Intro: Hey, welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. Today’s episode for me was really providential because I interview Dr. Kristin Neff after a really challenging week, which you’re gonna hear a lot about.
But it was profound for me because Kristin Neff is one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion. She was the first one to operationally define and measure this idea over a decade ago. I learned about her from reading many of Brene’ Brown’s books, who definitely helped bring her research to light. She’s even developed an eight-week program to teach self-compassion skills in daily life.
Kristin talks about self-compassion, which really is how you treat yourself with the same compassion that you would show your close friends. And our shared experience as humans is that we don’t always get this right. We are gonna be imperfect. So we dig into why it’s so difficult to be compassionate with ourselves. She pretty much did some personal coaching. This podcast was actually really vulnerable for me, and we talk about how we can learn to be compassionate with the messiness of lives and simply accept ourselves.
“Self-compassion, which really is how you treat yourself with the same compassion that you would show your close friends.” – Jessica Honegger
What is Self-Compassion?
Jessica: Hey Kristin, welcome to the Going Scared podcast.
Kristin: Hi, Jessica. Glad to be here.
Jessica: So, I have to say I was actually flying home from an international trip on Sunday, and I was looking at my calendar, and when I saw that I was getting to end my week by interviewing you, I literally took an exhale. Like my whole body relaxed, and I think it’s because I’ve listened to some of your meditation exercises and so I’m picturing your voice and I’m like, what a great way to end my Friday, talking about self-compassion.
Kristin: Yes, well my favorite topic, so we’re a good fit for today.
Jessica: It is. It is. So, it’s such an important concept, and yet the practice of it can feel so challenging. Why don’t we just start off with you sharing more about the concept of self-compassion and kind of defining that for us?
Kristin: Okay, so most of us are very familiar with what it feels like to have compassion for others, and typically the people we have the most compassion for are our close friends, right? People in our out groups, maybe we don’t care so much, and people who are really close to us, sometimes we aren’t our best selves with them.
But if you think about how you treat your really good friends when they come to you and they’re struggling with something or they’re feeling bad about themselves, we’re usually more easily able to access that very compassionate place where we can be present for our friends. We’re kind and supportive to them, and we kind of recognize that ‘hey, this is the human experience’. Everyone fails, everyone makes mistakes, everyone experiences challenges.
So really, self-compassion is simple, it’s just treating yourself with the same compassion that you show a good friend, right? So just noticing when you’re having a hard time or struggling in some way, responding with kindness, support, encouragement, and just remembering that “hey, life isn’t perfect for anyone.” We all struggle. And when you bring those three elements together, it kind of radically transforms our ability to cope with the difficulties of life.
“Self-compassion is simple, it’s just treating yourself with the same compassion that you show a good friend…just noticing when you’re having a hard time or struggling in some way, responding with kindness, support, encouragement,” – Kristin Neff
Beating Yourself Up to Get Ahead
Jessica: I love that definition. So, why is that though? Why is it that we’re able to demonstrate more compassion to our friends than we are to ourselves? What is it that is blocking us from practicing compassion towards ourselves?
Kristin: Right, well so there’s a few blocks. One block is actually more a physiological block. So for instance, if we feel threatened in some way, and let’s face it, when we fail or we feel inadequate or something challenging happens, we feel threatened, we tend to go into a fight or flight mode. And the fight is against the problem, we usually fight the problem, but of course if the problem is ourselves, if we feel inadequate or we look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see or whatever the challenge is, we tend to fight ourselves as a way to feel in control and that maybe we’ll whip ourselves into shape so that we’ll be able to cope.
It’s really a very good strategy, fight or flight, if a lion’s chasing you, but it’s actually not so good if the problem is just that you’re struggling in some way, ’cause we actually undermine our ability to succeed by beating ourselves up.
“We actually undermine our ability to succeed by beating ourselves up.” – Dr. Kristin Neff
So, if you think about, let’s say your friend comes to you and they’re feeling badly about something, you aren’t so threatened. You don’t feel scared, and so therefore you’re able to be your best, more supportive self, and that’s why it’s a little more challenging to be calm and supportive with ourselves, because we feel so threatened.
But ironically, when we are supportive with ourselves, it actually helps us feel safe and then helps us make better decisions. So that’s one reason, just the simple thing of how threatened we feel.
But more than that, there are a lot of cultural blocks to self-compassion. We aren’t raised thinking this is a good thing. We’re actually quite deeply suspicious of self-compassion. So that’s another thing we need to do is just realize that our culture has a lot of myths about self-compassion, and I think for a lot of people that’s why all the research on self-compassion really helps, ’cause we realize it’s not the dangerous thing we think it is.
