Kristin Neff: Overcoming Objections to Self-Compassion
This video is part of the Mindfulness Incubator video series. (8/16)
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 got to get your math grades up so you can get into 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.
In a world where we often find ourselves pushing to meet high standards and navigate life’s challenges, self-compassion can sometimes feel like a rare and undervalued quality. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while, yet many wonder why it isn’t more widespread. Even though it’s not exclusive to Western culture, it does seem to be somewhat lacking here.
One significant reason behind this might be the confusion between self-compassion and self-pity. We’ve all encountered individuals lost in self-pity, and it can be quite exasperating. Self-pity often comes across as overly dramatic and self-centered. It’s crucial to recognize that self-compassion is different. It’s not about saying, “Poor me,” but acknowledging that life is inherently challenging for all of us. It’s a way of relating to ourselves with a sense of interconnectedness rather than self-absorption.
Mindfulness plays a pivotal role in self-compassion. When we are mindful of our suffering, we neither ignore nor exaggerate it. This mindful perspective helps us avoid the trap of self-pity and self-criticism.
Speaking of self-criticism, it’s essential to distinguish between healthy criticism and the harsh, damaging kind. While constructive criticism can be motivating, the belittling, self-deprecating language we sometimes use can be extremely harmful. Self-compassion doesn’t judge our worth as human beings; it discerns wisely.
Some might fear that self-compassion equates to self-indulgence, allowing us to shirk responsibilities and overindulge in pleasurable activities. In reality, self-compassion aims for long-term well-being. It’s like the compassionate mother who wants her child to eat vegetables and complete their homework. True compassion means taking actions that support our health and happiness, even if they’re not always pleasurable in the moment.
Another common misunderstanding is that self-compassion is an excuse for avoiding responsibility. In truth, self-compassion empowers us to see ourselves clearly and take responsibility for our actions. It’s easier to admit mistakes when we don’t attach our self-worth to them.
One prevalent belief that holds people back from embracing self-compassion is the notion that self-criticism is necessary for motivation. This idea has deep roots in our culture, but does it really work? Research suggests otherwise. Self-criticism often leads to fear-based motivation – we work hard because we fear failure and the negative judgments that come with it. It’s a stressful and unsustainable approach.
In contrast, self-compassion offers a gentler, more effective form of motivation. It doesn’t rely on fear or self-doubt. Instead, it nurtures the desire for health and well-being. It’s like the supportive parent who, upon seeing their child struggle, offers love, encouragement, and guidance rather than harsh criticism.
Self-compassion ultimately leads to self-acceptance. Paradoxically, when we fully accept ourselves, warts and all, we become more open to change. This is because self-compassion creates a safe space for self-exploration and growth. It’s okay to aspire to improve, but it’s also okay if we don’t achieve perfection. As Carl Rogers eloquently put it, “When I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
In essence, self-compassion plants the seeds of self-improvement. It fosters a desire to suffer less, be happier, and find fulfillment. While we may not have complete control over our growth, self-compassion provides the nurturing environment needed for change to take root and flourish.
So, why isn’t there more self-compassion in our lives? Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to the harshness of self-criticism, mistakenly believing it’s the only path to success. However, if we dare to embrace the transformative power of self-compassion, we may find ourselves on a more compassionate and fulfilling journey through life.