Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher at The University of Texas, charts a new course that might just change your life in ways you never expected.
Story by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne, Photos by Jace Rivers, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Makeup and Hair by Christie Griffin
Dictionary.com defines a pioneer as “one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise or progress.” Given that definition, Dr. Kristin Neff definitely qualifies as a pioneer and, indeed, she is widely regarded as the preeminent authority on the study of self-compassion. What Neff didn’t know in 1997, as she embarked on her journey in response to her feelings of shame, stress and selfjudgement following a divorce, and her fear of what would follow upon the completion of her doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was that the road would lead to Austin, Texas.
In Texas, pioneer women are a tribe all their own. Fiercely independent, they were fearless trailblazers who fought for Texas’ independence, marked their territory and conquered a harsh land. They were, by nature and by necessity, resilient and courageous. Although she couldn’t have known it at the time, when Neff took a position at the University of Texas, she would follow in these pioneering women’s footsteps, albeit in a modern way.
Neff’s research and groundbreaking study of self-compassion would not only allow those who would come to practice her techniques to be genuinely kind to themselves, but also show resilience and courage as they progressed along the path. Neff had come to the right place.
Join Austin Woman and Neff on her pioneering journey as she explains in her own words the concept and components of the practice of self-compassion.
For me, the practice of self-compassion is a personal journey that comes from my profound observation of the way it has changed my life and, in a way, the science is to support what I already know. Following a divorce, I began to experiment with treating myself with compassion, and it was extremely beneficial. I left Berkeley and did two years of post-doctoral study in Denver with a self-esteem researcher, so I was very familiar with some of the problems associated with self-esteem. It is bad to hate yourself, but it is particularly difficult to like yourself when self-esteem is contingent on success. Practicing self-compassion is a better way to think about a healthy relationship with oneself, so when I got to UT Austin, I wanted to do research.
I was hired for a tenure-track position: associate professor in the Human Development program. Early on, it was risky because self-compassion is based on a Buddhist construct, and I was afraid it would be considered too “woo-woo,” but I got good advice from a mentor at UT. He said, “If this is your passion, you will do better research, get more publications and be more likely to get tenure if you follow your passion.”
There had been research on mindfulness, so the way had been paved, but self-compassion was something new. It was really a big risk. What if my research didn’t support what I believed would be true? I had no idea of how to study it empirically, so I created a scale, and I have no background in scale design, but I tried to think of some way to measure it. I looked at what I thought self-compassionate behavior is and developed the long and short scales from that. And so I birthed this baby and now it is hugely popular. I have a group of five people in my lab and continue the research.
Now, most of my focus is on intervention. I developed the Mindful Self-Compassion program, which is an eight-week program. We started teacher training last year and have 500 teachers worldwide. As an academic, it is so gratifying to take your research and see people transform their lives as they practice. Eventually, I would like my work to focus on how intervention and the practice of self-compassion changes lives.
The practice of self-compassion in layman’s terms
Self-compassion is being a supportive, encouraging friend to yourself, being an ally instead of an enemy to yourself when you suffer. It is understanding that personal suffering is a part of your life. Self-compassion allows you to generate a sense of warmth and kindness and care for yourself, and to be a supportive friend.
Women tend to be more compassionate toward others, but not toward themselves. Women treat themselves and others starkly different from men. The good news is that women have a lot of experience being caregivers and friends, and so, they do know what to say and do with compassion.
Once they give themselves permission to start being a friend to themselves and trust that it is not going to make them lazy or selfish, it becomes easier. There is nothing to fear because my research says that once they start committing to being compassionate toward themselves, they are actually more compassionate toward others.