Jessica: So true. I have to say it’s pretty providential that I’m ending the week like this because I recently hired an executive coach, my business partner and I, and part of the process was her interviewing five stakeholders, primarily at our business, and then giving us the feedback. I got the feedback on Tuesday, and it was extremely challenging. And just holding up a mirror of kind of my worst self and how I show up for others, I mean, it has been really challenging this week.
So, when you speak of fight or flight, it’s been hard for me to know how to sift through it and know how to have compassion on myself, and this morning … I’m still jet lagging from my trip, so I woke up this morning at 4:00, we have a pool, I went skinny dipping at 4:00. I was like, I just need to go and wash myself.
Moving from Self-Pity to Self-Compassion
Jessica: I was floating around, and I was thinking back to your quiz. You have these different categories, and one of them is common humanity. I think one of the ways that kind of broke through sort of my spinning and thinking, "I’m a monster. How could anyone want to work for me? Well, apparently they don’t. They’re having a terrible experience." I was able to think, you know what? Everybody hurts people, everyone gets hurt by people, everyone has faults.
I think I’ve been telling myself this story that I’m like the worst employer, you know-
Jessica: … or whatever, and so tell me a little bit more about those categories, ’cause I think they’re so helpful, that you kind of outline on our quiz. Because they help us to access self-compassion. I mean, I talked to tons of friends this week, and they were amazing. I have dear friends that were reminding me of how empathetic I am and how I show up for them, but honestly, it wasn’t really breaking through.
Kristin: Yes, so one of the things that’s very important with self-compassion, and also compassion for others, which your friends showed to you, is a kind of balanced awareness where you see things clearly and in perspective. So I’m sure that whatever feedback you got, there was probably actually a lot of positive feedback, and you-
Jessica: There was. There was plenty.
Kristin:… and that didn’t stick at all. We have this very strong negative bias where only the negative information we take in because again, because it’s scary and there’s some threat involved, so as animals, we’re very threat-focused.
So, one of the things that your friends are able to do and that you can actually learn to do with yourself with mindfulness is to see the whole picture. Yes, I’m sure you’ve got wonderful qualities, and you have some areas to work on, like every single other human being does.
So, the first thing is just seeing clearly, what are the strengths, what are the challenges. And then again, responding with encouragement and kindness just like your friends do, right? So yes, I’m sure you do have some areas to work on. I know I have areas to work on, but you know, you can respond with encouragement and support and kind of an underlying recognition that you’re a worthy person and that you can maybe help yourself make these needed changes as opposed to thinking you’re worthless and you’re no good, right? Just like your friends would naturally.
But really, really important, the difference between self-compassion and self-pity, self-pity is like poor me, or I’m the worst person in the world, or I’m the worst boss in the world, whatever our minds do, but when we remember that the shared human experience is imperfection, every single person alive on this planet today is imperfect. That’s actually what defines being human, right? Everyone has challenges.
But what happens when we’re struggling or we get some negative feedback, in that moment we feel as if it’s just me who’s got these problems. Everyone else, everyone normal is perfect, and it’s just me who’s imperfect, and therefore I’m abnormal. And what that does is it makes us feel really isolated and cut off from others, and it can make us feel shame. Shame is that feeling of somehow I’m separate or I don’t belong to the human race.
So, when we remember that hey, not only is it part of being human, but this is how we learn and grow … I mean, if we didn’t make mistakes, how would we ever learn and grow? We wouldn’t learn and grow. And of course we know that logically, so what we need to do is give ourselves the emotional support to recognize that and say, "Yeah."
First of all, yeah it hurts. No one likes negative feedback, but it is how we learn and grow. And so if you’re able to support yourself through it and see clearly what’s true and maybe what’s not so true, then you will have probably a real growth experience when-
“No one likes negative feedback, but it is how we learn and grow.” – Dr. Kristin Neff
Jessica: I’m hoping. That’s the idea-
Kristin:… when you recover.
Kristin: Yeah, but you know, but isn’t it so true, I don’t know anyone that’s perfect, do you?
Jessica: I don’t.
Kristin: Exactly. So, the best we can do is just to try our best and to keep putting one foot in front of the … one foot forward. But the really important thing is as we take each step to support ourselves. When we cut ourselves down, when we hang our heads in shame, we can’t learn anything. We’re of no use to anyone.
”The really important thing is as we take each step to support ourselves.” – Kristin Neff
So, this kind, supportive stance actually helps us learn and grow, and also makes it a little more bearable as we go on our journey.
Jessica: You’re right. I mean, it’s like having that growth mindset. I think what’s so hard for me is in feeling the pain of having hurt and disappointed other people.
Jessica: I want to flee from that instead of feel it.
