The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a Licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible version of ourselves.
If there’s anything we can use right now and in the coming months, it’s self compassion! Today I’m joined by Dr. Kristin Neff to chat about the many ways self compassion can be a helpful tool to help us get through difficult times. Dr. Neff and I chatted about what self compassion is, how it’s different from self esteem, how it can be helpful in mediating difficult emotions, and her favorite activity for practicing self compassion.
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Session 167: The Importance of Self-Compassion
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for session 167 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. If there's anything we can use right now and in the coming months, it's self-compassion. Today, I'm joined by Dr. Kristin Neff to chat about the many ways self-compassion can be a helpful tool to us to get through these difficult times.
Kristin is currently an associate professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She's a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion over 15 years ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is the author of this book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, released by William Morrow. In conjunction with her colleague, Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide.
Dr. Neff and I chatted about what self-compassion is, how it’s different from self-esteem, how it can be helpful in mediating difficult emotions, and her favorite activity for practicing self-compassion. If anything resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation:
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Kristin. I'm really, really excited to chat with you. Self-Compassion was our Yellow Couch Collective Book Club choice for last month, so it feels very timely for you to be joining us for this conversation.
Dr. Neff: Oh, that's great. Wonderful. I’m happy to be here.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I wonder if you could start just by talking with us about what self-compassion is and what it isn't?
Dr. Neff: The easiest way to think of what self-compassion is, it’s simply being a good friend to yourself. So in terms of how you relate to yourself especially when you're struggling–you're struggling because you feel inadequate or you made just a mistake, or just when life is really difficult–that you treat yourself with the same type of kindness, warmth, care, support, concern, that you would naturally show to a good friend. And most of us actually don't do that. Most of us, if we talked to our friends the way we talk to ourselves, we would have no friends. And so really self-compassion is just turning that around, kind of doing a U-turn and being kind and supportive to ourselves.
Now, some people get confused about this. They think that being nice to ourselves means being self-indulgent, being lazy, being selfish, but actually that's not compassionate. If you want the technical definition of compassion, it’s concerned with the alleviation of suffering. And so when you're self-indulgent or you're lazy or you aren't helping yourself, you aren't actually alleviating your suffering; you're actually causing yourself more problems in the long run.
Also, the word compassion comes from the Latin–passion means to suffer and com means with–so there's an inherent connectedness in self-compassion. It’s the sense that everyone's imperfect, everyone's struggling, it's not just me, and this is what makes self-compassion different than something like self-pity. And with self-compassion, we must remember that this is part of the shared human experience, so it's not just me.
And by the way, I have to say that especially in today's times, whenever I say that, some people think this is like a coded version of like All Lives Matter, that it doesn't acknowledge that some groups suffer more than others. Absolutely they do. The amount of suffering is different, the source of suffering is different, all people in all groups do not suffer the same way and so we need to acknowledge that as part of the human experience. And yet, every single individual, especially when it comes to relating to their own suffering, their own suffering is valid. If you're in pain, if you treat your own pain with a kind, caring response, you will be able to turn your attention outward more effectively.
Dr. Joy: It really sounds like, you know, sometimes we hear this conversation around Grief Olympics or Pain Olympics, where we're trying to say like, “Oh, my hurt is bigger than your hurt.”
Dr. Neff: Yeah, exactly. It's not like that. You aren't saying that my pain is bigger or smaller. I mean, you recognize that people's pain differs. It’s very important, I think especially nowadays, we have to recognize, for structural reasons, the pain of all people is not the same. And yet with self-compassion, we can treat our own pain as worthy of a compassionate response. We're just saying that, “Hey, I am in pain, I am imperfect and I'm not the only one.” It's very simple in that way.
The reason that's so important is because if you get into self-pity, like “woe is me, poor me,” like victim mentality, that's actually not helpful. There's a wisdom element to self-compassion: seeing the bigger picture of things and your place in it.
Dr. Joy: It's interesting that you mentioned the structural inequalities that have, of course, led to some people’s suffering being different than others. And there's a quote in your book that talks about… and we know this as psychologists, right? That often the critical voice that we establish comes from our parents or early caregivers. The quote in your book is: "People with critical parents learn the message early on that they are so bad and flawed that they have no right to be accepted for who they are." And I think that the way that this sometimes plays out, especially in black communities, is that there does tend to be a tendency for parents to maybe be a little more critical as a means of survival. “I need to try to toughen you up for the world before the world has an opportunity to take advantage of you.”