Self-compassion can feel kind of weird at first. I tell people to notice what you say to yourself and ask yourself, “Would you say that to a dear friend?” The answer is usually no. You say harsh, critical things to yourself that you wouldn’t even say to people you don’t know or don’t like. So why is it easier to be a good friend to others than to yourself? Because when you fail, you feel inadequate. You are suffering and then you feel afraid and your defenses kick in. Your brain tries to attack the problem, which, unfortunately, is yourself, so it tries to kick you in the ass to the point where there won’t be fear anymore. It is a primitive kind of safety strategy. Our reptilian brain’s first line of defense is to go into reactivity mode whenever we are threatened. We don’t feel threatened by other people’s failures, so we can be compassionate and nurturing to them. But there is another way. We can also feel safe through self-compassion, although it is a slower system. It is the one that makes the baby feel safe with its mother, the system where the mother wants to take care of the baby, where he feels supported and warm with gentle touch and soothing vocalizations. Unfortunately, it is not the first way to feel safe and kick in. That is why the practice of self-compassion needs to become a habit.
When I try to help people with their inner critic, I don’t say, “Shut that b—h up.” You have to be compassionate and know that voice is our reptilian brain trying to help us. The inner critic is not wise, not evolved and is very reactive. It encourages us to run, to hide, to try to control the part of us that feels so scared. People in our program investigate their self-critic in order to change those go-to behaviors. Ask what your inner critic wants from you, and how it is trying to help you. Then you can thank your inner critic for trying to keep you safe. Once you acknowledge that voice as trying to help you, it quiets down and you can begin to feel safe in other ways. I encourage people to use physical gestures and soothing tones to comfort and calm themselves and to begin to substitute criticism for telling yourself, “I am here for you. I know this is hard and you are scared, but I care about you,” whatever language is reassuring and kind. Things you would say to a friend in distress, say to yourself. It may seem odd at the beginning, but you will be surprised how effective it will become. Once you begin to listen to your wise self and your soothing, compassionate system without being overridden by a fear-based response, you will be shocked to find that those two parts are actually wanting the same thing, which is to encourage a change. The self-compassionate tone is radically different from the harsh inner critic and is much more conducive to actually making a change. From that place of safety, utilizing the wise, mature, non-reactive part of yourself, you can make wise decisions.
The difference between self-esteem and self-compassion
Self-esteem is so contingent. In its purest form, it means an unconditional positive regard for ourselves, but for most of us, it is anything but unconditional. High self-esteem has come to require being special and above average, so any time anyone does better than you, you feel diminished in comparison. Say that you are doing pretty well and you are feeling good about yourself, and then you fail at something and your self-esteem deserts you just when you need it most. Esteem is used as a judgement of worth, whether it is positive or negative. With self-compassion, you aren’t evaluating yourself as good or bad or as a success or a failure. Whether you are at your best or at your worst, you are still being a friend to yourself. Self-esteem is less stable. Look at all of the domains in which women base their self-esteem: They have to be good earners, [have]satisfying work, good looks, good relationships. They have to be good mothers, good wives, good friends. The expectations get higher and higher, and every time you can’t meet those self-imposed expectations, you feel unworthy and bad about yourself. Impossible expectations can come from yourself, the culture of your parents, come from a lot of places, but in today’s world, expectations are very, very high. At some point, perfectionism has to crack.
My goal for self-compassion is to become a compassionate mess. The mess is inevitable. We are all humans, so we get it wrong and we are going to fail. So many of these things are out of our control. While I can’t achieve perfection, I can achieve being a compassionate mess. The goal is to respond to all of your mistakes with compassion. If you can value the quality of the heart and the compassion more than the outcome, then what is most important is how you relate to yourself and, in turn, to the world, whether your heart is open or not. Being kind to yourself as you are even in the midst of failure takes so much courage, but if that is your goal and what you value—developing a strong, resilient, open heart—then you can succeed in any situation. I tell our teachers, “You can’t lose with self-compassion, no matter how much you fail.” You can hold anything in compassion. The heart always has the possibility to be open and to be brave and, again, to hold challenges with kindness. Self-esteem measures and judges. If self-compassion is your fallback, no matter what happens, it is always empowering.