Show Yourself Some Kindness
Kristin: Right. That’s why we need self-compassion. So, the formal three components of self-compassion is mindfulness, which means being able to be with even those difficult feelings we want to flee from, and then again responding with kindness, and remembering that it’s the human condition.
So, really that feeling of wanting to flee is just our natural reaction to anything unpleasant. Even an amoeba will move away from a toxin in a Petri dish. It’s totally, totally normal that you want to flee. That’s a natural reaction of any organism.
But, because we’ve got these great brains and the ability to be conscious and to be mindful, you actually can be with the difficulty as long as you give yourself the support. So I recommend to people, and I do this for myself when I’m hearing negative information, to give yourself some gesture of kindness. Put your hand on your heart, or your hand on your stomach, or cradle your face, or hold your hand. Some physical gesture of your support and your care, and then as you’re with the pain, as you’re turning toward it, say supportive things to yourself, maybe like your friends said to you. "It’s okay. You’re doing the best you can." Just trying to be compassionate toward the difficulty of what you’re going through.
Then, the more support you give yourself actually, the more strength you’ll have to hold the difficult feelings and then eventually to transform things and learn from them.
Jessica: That’s what I find to be so helpful because I like to tell others “that where courage is required, self-compassion is a necessity.”
“Where courage is required, self-compassion is a necessity.” – Jessica Honegger
Finding the Courage to Support & Accept Yourself
Jessica: So, let’s talk a little bit about the correlation between compassion and courage. I’m actually launching my first book this summer, and it’s called Imperfect Courage, and the name of the podcast is Going Scared, and I think that is one reason I really wanted to have you on is because I feel like you can’t really have courage without compassion … or that compassion fuels courage.
Kristin: It does. So think about going into battle. I actually have some research on veterans who just came back from battle, and those soldiers with more self-compassion, who are more supportive to themselves, they’re less likely to develop PTSD based on the action they see.
So, if you’re going into battle and you want courage, do you want an enemy inside your own head, or do you want an ally inside your own head? Most of us are enemies. We cut ourselves down, we feel worthless, we hang our heads in shame. It’s like we pull the rug out from underneath ourselves when times are difficult, and that just strips away any courage we have.
Whereas if you’ve got your own back, you support yourself, you know the bottom line is even if you fall flat on your face, it’s okay, you’ll still accept yourself, then that gives you the courage to kind of face the difficulties that are coming your way. So really, we need to give ourselves the support that’s necessary to have courage. But if you cut yourself down, I mean how can you be courageous, right?
“We need to give ourselves the support that’s necessary to have courage.” – Kristin
Jessica: Or you’re motivated by fear, which is just not gonna last you through the long haul.
Kristin: Exactly, so it works in the short term, right? And we all know this, like some parents, they terrorize their children into studying and getting good grades and being obedient kids, but there’s always a payback. The kid may get depressed, they may develop an eating disorder, they may develop some other mental health issues … or maybe once they leave home they don’t talk to their parents again.
So, fear works somewhat, but it’s a short term solution, whereas support, kindness … criticism, constructive criticism as opposed to name calling, a type of destructive criticism, that’s gonna go a lot farther in the long run.
The Five Blocks to Self-Compassion
Jessica: So, what do you believe are the biggest contributors to a lack of self-compassion, because for some reason, I feel like, especially women–which I primarily work with a lot of women–really struggle with this idea. What’s sort of contributing to this being a difficult thing to practice?
Kristin: There are actually five main blocks that get in the way of being more self-compassionate. It’s funny, I go all around the world, and the same five things come up.
One, people confuse it with self-pity, right? Shame is a place of self-pity. Self-compassion, which is like life is difficult for everyone, we’re all imperfect, that’s not self-pity. That’s just honoring the human experience. So it’s not self-pity.
People think it’s going to make them weak. People really think that they need to be tough on themselves, which means beating themselves up in order to have a tough skin. But of course, like I said, being an inner enemy is going to make you weaker than being an inner ally. Being supportive to yourself gives you strength and resilience. So we know from the research, that one’s totally wrong.
People are afraid they’re gonna lose their edge, that they won’t achieve their goals if they’re kind and supportive to themselves. They really think they need to use a whip to motivate themselves. And again, all the research shows that’s the exact opposite, that if you cut yourself down and beat yourself up, you’re gonna become afraid of failure. When you do fail, you’re gonna be more likely to give up. You won’t have that grit to be able to keep trying and keep pursuing your goals. Self-compassion does provide that.