Dr. Neff: Yes, absolutely. And so that can be done by parents and also individuals as well. There's this sense that being harsh with yourself is somehow going to toughen you up. The problem is that actually doesn't work. But we know, and there's a lot of research showing that when combat veterans who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan–that actually saw a combat overseas–those soldiers who were more supportive to themselves or warm with themselves, were less likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
And so any sort of traumatic situation, whether it's a warzone or whether it's racism or whether it's sexual assault, or whether it's going through a divorce, or whether it's raising a special needs child... there's a lot of different sources of struggle in life. If you think of it as when you go into battle, if you're the ally to yourself, if you have your own back, if you're there, if you know that you've got your own support, you aren't going to abandon yourself by just not attending to your problems, you're going to be warm and supportive and caring, you're going to be stronger in battle. But if you're an enemy, cutting yourself down, shaming yourself, that actually doesn't help.
To be supportive, supportive doesn't necessarily mean coddling; sometimes it has to be tough love. But the difference is there's love there. The support comes from a place of love as opposed to saying “you're inadequate, you aren't good enough.” And the second you start saying you're inadequate, you aren't good enough and shaming yourself, that actually pulls the rug out from underneath you and makes it harder to get through difficult situations. And it's easy to think about it when we think about raising our kids. Logically, you may have to use tough love but if you tell your kid “you're a worthless loser,” how's that going to help them?
Dr. Joy: I'm wondering if you can say more about the difference between tough love and being critical.
Dr. Neff: I like to talk about there's two types of self-compassion. There's yin and yang self- compassion. And so yin self-compassion, since I'm borrowing from Chinese philosophy, yin is kind of more the passive way of just being with what is, very important to be receptive to what is, and the yang is like taking action, where we might have to protect ourselves or we might have to change something, to motivate a change. And we always need both, right? And so being very critical toward ourselves, like harshly critical, there's no yin, there's no self-acceptance. It's like, “unless I achieve, I am worthless.” Or with the parent, it might be, “Unless you do this, I don't love you.” It's imbalanced, it's all just like “action, take action or else,” and there's no love.
At the same time, love without like, any yang, maybe it’s self-love but it can be coddling. It can be like, you know, just accepting everything you do, and sometimes actually you’re causing harm to yourself and others and it's really not acceptable. You really have to do something to make a change. Wisdom is this balance of acceptance and change and we always need both.
With self-compassion, what you have is the bottom line is I care about myself, I can support myself, I'm not gonna abandon myself. It's like an athletic coach, you know, athletes talk about the difference. There are some coaches that just like, whip their players into shape, like beat them down and it kind of works but it's not as effective as a really good coach who may have very high standards and be very exacting, and yet it's clear that the coach is doing it because they believe in you and they want you to achieve your best. And so it's a sense of, “Do I belong and am I worthy of care and respect?” that makes all the difference in terms of how it impacts us psychologically.
Dr. Joy: It sounds like there needs to be an understanding of the child or whoever is worth, before you can really get into some of this tough love. Like the love has to actually be established.
Dr. Neff: Because if you don't, if you don't establish the love and if it’s just criticism and it's not clear that the love and acceptance is there, then what it's going to do is it actually becomes counterproductive. You may kind of work harder because you're afraid of being punished, so to speak, but it undermines your self-confidence, it creates performance anxiety which is actually going to make it harder for you to achieve. And it can set up such fear that you actually start like not paying attention to things properly because you don't want to go there. You might start procrastinating, for instance, because you're so afraid of failing, and all that actually works against your ability to achieve your goals.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. I'm wondering if you have some tips, Dr. Neff, for how you can start to unravel this idea that criticism needs to be linked to survival. Like let's say somebody is listening and they have felt like they needed to be super tough on their little one to kind of get them to be well in society, what kinds of stuff might they be able to take to start unravelling some of that?