The joy of practicing self-compassion
In simplest terms, the practice of self-compassion leads to a loving, connected presence. It is a wonderful feeling to be loving, connected and present in a relationship. We have all felt that at some time, and it is the ideal state of being. Ironically, even though we turn toward our suffering and acknowledge our pain, we are actually generating this state of loving, connected presence.
Compassion is how we relate to our suffering as a part of the whole picture. We can hold our accomplishments and good things in [our]life in compassion, and the gratitude extends to all of it. Self-compassion allows you to hold anything in that space, and there is nothing that cannot be held lovingly, even hatred and fear.
Check what happens when you are stuck in the habit of self-criticism. Ask how [this is]working for you. What is living in the inner war zone doing to you? What effect is it having on you? It is very destructive.
Once you have recognized and acknowledged that, you are moved to say there has to be a better way, a better way to motivate change in a positive way from a compassionate, warm, encouraging, supportive perspective rather than one reacting to fear. Once you give yourself permission to practice self-compassion, a transformation begins. You are gentler with yourself and others. My research shows people who practice are more giving, more intimate and more loving and less controlling, less likely to be reactive. If you walk around with a compassionate mindset, that is what people will respond to. If you have a harshly critical, reactive mindset, then that is what people interact with. The mindset that you cultivate is the one you carry into your relationships.
Self-compassion allows you to be more observant before you react. If your fallback is compassion, then you can acknowledge that you are a flawed human trying the best you can and that you will make mistakes without feeling threatened by your humanity. In compassion, you are filling your mind with kindness and care for your own state of flawed imperfection. One of the real benefits is honesty toward yourself and being able to take responsibility for what you have done. It is not so devastating. You can make a mindful self-change, but if you are in a harsh, critical mindset, that will color your decision making and ability to make a positive change.
Self-compassion doesn’t make the problem go away and doesn’t fix anything; it is not a magic bullet. That is not reality. Self-compassion is a huge form of courage. You have to be brave to allow yourself to be an authentic, vulnerable human being. It takes courage to allow ourselves to be seen as we truly are, intrapersonally as well as interpersonally. Even if your friends see you one way, you may have an overwhelming sense of shame. Self-compassion is a good antidote to shame. You can let go of harsh criticism and respond with common humanity and see how many people feel the same things as you. We believe our shame isolates us, but in reality, it connects us. It is a basic human emotion, and if you run from it, then it controls you. Shame is not going to go away. Turn toward it but don’t let it define who you are. Embrace imperfection. So many things are beyond your control.
With the practice of self-compassion, you aren’t defined by your pain anymore. You don’t deny the pain, but can allow your heart to break open and hold the pain you are feeling. You are not only the pain; you are also the love that is holding the pain. When you are allowed to feel everything in a place of safety, you develop emotional resilience. When we feel loved and supported, especially by our own self, then we feel safe. The more you practice self-compassion, the more it becomes like a habit. When you value compassion and kindness, and can live with it every moment within yourself, a powerful transformation happens. Being in a state of loving, connected presence: That is the goal.
The core components of self-compassion
To practice self-compassion, three core components are required:
1. Self-kindness: This is being kind and supportive to yourself when you have failed or in some way feel inadequate, as opposed to being harshly judgmental. Self-compassion is choosing to be gentle and understanding and kind to ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
2. Common humanity: This is feeling connected to others while we experience all facets of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. It is remembering that failure is part of the human experience and acknowledging that it is normal to be imperfect. Everyone suffers and feels inadequate. It is part of the human condition. The more common response is to isolate rather than feel that you are experiencing something all people feel. We all struggle. The way we struggle and the degree to which we struggle is different, but this is something we all share. This is what it means to be human.