“Research shows that if you cut yourself down and beat yourself up, you’re gonna become afraid of failure.” – Dr. Kristin Neff
Here’s a big one for women, and I find this over and over again. Women are socialized to think that they should only focus their compassion on others, and that it’s selfish, it’s selfish to give yourself compassion. How could I be kind to myself? Shouldn’t this lovely light of compassion always be shining on others? Otherwise, isn’t it selfish?
But again, that’s completely wrong. So first of all, the more compassion you have for yourself, the more resources you’ll have to give to others. And also, we know that as human beings we’ve got this thing called empathetic resonance. We can pick up on others’ feelings, which actually helps us to be compassionate, but they can pick up on our feelings. So when we’re beating ourselves up and hanging our heads in shame, every single person we come in contact with is resonating with our shame and our self-criticism and our frustration and our anger.
“The more compassion you have for yourself, the more resources you’ll have to give to others.” – Dr. Kristin Neff
But when we are kind, supportive, caring toward ourselves, and that’s the energy we embody with self-compassion, then every person we come in contact with is actually resonating with that energy. So I really argue that it’s one of the most compassionate things you can do for others, to give yourself compassion. It doesn’t mean you don’t almost … you know, you give compassion to both, but what happens is women especially, we exclude ourselves from the circle of compassion, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Growing In the Art of Self-Compassion
Jessica: So, I’m sure everyone listening right now is nodding their head, like this makes so much sense. But I feel like there’s a lot of listeners who feel like, "How on earth do I begin to do this?" So where are some good places to begin? I mean, you talked about touching yourself on your heart or being gentle with yourself. Are there other practices that help usher in self-compassion?
Kristin: Yeah, so one place to start would be my website. If you just Google “self-compassion,” you’ll come up with it. I’ve got some guided practices, some written exercises, guided meditations that help people learn it.
This summer I’ve got the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook coming out, which is basically all the practices and exercises from our eight-week self-compassion training program in workbook format, so you could buy it yourself and self-guide yourself through the training program.
The great thing about self-compassion, and I think the reason there’s so much interest in it in psychology, is these are skills that can be learned. It’s not like-
Jessica: That’s so helpful.
Kristin: … Yeah, it’s not like you gotta be born self-compassionate, right? Let’s face it, if you had good, loving, supportive parents, you’re probably more likely to be self-compassionate. And if your parents always criticized you, you’ll probably internalize that. That’s only natural.
Nonetheless, anyone can learn the skill of self-compassion. All you really need to do is know how to be a good friend. So if by the time you’re an adult you’ve learned how to be supportive to someone else, how to use your tone of voice to show caring, how to support someone by maybe putting your hand on their back … We’ve actually learned the skill of being a good friend, most of us, by the time we reach adulthood.
So, all you need to do is really give yourself permission and remember to show that friendliness to yourself. But again, one of the biggest problems is people don’t give themselves permission because they think that they aren’t allowed or that it’s gonna lead to some horrible consequences, something like that. But once you do give yourself permission, it’s actually a lot easier than you think. It’s not rocket science, right? It’s just noticing what you’re saying to yourself, asking yourself, "Would I say this to a friend I really cared about?" Usually the answer is ‘no’.
"Well, what would I say to a friend I cared about? Okay, let me try it on." And yes, it feels weird at first. I’ll admit it, it feels weird. But you get used to it, and then after a while you start feeling like you need that type of supportive atmosphere. And then when you’re critical with yourself, that just starts feeling totally wrong.
Think about how you treat your kids. Could you imagine if you spoke to your kids the way you speak to yourself? I mean, most good mothers would not say, "Oh, I’m ashamed of you. What a loser you are." But they would say that to themselves, and the consequences to one’s own child is really the consequences we give to ourselves.
Actually, in many ways, some people think of self-compassion as a process of re-parenting yourself. When you’re upset or you’re frightened or you’re feeling inadequate, giving yourself that type of ideally compassionate parenting that most of us didn’t receive because our parents are human. But we can give it to ourselves, and then we’ll have the beneficial consequences of it.
You’re Worthy–Even If You’re Not Perfect
Jessica: Let’s talk a little bit about the correlation, or not the correlation, I guess perhaps how comparison can disrupt self-compassion. Do you see that today’s society, our obsession with social media and celebrities and athletes is an invitation to compare ourselves to others, and how does that rob us of self-compassion?
Kristin: Yeah, so really what you’re kind of pointing to is self-esteem, which most of us operate off of self-esteem, which is judging ourselves positively, feeling good about ourselves, feeling that we’re worthwhile people. But unfortunately, most of us get our self-esteem from pretty unhealthy sources like how many other people like us, do they give us approval, how do I look, how successful am I?