Dr. Neff: There's constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is, “Here's what's not working out so well. Here's ways you might try to fix things.” You know, it's a truism but isn't it true? Failure is their best teacher. Part of self-compassion is protecting yourself and so I'm a white woman and I'm going to own that, and so I'm coming from a different perspective. By the way, I think self-compassion is absolutely necessary for white people to wake up, but that’s a different conversation.
But just to say I'm talking from this perspective, so I know from firsthand, if you know the perspective of a woman in terms of oppression. So self-compassion means protecting yourself, standing up for yourself. You have to be very vigilant, you have to be very vigilant for microaggressions and any sort of discriminatory behavior. You have to be tough, but the toughness doesn't come from like, “I'm going to beat myself up before someone else beats me up,” because that’s actually not going to help you. The toughness comes from, “I am worthy, I am strong, and I will do my best and I'm not going to take any discriminatory behavior. I'm not going to accept that.” Being a woman in academia, it's a pretty sexist place still and so you really have to stand up for yourself and be tough as nails.
Destructive criticism is just like shaming yourself and “you aren't good enough and you can do better,” while caring is like, you know, “I love you, I accept you as you are and yet because I care about you, I think you can do better.” “Here's what's not working so well. Here's how we're going to change. Here's what you need to do to protect yourself, and you need to protect yourself because you care about yourself.” It's a difference in tone but the tone makes a huge difference.
Dr. Joy: Got it.
Dr. Neff: And it makes a huge difference because one creates anxiety, one lessens anxiety because you feel supported. Anxiety and fear and all those things–fear of failure–they actually work directly against you. If you start going down the path of shame, shame is not going to help you get through in the world, right? So for parents wanting to make sure their kids are tough, shaming them is not gonna help. But you can make the kid tough by letting them know that you believe in them, but also that you need to really teach them how to stand up for themselves in a way that's effective. It's all about effectiveness, what works, as opposed to self-worth. It's about the behavior, the actions, as opposed to the value of the person. The value of the person has to be unassailable.
Dr. Joy: In your book, you talk a lot about the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem. Can you say more about the difference?
Dr. Neff: That's also a really important one. There is some overlap in the sense that they both deal with kind of human value and worthiness but with self-compassion, the human value is unconditional. It’s like, “I'm a flawed human being who makes mistakes, who gets things wrong, who has difficult things happen, but I’ve got to be kind to myself because I'm a human being intrinsically worthy of care.”
There is unconditional self-esteem as well that's very similar, but most often, self-esteem is conditional. For instance, we need to feel special and above average. To have high self-esteems, it's not okay to be average. Which is a problem because that's a logical impossibility and so if you aren't worthy, if you're average, then that's a problem because we're average by definition. It also tends to be based on social comparison, like, how do I compare to another person in terms of like, attractiveness or popularity or success? And if we feel we don't measure up then our self-esteem takes a hit.
This social comparison can make some pretty nasty behaviors. We know for instance that bullying which starts in early adolescence, one of the reasons kids bully others is to try to feel good about themselves and to give themselves the self-esteem boost. If you successfully pick on that nerdy kid, that “I'm going to feel good about myself; other kids may look up to me.” And then in the adult realm, it's a contributing factor to things like prejudice. Now, obviously, prejudice is bigger than self-esteem, it's also about power and resources, so I’m not going to say that it's not. And yet some element is that my group–my racial group, my ethnic group, my religious group, my gender group, whatever group it is, my sexual orientation group–I feel that my group is better than yours and it makes me feel it gives me a self-esteem boost. That's like one of the nasty consequences of needing self-esteem.
And then also it tends to be unstable. Like self-esteem is there for us when things are going our way, but what happens when you fail or make a huge mistake or do something that you regret or don't meet your goals? Then precisely when we need a friend, a sense of support, our self-esteem deserts us.
Dr. Joy: Right. But I do want to go back to something you just said, though, like this idea of being authentic. This comes up a lot in our community, in the larger Therapy for Black Girls community, especially as it relates to black women in the workplace. This idea that you can be as authentic as you want, but that doesn't mean that other people don't still have these stereotypes or ideas about who you are in the workplace. So I'm wondering like, how do you ease the tension of that?
