Online with Dr. Karyl McBride: Interview With Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. Interview with Dr. Karyl McBride

Here is a recap of Dr. Karyl McBride's interview with author, Kristin Neff, Ph.D. on Facebook, Monday, November 11th.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Kristin, I love your book, Self-Compassion…and recommend it often to clients. What caused your interest in this topic and inspired you to write the book?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: When I was finishing my PhD at UC Berkeley in 1997 I was under a lot of stress, so decided to learn how to meditate as a way of dealing with it. The very first night I went to the class the woman leading the course talked about the importance of self-compassion. It was the exact message I needed to hear in the moment, and I started being kinder and more supportive to myself. It made a huge difference in my life. Then when I got an assistant professor position at UT Austin I decided I wanted to do research on the construct. While various people had written about the importance of being compassionate to yourself (Buddhist writers, Humanistic Psychologists, and so on) no one had actually conducted empirical studies on it. So I created a scale to measure self-compassion and started conducting research on its benefits. The research really started taking off, but after a while I realized the importance of discussing the idea of self-compassion outside of the academic realm. I decided the best way to do that would be to write a book aimed at a general audience, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Dr. Karyl McBride: You say self-esteem and self-compassion are different. Can you explain this to our readers?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: First, let me explain what self-compassion is, and then I'll talk about how it's different from self-esteem. Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others' suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.

Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways.  Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.  In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special.  It is not okay to be average; we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves.  This means that attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves.  We also tend to get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves.  The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances. In contrast to self-esteem; self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.  Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances; it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face!  Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

Dr. Karyl McBride: What have you found your research to say about the connection between self-compassion and mental health or well-being?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: Numerous studies have found that treating oneself compassionately when confronting personal suffering promotes mental health. For instance, greater self-compassion has consistently been associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. In addition, a number of studies have found associations between self-compassion and positive psychological qualities such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and exploration, personal initiative, and emotional intelligence. Self-compassion appears to facilitate resilience by moderating people’s reactions to negative events. In a series of experimental studies, Leary and colleagues (2007) asked undergraduates to recall unpleasant events, imagine hypothetical situations about failure, loss, and humiliation, perform an embarrassing task, and disclose personal information to another person who gave them ambivalent feedback. Results indicated that individuals who were high in self-compassion demonstrated less extreme reactions, less negative emotions, more accepting thoughts, and a greater tendency to put their problems into perspective while at the same time acknowledging their own responsibility, than individuals who were low in self-compassion.

Self-compassion has been linked to the ability to cope effectively with life stressors such as divorce, childhood maltreatment, or chronic pain. It appears to promote health-related behaviors such as sticking to one’s diet, reducing smoking, seeking medical treatment when needed and exercising.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Many people think that if we are compassionate to ourselves we are being selfish or narcissistic…I totally agree with you that we have to learn to love ourselves before we can give real love and compassion to others. Can you speak to this?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: Actually, research suggests that’s not the case. There is a very weak association between compassion for oneself and compassion for others. That’s because most people are much kinder to others than they are to themselves, so the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. However, we know that caregivers such as therapists or parents of special needs children or health care workers who are self-compassionate are much less likely to suffer from burnout or compassion fatigue, and that they are more satisfied with their care giving role. So you might say that although you can be compassionate to others without being compassionate to yourself, you can’t sustain this way of being unless you also take care of yourself. That said, self-compassion does not mean being selfish because almost no one is more compassionate to themselves than to others. Self-compassion enhances interpersonal relationships and allows you to be a better relationship partner.

Also, many people confuse self-compassion with self-pity. They couldn’t be more different. When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems.  They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection. Also, self-pitying individuals often become carried away with and wrapped up in their own emotional drama. They cannot step back from their situation and adopt a more balanced or objective perspective. In contrast, by taking the perspective of a compassionate other towards oneself, "mental space" is provided to recognize the broader human context of one’s experience and to put things in greater perspective. (“Yes it is very difficult what I’m going through right now, but there are many other people who are experiencing much greater suffering.  Perhaps this isn’t worth getting quite so upset about...")

Dr. Karyl McBride: A lot of people wonder how to use self-compassion. In your book and videos you say: notice your feelings, respond to them, and reassure self that this is the human condition. Love it. Can you expound on this a bit?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: To understand how to use self-compassion you need to understand its core components, which are self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” was the only person suffering or making mistakes.  All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.  It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by “external” factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.  Thich Nhat Hahn calls the intricate web of reciprocal cause and effect in which we are all imbedded “interbeing.”  Recognizing our essential interbeing allows us to be less judgmental about our personal failings. After all, if we had full control over our behavior, how many people would consciously choose to have anger issues, addiction issues, debilitating social anxiety, eating disorders, and so on?  Many aspects of ourselves and the circumstances of our lives are not of our choosing, but instead stem from innumerable factors (genetic and/or environmental) that we have little control over.  By recognizing our essential interdependence, therefore, failings and life difficulties do not have to be taken so personally, but can be acknowledged with non-judgmental compassion and understanding.