“Most of us get our self-esteem from pretty unhealthy sources–like how many other people like us, do they give us approval, how do I look, how successful am I?” – Dr, Kristin Neff
The problem with all these external sources of self-esteem is they come and go, right? Sometimes your friends are there for you, maybe someday they aren’t. Or maybe one day you look good, and then you start getting older and you don’t look the way you used to. These things go up and down, so it’s called contingent self-worth, and the thing is is that sense of self-worth is kind of unstable. It’s not a reliable friend. And it especially deserts you when you need it most, and that’s when you fall flat on your face.
I’m sorry, your experience, it sounds very painful, right? And so self-esteem in situations like that often deserts us, but self-compassion steps in precisely at that point and says, "Hey, you’re a human being doing the best you can. You’re worthy just because you’re human, not because you’re perfect."
Unfortunately, our society gives us messages, and partly it’s so that we’ll … I hate to say it, but so we’ll buy their products, right? We’re never good enough, we’re never quite attractive enough, we’re never quite successful enough, we never dress quite well enough. All those things, that kind of more, more, more society, it drives our economy, but at the end of the day, the feeling that we’re never good enough is really painful for our psychological well-being.
So, you kind of have to be brave and say, "No, wait a second, I am enough." Not that you don’t try to reach your full potential, but all human beings are worthy just from the very fact that they’re human beings doing the best they can.
“All human beings are worthy just from the very fact that they’re human beings doing the best they can.” – Dr. Kristin Neff
So, it really is kind of a radical shift in mindset, but it can make a big difference in your ability to be happy … and to succeed, ironically. Carl Rogers said, "The curious paradox is the more I accept myself, the more I can change and grow." So it actually feeds what we’re looking for through love as opposed to fear.
Jessica: Yeah, it is such a crazy paradox. I had that realization several years ago after a lifetime of dieting and just trying to be smaller. I remember having that epiphany one morning with my … I said, "It’s not that I want to be skinny, I just want to be loved." And when I realized, I am loved, and suddenly I accepted myself in this whole new way, and only then could I really begin to change, you know?
Kristin: Yeah. That’s a beautiful story. Yeah. So I think for many of us, that’s the way … And actually what we’re often craving from others, in terms of trying to get their approval, you know, how many likes you have on Facebook, or how many Instagram followers you have, that’s actually what we can give to ourselves directly with self-compassion. We can give ourselves a sense of love and acceptance and worthiness. We don’t need to get it from outside sources. It’s much more reliable.
You Deserve Compassion Too
Jessica: So, when you were first venturing into actually becoming a researcher in self-compassion, can you think of some real big epiphanies that you had? I mean, now, this is just what you talk about. You are an expert. But at the beginning, with those fresh eyes, where you’re like, "Oh my gosh, this study means everything…"
Kristin: Yeah, so first of all, I certainly wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea of self-compassion, but I was the first one to research it. And it was kind of going out on a limb, because whenever you do something new, you just don’t know how people are going to react.
Actually, one of the things that was interesting is I didn’t realize the degree to which a lot of people would have negative reactions to self-compassion. So for instance, I learned it in my Buddhist practice, and a lot of Buddhists are really hung up on the world self. Isn’t that selfish? Isn’t self the problem? And I’m trying to explain, well when you exclude yourself from the circle of compassion, you’re actually drawing a bigger boundary between yourself and others. When you just treat yourself like any other human being, that actually lessens the sense of self. So, that surprised me that a lot of people have reaction to it. I call it the S-word, self-word.
By the way, if you don’t like the term self-compassion, you can just call it inner compassion. The idea is you direct your compassion inward as well as outward, you know, why not? Why in the world not? So that was surprising.
I think probably one of my biggest surprises in my research was I assumed that there would be a strong association between level of compassion for self and others. There actually really isn’t, only because there are so many people who are low in self-compassion and high in compassion for others. You almost never get-
Jessica: Oh, interesting.
Kristin:… yeah, you almost never get anyone who’s higher in self-compassion than compassion for others. But I assumed that the two would go hand-in-hand, but they really don’t. And women especially, there are so many women who are truly kind, caring, compassionate people to others … nurses, doctors, mothers. And it’s not like they’re faking it, they really are compassionate, but they treat themselves radically differently. So, that was a surprise.
But what we do know is that it’s hard to sustain that outward focus, give, give, give, and not be kind to yourself, and eventually you will burn out. So, where a lot of my work is now is trying to help mothers or parents or professional caregivers, learn to give themselves compassion so that they can sustain giving to others without burning out.
So, it’s kind of a myth that people say you have to be self-compassionate before you can truly be compassionate to others. It’s actually not the case. A lot of people do it quite well, they just can’t keep it up for too long because eventually they’ll just be depleted.