Dr. Neff: This is why we really both need the kind of yin and yang self-compassion. Self-compassion can help kind of give you inner strength to be able to not be so overwhelmed by it– you're more able to deal with things that come your way–but it's not enough. I mean, it's not enough. As a society, we need to start working together to change things. I certainly consider myself a feminist but, you know, women need to change things. And of course, we can't deal with feminism without also dealing with racism; they're all interlinked, they all intersect.
Hopefully, at this time in history, we're finally, finally seeing that things have to change. And I do think that as part of caring for ourselves, we have to care for other people, we need to make things equal for everyone, whether this is done through voting or just changing how things are in our company, we know that we need to take action. Self-compassion absolutely helps, it'll help you be strong, it'll motivate you, it'll give you the energy to be authentic as you try to make the change, but it's not enough. It can't be done at the individual level. We absolutely have to change the social systems.
I'm not a white male but I'm a white woman and I know just kind of from my own personal journey that self-compassion has been really key for me to be able to recognize my privilege. Because what happens is, I don’t need to tell you this, but it's like, “I'm not a racist, I'm not a bad person,” and then so because you don't want to go there, you tend to kind of look away and kind of disclaim any of that. “Well, it’s not me who's doing that.”
And by the way, at The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, we're really trying to bring this out as much as we can. In other words, how self-compassion can help people who have more privilege recognize their privilege: well, it's not that I'm a racist; it's just that I've unconsciously incorporated these stereotypes from watching TV, just from being in society. It's like when you are compassionate and you support yourself and you don't shame yourself, then you're more able to say, “Okay, yeah, I see that.” Then it kind of gives you the ability to see more clearly, to be more awake in terms of your role in things. And then I think the more and more we can do that for all people, if more and more they’re able to use self-compassion to take responsibility and to see their own privilege and to see their own role in the unequal power structure, hopefully that will be a key to change.
But again, that's still doesn’t replace action. You still need action, you need both. Personally, I mean, I don't know for sure, but I think one of the barriers to people taking action is the sense of, “It's not me.” But shame has kind of like made people not willing to take action, so I'm hoping that self-compassion plays some role in kind of releasing some of the blocks to people taking action.
But we'll see. I just hope things start to change. I think there is a different sense in the air and I really do think, at least I hope, it's my wish, that self-compassion plays some role to releasing the blocks for people who have power to see their own role in the system. But you know, we'll see. I'll certainly do everything I can. Does that make sense?
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I think there’s a part of it that makes sense as a practitioner, but as a human, it also sounds like a very hand-holding, very soft approach when it feels like black people don't have that opportunity, right? Like we don't have the privilege of kind of passively examining our stuff when it feels like we are the ones being perpetrated against.
Dr. Neff: Yeah, and I've had that reaction. I think it's definitely worth a conversation. It's like, I think it has to accompany action. But it’s the bit that I feel I can contribute, like that it can help you wake up, but it's definitely not enough. It’s almost like if I talk about it, I've had *[inaudible 0:21:27] like having people say, “Well, that's very nice for you, but it's not enough.” It's like, “Yeah, no, it's not enough but it's a first step.” So maybe it's the type of thing where maybe that’s something that should be done internally and not externally. Because I know from your point of view, it's like, well, that's fine and well but that should have been done like so long ago. You know what I mean?
Dr. Joy: Right, right.
Dr. Neff: Maybe that's something that needs to be done just within my community, among ourselves, because you shouldn't have to care about that.
Dr. Joy: Right. And I mean, again, it makes sense, right? Because we know that shame, we've already talked about that. We know that shame is not a helpful motivator.
Dr. Neff: Shame is not a helpful motivator, so action needs to be taken for sure.
Dr. Joy: Exactly.
Dr. Neff: And for that, you know, I'm just willing to do whatever I can. Part of the problem is kind of knowing exactly what to do and how to do it other than voting and things like that. It's a structural, entrenched problem but hopefully my small contribution, as we do the hard work of change, I think the more we're able to do it in a way that’s supportive. I mean, we need support. Everyone needs support. Actually, Dr. Joy, you said that black people don't have the privilege of doing that. Do you feel you don't have the privilege of being supportive to yourself as you make change? I mean, just kind of emotionally, like just “got your own back, you're gonna be strong, you’re gonna be there for yourselves.”
