HomeArticlesKristin Neff: Overcoming Objections to Self-Compassion
Kristin Neff: Overcoming Objections to Self-Compassion
December 8, 2019
So yeah, self-compassion, best thing since
sliced bread. Why isn’t there more of it? It
seems like a good idea, at least I thought so. Why isn’t it more prevalent, and I’ll
talk about in Western culture, although it’s
not just Western culture who suffers. This is a big one: confusion with self-pity.
And it is annoying to be around people who are lost in self-pity, isn’t it? When
we give the gesture of self-pity, it’s also really
dramatic, overly dramatic, right? So why isn’t self-compassion, self-pity? Well, first of
all, this common humanity element is absolutely key. I mean if it was just self-kindness,
you might say what’s the difference? Self-compassion isn’t poor me, self-compassion is:
it’s hard for all of us. The human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life
is. It’s not ego-centric, quite the opposite, it’s a much more connected way of relating
to yourself. And also this is why the mindfulness
is so important. When we’re mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t
ignore it, but we also don’t over-exaggerate it.
This is a big one that comes up. And part of this is the problem with language. People
say, “but don’t we need self-criticism, don’t we need some like constructive, healthy
criticism?” Yeah, absolutely. I’m not talking about healthy, constructive, kind,
supportive, encouraging criticism. I’m talking about
harsh, nasty, belittling, you’re worthless, you’re
no good type of criticism. That language sounds extreme but it’s really not. If you
actually write down, especially on a bad day, some of the things you say to yourself, it
can be really shocking how nasty it is. So that’s the type of criticism I’m talking
about that you might say “negative global self-evaluations”
(I am bad, I am no good). So what self- compassion does is it doesn’t evaluate and
judge the worth of yourself as a person, but it does see wisely. It discriminates.
Self-indulgence, right? A lot of people think, “Well, if I’m compassionate to myself,
I’m just going to skip work and just eat tons
of ice cream all day and I’m just gonna, like, you
know…” Self-compassion doesn’t mean you’re going
to do whatever you want, you aren’t going to give pleasure for yourself only because
in the long run that harms you. So think of a very compassionate mother, is she going
to, for her child that she absolutely loves and has compassion for, is she going to say,
“Yeah, don’t go to school today. You know, just blow it off. Yeah, eat whatever
you want, tubs of ice cream, that’s fine!” Of
course not. A compassionate mother says, “Go to bed on time. Eat your vegetables.
Do your homework” Right? Because that’s what compassion wants…health and well-
being for ourselves. Compassion means we don’t want to suffer. Which means if we give
ourselves pleasure, [which] in the short term feels good, but harms us in the long run,
then it’s a problem. This is also a big one: confusion with making
excuses. You know, “I’m only human.” Just
blowing things off. And again, you could blow things off and say it’s self-compassion.
But is it, really? Because if you really have
self-compassion, remember, you are more able to see yourself clearly. It is safer to see
yourself clearly and therefore it’s a lot easier for
you to take responsibility because it’s okay to have messed up, to have made a mistake.
So research shows you’re more likely to take responsibility for mistakes because, again,
it’s not so psychologically damning to do so.
And a lot of people are afraid of compassion well for various reasons; but one of them
is they really think they need their self-criticism to motivate themselves and keep
themselves in line. It’s a really entrenched belief and I think our culture kind of supports
that idea. We need to be hard on ourselves, we need to crack the whip. Think of all the,
you know, images we have for motivating ourselves. Often they’re very harsh.
First of all, I have to say if anyone does take this approach, I’d just like to ask
the question “How’s it working for you?”
You know, there’s that level, right? Does self-criticism
really help or not? Again, we go to the research and the answer is pretty much it doesn’t really
help very much. It kind of helps, but in a way
that’s not that effective. So what happens when we’re motivating ourselves with self-criticism
is the carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot is: I want to feel good about myself.
The stick is: I don’t want to feel bad about myself, right? So that’s how we’re moving
ourselves along. It’s really a fear-based type
of motivation. I am not okay if I fail, therefore I must try harder and succeed so I will be
okay. So then the other way to motivate yourself
is with self-compassion, not self-criticism. So self-compassion, there is motivation inherent
in self-compassion, but it’s all about wanting health and well-being for yourself
and encouraging and supporting yourself to be healthy as opposed to saying, “You
are not worthwhile if you fail.” And I’ve got
this picture of a father and his son because I really think it’s a lot easier to understand
these concepts when we think about friends or parents or children and then apply it
to ourselves. So we’ve got two scenarios, right? One is: a boy comes home from high
school with a failing math grade. And the kid wants to go to college so this is a problem.