Self-Compassion: The Fuel For Courage
Jessica: Right, which I think is such a key in this whole self-compassion journey, is that you talk about supporting yourself along the way and becoming resilient, which means that you are going to be able to walk through your fears, which is really what this podcast is all about. It’s about, hey, we’re all afraid, we can be afraid just like you said, there’s the fight or flight, but in the matter of are you just gonna stay in that fight or flight mode, or can you let self-compassion kind of fuel you to be courageous and rise up and walk through your fears.
Kristin: That’s right. Yeah, I really learned that. You probably know from reading my book that my son has autism, and I can’t even tell you how much my self-compassion practice helped when he got diagnosed, because I was full of fear and uncertainty, and how am I gonna cope. His behavior, like most autistic kids, was very challenging. He would tantrum at the drop of a hat, he wasn’t potty trained till age five, and so it was really, really tough.
If I didn’t have that ability in those very difficult moments to turn toward myself and say, "This is really hard. I’m so sorry. I’m here to help you. I’ve got your back. We’ll get through this. You’re doing the best you can." That type of supportive, warm, kind language, and also I used a lot of physical touch. Again, it actually changes your physiology. It activates your parasympathetic nervous system. It helps you physically calm down.
Jessica: Right, right.
Be A Good Friend To Yourself
Jessica: How do we impart this into our children?
Kristin: Well, you know, I think one of the most important things is just modeling for children self-compassion, especially when you talk to yourself out loud. Because often, we kind of say things out loud, so when you drop that glass and break it, instead of saying, "Oh, I’m such a stupid idiot," right? And it’s funny, a lot of parents, they would never say that to their child, "You’re such a stupid idiot," but if they drop a glass, they might say that out loud in front of their child about themselves. "Oh, I’m such a stupid idiot."
It’s kind of culturally sanctioned to put ourselves down like that. So one thing is just to really watch what you say, and when an opportunity does arise, you make a mistake or break something or however it happens, just language like, "Wow, oh man. I’m bummed. Well, it’s only human. I tried my best and what can I do to help the situation?" You know, really emphasizing that everyone’s imperfect, we’re all human, all we can do is do our best and do it with kindness. So that type of modeling really helps.
Then, you also–especially when kids get a little older and they’re more able to conceptualize these things–you can explain to your kids that it’s really important to be a good friend to yourself and not just to other people, and that it’s going to help you through the tough times in life if you treat yourself like you treat your good friends.
Usually, the pathway of friendship, kids develop good friends by about seven. They’re working on their peer relationships. So by about seven, kids start understanding the idea of what it means to be a good friend. You can actually just say, "And make sure you’re also a good friend to yourself," and that seems to help.
Jessica: I love that language. I think that yeah, a child could really understand that language.
Kristin: That’s right.
Handling Criticism with Compassion
Jessica: So what about you? We’re talking about going scared. What’s been a going scared moment for you?
Kristin: Well, in addition to my son’s autism, I mean, that’s been a big thing, a lot of fear around that. But you know, so one thing for instance, it’s interesting the success of the self-compassion work, because you’re an underdog for so long, and you finally get success, and then of course, you become the thing that other people try to take down to get their own success. It’s only natural, but that’s been kind of a challenge for me. Like, why are you criticizing my model of self-compassion? Oh, I see. It must be because it’s so widespread that it’s like … You know, it’s kinda strange. Why are you doing this? So that’s been interesting, having to-
Jessica: Basically, it’s so widespread that of course, when something is so big, everyone’s gonna have an opinion-
Kristin: That’s right, and then the way you make it aim for yourself is saying, well everyone thinks it’s so great, but here’s why it’s not so great. That’s been a challenge. That’s been fairly recent, just the last couple years. I guess it’s the mark of success, but … So, I’m having to use my skills to support myself through that.
And you know, my son, so he’s 16 now, and he’s much better than he used to, but there’s still a lot of things to deal with. He’s wanting to date and how do I navigate that, and what’s going to happen? Will he be able to live alone? He’s still really my greatest teacher, my greatest opportunity to practice, even though he’s a love, he’s an angel, but a challenging angel if I can call him that. So yeah, I have plenty to work with.
It’s funny, there’s a meditation teacher who I really like named Rob Nairn, and he says, "You know, the goal of practice is just to become a compassionate mess." In other words, you can be practicing and studying and reading your authors and meditating maybe or going on self-help retreats, whatever it is, but you’re still gonna be a mess, and the goal is not to somehow stop being a mess. I mean, that’s kind of an unattainable goal because we are human beings, and by definition we’re a mess.
But if your goal is just to be a compassionate mess, no matter what struggles you have, no matter your overreactions or when you get it wrong or your health challenges or whatever it is, as long as you’re compassionate with the mess, then that’s actually a sustainable way of being. And it’s also an achievable way of being.