Dr. Joy: Oh, no, I don't think I was talking about it generally; I was just talking about it more in terms of like the structural racism piece. It feels like we don't really have the luxury of taking time because this has been happening for hundreds of years at this point.
Dr. Neff: Yeah. But I'm just curious, do you think that a practice of self-compassion can help at all, as the work is being done? Or is it just like not nearly enough? Is it worth doing at all or is it not even worth the time?
Dr. Joy: You mean for the white community?
Dr. Neff: No, for the black community.
Dr. Joy: Oh, hmm.
Dr. Neff: I'm curious. I'm really asking with open mind if you think it has a role to play in helping.
Dr. Joy: I definitely do think it is because I think what happens a lot of times, especially if we go back to the example of like black women in the workplace, a lot of times, of course, we can't get the answers to why people are reacting to us in certain ways and so we internalize it. Whereas I think self-compassion can help us to really recognize like, this is really not about me.
Dr. Neff: Yeah, and especially this… call it fierce self-compassion. So it's not just about the softness. Sometimes it’s like, “That is not okay, that is not true. No, I'm not gonna take that.” That’s starting to teach these fierce self-compassion workshops which are more about empowerment, you know, how do we support ourselves in empowerment? It's a little different for a black woman because of the history but for a white woman, the kind of socialization is “You aren't allowed to get angry. People won't like you if you're angry.” And that's why for a lot of women, it's very hard for them to stand up for themselves because they've been socialized that you aren't pretty when you’re angry. All this bullshit, if I can say that on the podcast.
And so I do think this idea of fierce, sometimes I like to call it mama bear self-compassion. Like that power of a mama bear if you threaten her cubs, she’ll knock your head off. Well, I think women need that. If you threaten us, we're gonna call that fierce, powerful energy that we have inside of ourselves. We actually haven't been able to access it maybe as fully as we might, because of gender socialization. We need to kind of, I think, really confront all the factors of socialization that keep us from being our true, authentic, full selves. And I think if we were able to do that, we’d be in a much better place.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. And I mean, I would love to hear more about this fierce self-compassion. Because as I hear you talk about it, we know that black women are already deemed to be angry, right? Like the expectation is that at any moment, a black woman is going to kind of snap on you, so to speak. And so when I hear you talk about bringing this fierce self-compassion to the workplace, my thinking is that this is not gonna work for black women because we're already so worried about being seen as angry.
Dr. Neff: I think maybe it has to be more of an internal job. It might have to be more of an internal job, like for instance, really owning your anger and like really honoring the place for it and, yeah, you're going to be facing different issues in terms of other people's perceptions. There's the compassion which is the “how am I relating to myself?” which is the self-compassion, and then there's the wisdom of “how do I act most effectively in the world?” And they aren't exactly the same.
How you relate to yourself may be slightly different than what you present to work in terms of what's going to be more effective. It's all very complicated and there is no one easy answer. What I do know is that self-compassion certainly has a role to play in terms of how we relate to ourselves in the midst of all this complicated stuff that we're having to deal with, that we need to deal with.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, that makes sense. I think that this feels like a natural tie into something else I wanted to talk to you about. There is also a portion of your book where you talk about generational trauma and the idea that pain and dysfunction get passed down from generation to generation. Can you talk more about the cycle and maybe some approaches to stepping out of that system?
Dr. Neff: I really do think that obviously we carry not just what we have in our lifetimes; we do carry generational trauma. I had a recent experience with someone who was very close to me that turned out to be a sex predator and it really, really shook me. It’s someone who was very, very close to me that was preyed upon and it was interesting, as I was going through it, as I was feeling my anger arise, I realized that it wasn't just like me, it wasn't just this person I was very close to it. It was like generations. When you tap into some of this pain, it's just like it's ancient. In other words, we aren't isolated individuals; we're situated in a culture, in a history, in a society. And the pain we may experience is connected to a whole history of pain.