So the old way actually back when they used to have the saying, “spare the rod, spoil
the child,” would be to harshly punish the kid or even if it’s not done with corporal
punishment, a father could say, “You loser. I’m disgusted with you. I’m ashamed. You
really blew it, what a screw up.” It kind of cringes, doesn’t it? And sadly some of
us in this room had that experience growing up.
What’s that going to do? Is that really going to
motivate the kid? It may make the kid behave but what happens when you criticize like
that, when we self-criticize especially, is first of all, we almost inevitably get depressed.
Very painful. Depression is not exactly the most conducive mood to motivation. That’s
one of the things about depression is that you don’t feel motivated. The other thing
it does is it makes us lose faith in ourselves.
If we all the time tell ourselves “I’m no good,
I’m not worthy, I can’t do it,” you know we don’t feel confident to take on
new tasks. And actually the research shows that self-confidence,
or perceived confidence, is one of the most important factors in motivation that
makes people try, keep trying. And then the third thing that happens when you constantly
criticize yourself is you become afraid of failure, you know? I’m not even going to
try because the consequences if I fail are too
devastating. Better just to not even going to go there.
But imagine this scenario instead, which hopefully happens much more often. The father
comes, the son comes home with a failing math grade and the father says, “Whoa, you
must be really disappointed, you know. Hey listen, it’s okay, it happens to everyone.
You know, people do fail, I still love you, you
aren’t bad for failing, I accept you anyway, but
it is a problem. You know, I know you want to go to college, you’ve gotta get your
math grades up so you can get in to a place like
UC Berkeley, right, so what can I do to help you? How can I support you? Do I need to help
you with your homework? Do I need to get in a tutor? Let’s figure out what’s
going on but I believe in you and I know you can do
it and I’m here to nurture and support you along the way.” Now that’s actually going
to be much more effective in the long run for having
that child learn the skills he needs to learn to go on. And yet we don’t really do that
with ourselves very much. For some reason we believe that the harsh, self-flagellation
approach is more effective than being kind, supportive, encouraging, nurturing. So not
only would I argue, but as we’ll talk about in
a moment, there’s research to show that that’s really not the case. Self-compassion
is a very effective motivator.
So another thing I’d like to talk about with this idea of motivating ourselves with
self- criticism I think that’s worth paying attention
to. I think one of the reasons we’re so attached to our self-criticism, even though
it’s painful, is because I think it gives us the
illusion of control. You shouldn’t have failed. Oh, that means theoretically it’s
possible that I would have never failed, just because
I did something wrong. You shouldn’t have made a mistake, you shouldn’t have been
this, you shouldn’t have been that. We love the illusion that it’s theoretically possible
to be perfect, to never have things go wrong, you know, to do everything we want to do.
Just a show of hands: how many of you, if you could snap your fingers and get rid of
your absolute worst trait that you don’t like
about yourself, would do it? You know, why wouldn’t you? If we have so much control,
why are we still doing it? Because we don’t have that much control! We have a little
wiggle room, but not much. You know our genes, our early history, our culture, our
stress level. There are so many reasons why it’s hard to be exactly who we want to be.
But somehow when we criticize ourselves we feel that, well, maybe if I just tried a little
bit harder, I could be perfect. And that’s not reality.
So self-compassion takes a different approach. First of all, self-compassion is about self-
acceptance. I fully accept myself as I am, flaws and all, I have compassion, kindness,
love, even though I’m not perfect, even though I don’t fail. And self-compassion
is not about, you know, self-improvement or evaluating
yourself (am I good enough or not), trying to do more more more so I can see myself
positively. It really is about accepting who you are as you are.
Okay well, how… does that contradict what I just said about motivation? Doesn’t self-acceptance
mean being passive, being complacent? Doesn’t acceptance just mean acceptance? Well yeah,
it does, right? So if you accept things as they are, then how does that help motivate
to make a change? And Carl Rogers talked about this very beautifully:
“You know the curious paradox – and it is a paradox – is that when I accept myself as
I am, then I can change.” And if you think about
what’s happening there, when we accept ourselves fully, and we embrace who we are,
flaws and all, then it actually does allow us to see
ourselves clearly (because it’s safe to see ourselves clearly), and because we care
about ourselves and don’t want to suffer, we’re going to try as much as possible to
make changes that, you know, are going to make
us healthier and happier, but we also know that if we don’t succeed, it’s still OK.
Right so there’s not this pressure of you are a bad person unless you change. You know
it’d be great if you could change and be happier but I accept you, regardless. And
so sometimes I think of the way self-compassion
is useful for motivating is it just…it plants seeds. You know it plants seeds of,
“I’d really like not to suffer so much, I’d really
like to be happier, I’d really like to be more fulfilled in this area.” So I’m going
to water those seeds with this sense of care and nurturance
and kindness, but I know at the end of the day I don’t have total control whether
or not that tree is going to grow. But I’m going to do what I can.