So, once you give up that hidden agenda of self-improvement, I’m somehow gonna be better, hopefully perfect, but if not perfect, at least pretty damn good, you kind of give that up and just, you know, I’m gonna do the best I can, but if my goal is just to be loving and compassionate with the mess, then that is an achievable goal. And like I said, not only will you be happier, but the people around you will be happier if that becomes your goal.
Jessica: I love that.
Open the Doors of Your Heart To Yourself
Jessica: So, I wanted us to end with how can we recognize when we’re not in that compassionate place, even as far along as you are. So I think some of us that might have been practicing this for a little bit can kind of recognize yeah, that we’re not saying stuff like, "Oh, I’m a stupid idiot," anymore, but maybe at one point we did.
You’re so far along on this journey. What are sort of those signs when you go, "Uh-oh, okay, let’s get back to that compassion place."
Kristin: Right, so I said before the three components of self-compassion are mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity that kind of make up the state of compassion. But another way of saying what that feels like when you’re self-compassionate is you’re in a state of loving, connected presence.
Loving, connected presence feels kind of … You feel it’s a good feeling. You feel relaxed and you feel warm, emotionally warm, and you feel connected to other people. So often, maybe … and some people, they don’t beat themselves up, but there’s kind of a coldness, kind of a harshness, or kind of a numbness where their heart is actually blocked.
And so when you feel that you’re being constricted, maybe you’re super tense or you’re just kind of hard with yourself, you aren’t warm, you aren’t relaxed, then you actually feel it in your body. And so even without the language, some people they’re just kind of shut down, and that’s a sign that they might benefit from practicing self-compassion.
And then when you do practice self-compassion, and by the way, for some people, especially maybe you were criticized a lot when you were a kid, it can be a little scary to open up the doors of your heart, because you’ve had to keep them closed your whole life to protect yourself. So for some people, it’s a little more of a slower journey. You open them, then you close them, and you open them a little bit more, and then you close them. You have to be self-compassionate on the journey of self-compassion, meaning you don’t want to overwhelm yourself when difficult memories come up or a lot of fear comes up.
But basically, when you start to learn to trust and to trust yourself and to open the doors of your heart, it just feels really good. It feels more flowing. You actually get in flow states more often, which means when your kind of sense of self recedes and you’re more in the present moment. You’re more attune to positive emotions. Your senses actually become more heightened. And again, it’s a loving presence and you feel your own loving presence. You can feel the difference. It’s actually pretty striking.
You have to start paying attention, though. That’s the first step, and then you’ve got to set your intention to try to relate to yourself with more kindness. But like I say, it’s not rocket science. Anyone can do it.
Jessica: I know. It’s like our default is criticism, comparison, hustling.
Kristin: It is our default. It is our default. But do you know the brain is actually designed to do that, because our happy-go-lucky relaxed ancestors got eaten by lions. So it was our worrywart ancestors who were like, "Oh my god, what’s that sound? And did I do good enough?" You know, our negative threat-focused ancestors were more likely to survive. So our brains are designed to be good at survival, but unfortunately now, given that most of us, we don’t really have to think about actually surviving out in the wild, then our brains don’t make us so happy, so we need to retrain them a bit, which can be done luckily.
Self-Compassion Increases Over Time
Jessica: Do you think some of this is also getting older? I mean, my mom always said, "Oh, Jessica, when I hit my 40s, I just finally was able to just accept myself." I mean, you work with young people, you’re a professor-
Jessica:… Is there a correlation? What do you see young people … how does it look like for them to practice self-compassion versus a 40 year old?
Kristin: Yeah, so luckily self-compassion does increase with age. It’s not huge. A lot of older people are still really self-critical, but it does increase with age. And I think part of that is just the wisdom of understanding common humanity. Once you’ve had enough experience and you’ve seen enough people, and you’ve heard enough stories, you start to recognize, "Oh yeah, that’s just, that’s what being human entails. This is normal."
See, the problem when you’re really young is your ideals come for TV ads or from movies or from books, and it’s almost like you think that if I get it just right, maybe perfection is possible. It’s not really a logical thought-
Jessica: Like, we actually believe that. And if you really have that mindset, you’re set up to fail.
Kristin: You’re set up to fail, exactly. And then when you’re younger, you tend to feel really isolated. Something like, everyone else is living these perfect lives and it’s just me who’s feeling bad, or just be who I don’t like the way I look, or just me who’s failed or is struggling. And that’s just kind of the ego-centrism of youth.
One of the benefits of getting older is you start to have more perspective and realize, well actually, this is normal. This is the plan we signed up for.