And so again, coming back to the self-compassion, the first thing is just to be able to acknowledge that pain, just to own it, just to say “wow.” Just to really turn toward it and hold the pain. If one thing self-compassion is good for, it’s the ability to be able to hold pain without being overwhelmed. Because what happens is when we get in contact with pain, every single cell in our body just wants to like be out of there. “This is just way too much.” And sometimes we do have to be out of there because it is too much. But the more we can hold our pain in kind of this sense of love and care and support, you know, “I'm here for myself and it's okay and I'm not going to abandon myself, I’m present, I care.” You know, kind of this warmth with this love, it actually allows us to hold the pain.
It's not going to make the pain go away. Self-compassion is not a magic bullet, it doesn't make pain go away. There's actually nothing that makes the pain go away. But it helps us hold the pain and it helps us to survive the pain. It helps us get through the pain. And in fact, it's the process of trying to avoid the pain and sidestep it and to pretend it's not there that gets us into trouble. Or we get into behaviors that aren't helpful as a way to avoid the pain, like alcohol or drugs or sex or just anything. Over eating, just anything that kind of helps us avoid the pain.
What self-compassion can do is it helps us open to the pain and also helps us not identify with it so much. It's almost hard to put into words, but when your sense of self gets locked into the pain, it’s like your sense of self becomes quickly overwhelmed. But if you like expand the sense of self, so you're kind of a consciousness who's experiencing the pain and you're also experiencing the love and the care along with the pain. And your sense of self isn't so narrow; it's like broader–“I am a human being, I'm part of this larger unfolding experience.” And if you're a spiritual person, you can add in some spiritual ways, parts to that, then it's not so overwhelming.
The yin of self-compassion is the most important element for the healing. It kind of accepts this is how it is. I need to accept that this is how it is because this is reality. Can I be kind to myself, warm with myself, caring for yourself? “I'm so sorry, this hurts so bad, darling. You know, I'm here for you.” That actually allows us to deal with it and to heal from the pain. And then the yang self-compassion is about what are the concrete action steps I can take to make things better? It has also to be in the future moments, because right now this is how it is. “How can I make things better so that as the future unfolds, it unfolds in a healthier way?” Does that make sense?
Dr. Joy: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, I like that you keep coming back to the yin and the yang to give us examples of what that looks like.
Dr. Neff: Yeah, it really has to be both. If it’s just opening the pain without changing things, that may not be much help. But if it's just all about change, like, “we’ve got to take action, we’ve got to do this,” but there's no sense of first of all opening to what it is, then that's not healthy either. We need the acceptance and the love at the same time that we're taking concrete steps towards change. One without the other is incomplete, is unbalanced and is actually not going to be very effective.
Dr. Joy: It definitely feels like, Kristin, that your concepts related to self-compassion can be super helpful right now. I mean, in my community, lots of people are experiencing increasing stress. We already know what's been going on for the past couple of months but we also know that schools are reopening and so there has been lots of conversation in the community just around how in the world are we going to do all of this? And so I'm curious to hear if you have any thoughts about like, what self-compassion looks like, as we are continuing to try to work from home, continuing to try to educate from home. What kinds of tips might you have?
Dr. Neff: First, the really important thing is just to pause and take a moment to kind of give yourself compassion for the difficulty. In other words, if you’re only focused on what am I going to do and how am I going to deal with this? How am I going to homeschool my kids or how am I going to get through this? Then you actually aren't giving yourself the emotional support you need. So just taking a moment to pause and just to say, this is really hard. “This sucks, this hurts, I'm feeling afraid, I’m feeling lonely, I'm feeling frustrated,” whatever it is, and then give yourself kind of a yin. Give yourself some emotional support, some warmth, validating your pain, acknowledging it. That's kind of more of the yin self-compassion.
And then as you take action, you'll be able to take wiser action, make wiser decisions from this kind of more balanced, emotionally supported place. And so in terms of actual steps, are you sending your kids to school or not? Are you going to be able to deal with it? I think again, that's just a wisdom element in terms of each situation is going to be different. But sometimes parents think that it's kind of selfish to be focusing on giving yourself compassion when your kids are really stressed or worried. But what we know about the way empathy works, we are designed by evolution to constantly be feeding off others’ emotions.
So when other people around us, especially our kids, are stressed or frustrated, we feel that inside our own body, we feel stressed and frustrated. They also pick up on our internal mindset. We have mirror neurons or these parts of the brain whose whole function it is to feel the emotions of others. That's partly the way that humans communicate, especially in the first years of life. The more you can cultivate a warm, caring, kind of peaceful state of mind internally, or even if you can't be peaceful, but at least be kind to yourself because it's so chaotic inside, so you help other people by helping yourself.