3. Mindfulness: This requires that we hold our experience in balanced awareness rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. It means being able to turn toward, validate and acknowledge when you are suffering. [There’s a] reactivity defense when we are scared: “I don’t want to think about it or I have to fix the problem, make it go away and manipulate the problem.” To have self-compassion, we have to pause and say, “This is really hard right now.” A very powerful phrase is, “I am so sorry that this is so hard for you right now.” Just having that acknowledged allows you to step outside yourself and say, “Wow, this is really hard.” Step back and bring some balance to the situation.
The Horse Boy
Practicing self-compassion transformed Dr. Kristin Neff’s life in many ways, but none more powerful than in her relationship with her son, Rowan, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3.
“For me, accepting and coping with Rowan’s autism was the ultimate proving ground, and I could see self-compassion in action,” Neff says. “When I was feeling overwhelmed, despair, unable to cope and feeling grief, I would go into sootheand- comfort mode to care for myself. It really helped.”
Struggling to find ways to help Rowan communicate, Rowan’s father, Rupert Isaacson, encouraged by an encounter between Rowan and visiting shamans and healers, as well as his son’s connection to horses, was inspired to take Rowan to a place where healing and horses were combined. Thus, planning for a family trip to Mongolia began. Although Neff was skeptical, she was able to open both her mind and her heart to the idea through her practice of self-compassion. It gave her the courage to fully enter into the adventure.
The Mongolian journey has been chronicled in a book and a documentary film, both entitled The Horse Boy, which were followed by another book, The Long Ride Home, which continues the adventure in search of shamans and healing for Rowan and his family.
The Horse Boy Foundation
The Horse Boy Foundation is the brainchild of Rupert Isaacson and Dr. Kristin Neff, parents of an autistic son, Rowan. Based in Elgin, Texas, just outside Austin, the foundation is now working in three countries and throughout the U.S., and continuing to grow. After Rowan, who was non-verbal, began to speak while responding to horses, Isaacson and Neff founded the charity to provide equine therapy free of charge to Austin-area families affected by autism.
The foundation also develops home-school and classroom curricula for children with neuro-cognitive conditions, and collaborates with universities worldwide to further research, but remains very much a homegrown Austin project.
To learn more about the Horse Boy Foundation, classes and services, visit horseboyworld.com.
Read: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff In a step-by-step guide, Neff explains the practice of self-compassion and how it can transform lives through kindness and freeing ourselves from a harsh inner critic. Using solid empirical research, personal stories, practical exercises and humor, Neff explains how to heal destructive emotional patterns so you can be healthier, happier and more effective. Far from textbook lingo, this book is engaging and highly readable, and may even have the power to change your life. It is the perfect place to start on the path of attaining loving, connected presence as a permanent state of being.
Watch: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion Dr. Kristin Neff at TEDx Centennial Park Women This 19-minute video is a good introduction to what self-compassion is and how it differs from self-esteem. tedxtalks.ted.com/video/the-space-between-self-esteem-a
Listen: Self-Compassion Step By Step by Dr. Kristin Neff Learn how to practice skills of self-compassion in this six-session audio training program, available as CDs or audio downloads. self-compassion.org/self-compassion-step-step-cd-set
Attend: Self-Compassion and Emotional Resilience Training May 21, Austin This workshop will provide simple tools for responding in a kind, compassionate way to painful emotions. Through discussion, meditation and experiential exercises, workshop attendees will gain practical skills to help bring self-compassion into their daily lives. Attendees will learn how to stop being so hard on themselves, how to handle difficult emotions with greater ease and how to motivate themselves with kindness rather than criticism. Practices will also be introduced to help ease stress for caregivers. For more information, contact Kathey Ferland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more: Self-compassion.org Dr. Kristin Neff’s website provides numerous valuable resources, including scales to test your level of selfcompassion, self-compassion practices through guided meditations and exercises, videos on self-compassion and information on the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, as well as events, training opportunities and workshops.
Horse Boy photo by Justin Jinn. The Horse Boy Foundation photo by Iliane Lorenz.