compete a little less. But I’m certain that it makes my work higher quality and helps me be productive. You know in academia, that is a competitive edge — if you get more papers out there so that people read what you do.

What have you noticed about your productivity since you began meditating?

Well one is that if I have an emotionally upsetting experience, I don’t get so derailed by it. One example is when my son got diagnosed with autism. It was very hard but the experience didn’t totally derail me — I could still do my work, I could still function, I could still keep going.
This may sound roundabout but because of my self-compassion and mindfulness practice, I took a big risk by choosing to study self-compassion in the first place. 15 years ago, it was still a little “woo woo” to study anything related to meditation or self-compassion. I mean, there was some mindfulness work out there but even back then there wasn’t a lot. I think my practice helped me make that choice because I was passionate about it, even if other people might raise their eyebrows. And so I think that meditation gave me a competitive edge in the long run because I chose to study something risky but that I was really motivated to research.

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