I think often young people think, "I signed up for the everything will go perfect plan." When it doesn’t go perfect, they want their money back. And then when you’re older, you realize, okay, this is the plan I signed up for. And again, so the goal is not to be perfect, the goal is just to be compassionate with the messiness of life. And then once your goal shifts, it actually becomes more attainable and you become a little more relaxed as well.
Jessica: Yeah, I had a lot of angst in my 20s and early 30s, and part of the reason of doing this podcast and writing this book is I would love for some people to not have to have walked quite the angsty road that I walked. I feel like self-compassion is one way to kind of accept yourself at a much earlier age.
Kristin: Yeah. So, I teach a big undergraduate course and I teach all these skills, and they love it. They really eat it up. They’re hungry for it, actually.
Resources for Learning Self-Compassion
Jessica: They are, especially today with social media. I know when I was in college, we didn’t have social media, and I just think that I’m navigating it with my kids now, and I’m just like, oh my gosh. Actually, I’m purposely not navigating it yet. I haven’t allowed any of them to get phones because I am just scared to death. I’m like, I don’t even know how to go there and do this.
Kristin: Yeah, it’s a challenge. I hear you. I’ve got a phone, but I don’t have a Facebook page or any of that stuff. So, it’s a different world.
Jessica: I tried finding you on Instagram today. I couldn’t find ya.
Kristin: I know. I will start one, but I haven’t. I know I’ve got to do it, but ugh.
Jessica: I think you’re doing just fine.
Kristin: Yeah, I don’t know. But on the other hand, things like that are really nice ways to get out the word about something good like self-compassion. So there’s also a real benefit of social media. In and of itself, it’s a neutral technology.
Jessica: That’s so true. I can experience a lot of connection through social media-
Kristin: Yeah, exactly.
Jessica: … so you’re right, it is neutral. It’s nice to think of it like that. It’s just a mindset that you bring to anything. It’s just like anything. But sometimes it’s easier to just abstain from certain things.
Kristin: I hear you, yes.
Jessica: Well, on that note, where can we find you? You’re coming up with this workbook. How are we gonna know about that?
Kristin: Well, so again, if you just Google self-compassion, my website will come up. I’ve got a link, you can pre-order there. You can also take the self-compassion test if you want to find out where you score in self-compassion.
For those research nerds out there, I’ve got tons of hundreds and hundreds of PDFs of research articles. I have guided meditations, exercises, and also there’s a lot of trainings offered now. So the Mindful Self-Compassion Training Program I created with a colleague, it’s all over the world now. So, if you’re interested, you can do this. You can also take it online. There’s a lot more resources than there were let’s say 10 years ago.
So, if you want to change this and train your brain to be more habitually kind and supportive, it’s absolutely possible.
Jessica: I love that. So much hope. So much hope for our brains that have formed these crazy pathways.
Kristin: Yes, yes.
Jessica: Well, thank you so much, Kristin, for your time today.
Kristin: Oh, you’re welcome. You’re welcome. Go well.
Win a Trip to Tulum, Mexico!
Jessica: One of the biggest takeaways I had from this conversation is that self-compassion requires effort, it requires work, because negative feedback tends to stick. And I was reminded at this recently, because hello, it is swimsuit season, and my bod has had a long winter hibernation.
It made me realize that you also might be lamenting swimsuit season as well. You know, I was only 11 years old when I first flipped through the glossy pages of Seventeen Magazine, and I remember rating the models from one to 10. It was in those pages that I had internalized the message that acceptance would come from my size. And I’m wondering if you’ve also believed that lie.
The dieting industry spends billions of dollars hoping that you do believe that lie. So if it feels like you’re swimming upstream, fighting for self-compassion, fighting to believe that you are worthy, it’s because you are swimming upstream. But here’s what I have found to be true. When a bunch of us all swim upstream together, we change the current. So do you want to be a current-changer with me? Then I have a contest for you.
I want you to dream about your best self, on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. Tulum is one of my favorite places on earth, and I’ve had some magical moments on the beach in Tulum. I want you to picture yourself in your best, most amazing swimsuit, and I want you to remember that you wear your swimsuit, it does not wear you. You deserve a trip to Tulum, and I want to give it to you.
So, I partnered up with some amazing go-getting women and businesses in order to bring you the trip of a lifetime. Head to my Instagram account and click on my profile. The link is right there with all the details on how to win. It’s super easy. Oh my gosh, I hope it’s one of my people that wins. This would be so cool.
All right, guys. Thanks so much for tuning in today. Don’t forget to tell me what you’re learning. Maybe if you go enter that contest on Instagram, pop on a post and just tell me what you got out of today, ’cause it was such a powerful conversation.