Finally, self-compassion also requires being mindful of our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Dr. Karyl McBride: I want to mention the movie Horse Boy. My understanding is that this is about your journey with your autistic son. You also tie this in with compassion for yourself as a parent. This is beautiful. Would you like to share anything about this movie with our readers? Can you also let us know where to find it?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: I see this journey as evidence of the fact that when you open your heart to suffering, life often transforms into something beautiful. Over and over again self-compassion allowed me to cope with the stresses of being an autism parent, and this gave me the resilience needed to meet my son Rowan’s needs and take risks to help him. People can buy the bestselling book “The Horse Boy” (written by my husband Rupert Isaacson) at books stores and on Amazon, and you can buy the documentary film “The Horse Boy” on Amazon but even easier to watch it on Netflix.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Because we tend to internalize our negative messages from childhood or traumatic experience, I think self-compassion takes practice. It is very different from doing positive messages like affirmations that don’t work unless trauma is cleaned up. Do you find this to be true as well? How do people practice this?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: Self-compassion is not positive thinking, because it acknowledges suffering as opposed to denying it’s there. However, the power comes from embracing that suffering with kindness, which allows us to not only bear but to eventually transform the suffering. It does take practice, but most of us actually know how to be compassionate. We know what to say or what to do when a close friend comes to us who is feeling bad about him or herself, or who has just failed, been rejected, gotten that diagnosis. We just need to remember to treat ourselves the same way when we are suffering. You can also practice meditation (there are free guided meditations on my website – www.self-compassion.org - and also various exercises.) And not only are there practices in the book, I’ve just come out with a new 6 hour training CD set available from Sounds True which provides many tools for being self-compassionate in daily life.

Dr. Karyl McBride: You say in your book that self-compassion improves the quality of sex and love relationships! Tell us more!

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: Well, the improved sex comes from being more accepting and comfortable with oneself and one’s body, though there is no research on this - just personal experience ☺ However, we have research that shows self-compassion improves romantic relationships. In a study of 100 heterosexual couples, self-compassionate individuals were described by their partners as being more emotionally connected, accepting and autonomy-supporting while being less detached, controlling, and verbally or physically aggressive than those lacking self-compassion. Self-compassion was also associated with greater relationship satisfaction and attachment security. Because self-compassionate people give themselves care and support, they appear to have more emotional resources available to give to their partners. Another study found that self-compassionate people were more likely to compromise in conflict situations with romantic partners, while those lacking self-compassion tended to subordinate their needs to partners. This pattern makes sense given that people with high levels of self-compassion say they tend to be equally kind to themselves as others, but people with low levels of self-compassion say they tend to be kinder to others than themselves. The study also showed that self-compassionate people felt more authentic and experienced less turmoil when resolving relationships conflicts, and reported a greater sense of well being.
My research shows that adult children of narcissistic parents have a difficult time giving themselves credit when they have done wonderful things in their lives.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Whether it is accomplishments, parenting, education, careers, etc... How does self-compassion help with this?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: Many people internalize those views of their parents when they are very young as a safety strategy to keep feeling of connection with their parents, on whom they rely totally. If the messages children get are critical, or if praise is withheld, then our sense of self becomes negative, and actually feels safe to keep this view of ourselves as adults because our sense of self isn’t threatened. Self-compassion can heal the attachment wounds created in childhood when parents are nurturing of emotionally responsive though. By giving ourselves the love, support and emotional responsiveness as adults, we can reform our attachment bonds so that we feel secure and worth of love. Again, there is research showing that self-compassion is linked to secure attachment, and the ability to cope effectively with past childhood difficulties.

What if someone feels like they have sabotaged their life and their goals and are struggling with feeling less than? This is common for adult children of narcissistic parents as well. How can self-compassion help?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: With self-compassion, we remember that we are all just humans doing the best we can. That we all deserve kindness and compassion because we all suffer. Instead of trying to feel better than others, or suffering because we feel worse than others, we can stop the social comparison game all together and simply love and accept ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to motivate ourselves to reach our goals or fulfill our dreams however. Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything.  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of ice cream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  People are often very hard on themselves when they notice something they want to change because they think they can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach.  However, this approach often backfires if you can’t face difficult truths about yourself because you are so afraid of hating yourself if you do.  Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censure. In contrast, the care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation.

Dr. Karyl McBride: I am fond of your book because it gives us direct exercises to use for self-compassion. Where can we find more of your work?

Kristin Neff, Ph.D.: You can find everything on my website, www.self-compasion.org

Kristin Neff InterviewKristin studied communications as an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles (B.A., 1988). She did her graduate work at University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D., 1997), studying moral development with Dr. Elliot Turiel. Her dissertation research was conducted in Mysore, India, where she examined children’s moral reasoning. She then spent two years of post-doctoral study with Dr. Susan Harter at Denver University, studying issues of authenticity and self- concept development. Her current position at the University of Texas at Austin started in 1999, and she was promoted to Associate Professor in 2006. Find Kristin online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Psychology Today

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