In other words, we aren't separate. This idea that we're totally separate individuals who don't influence each other is a complete fallacy, right? That’s not the way humans were evolved. We’re evolved to influence each other through our emotions, through our interactions, through our social interactions. And so the way you treat yourself affects others, just as the way you treat others affects yourself. We're all part of the same human family, the same human system. If we leave ourselves out of that system and we just focus on helping others or just focus on problem-solving and forget to give ourselves the emotional support we need, that's going to be a hole in the system. I don't know if you wanted more concrete advice–I can't really give concrete advice!
Dr. Joy: Well, we know everybody's situation is different but I do think the idea of like the long pause and really talking to yourself about how hard this is…
Dr. Neff: It’s really hard. And just remember when you do that, you aren't saying that's pity, you aren't saying that you have it harder than anyone else. It’s hard for all of us. You aren't alone and yet you're the only one who's inside your own head. Don't forget to take a pause and to emotionally support yourself.
And it's not just self-care. You’re not just taking bubble baths or going for walks or doing exercise. Self-care is great but the way you relate to every single moment, especially every single moment of suffering, it’s really a mindset. You need to adopt the self-compassionate mindset so that as the frustration comes up, as your kids are screaming as you're trying to do your Zoom call, right? As you relate to that moment of frustration or overwhelm or anger or whatever it is, if you can do that with a sense of kindness, warmth and support. And again, maybe tough love, maybe like, “come on, hold it together.” It may be kind of tough but firm, but warm and caring, the more you'll be able to cope and get through. I do know that much in specific steps. Your opinion is as good as mine if not better.
Dr. Joy: I like that. That is very concrete, though you didn't describe it that way. We do have a question from one of our Yellow Couch Collective Book Club members. The question is: In the Sex and Love chapter of your book, you talked about assessing when your old patterns are asserting themselves and, in the moment, taking the time to give yourself self-compassion. And then after doing so, fully accept your overreaction. What do you recommend when you come out of your self-assessment and realize that it isn't an overreaction or an old pattern asserting itself? What should you do if they've actually done something wrong? Like lied or something similar to that?
Dr. Neff: The book you read, it was more focused on yin self-compassion, I hadn't really developed as much. My new book is called Fierce Self-Compassion.
Dr. Joy: Oh, is it out already?
Dr. Neff: No, no, I'm still writing it.
Dr. Joy: Okay.
Dr. Neff: At that point, I wasn't as much aware of, kind of, the need to protect ourselves. This sounds like when the person really has lied, then that's the time we need fierce self-compassion. That's the time you need to stand up and say that's not okay. That's not acceptable.
Here's the thing. Sometimes, for instance, we need to leave a relationship if it's really not good for us. And it can be hard to leave a relationship if we feel that we aren't good enough, if we feel we need the other person to complete us, if we feel we need the other person to be happy. And so that's why the more we're able to kind of fulfil our own needs, especially our needs for a sense of love and worthiness, the more we're also able to leave a relationship where we're being mistreated. Or at least stand up or at least take risks. The two really are connected.
Sometimes it’s not just you, sometimes it is the other person. I'm currently not in a relationship because I had to leave shortly after the book came out because–I won't go into detail, but I really needed to leave that relationship, sadly. And then I was in another relationship and I needed to leave that relationship and now I'm alone. And I would like to have a partner, but my practice really is about how do I be fully happy without being with someone? How do I not feel incomplete? How can I really learn to be happy and fulfilled without needing a man?
I must say it's really amazing because my whole life I always kind of imagined, well of course you have a man and I kind of like having a man and all this stuff. I'm still open to one! If one comes my way–and good luck in COVID to find a new man. But it's like, I'm really seeing how much of myself I gave away, I was willing to give away. Like subtly. Not even seeing the small ways we kind of give ourselves away, we kind of compromise.
Sometimes compromise is good but we shouldn't have to compromise who we really are in a relationship. For me at this point anyway, it's not worth it. I'm not going to do it again. If I can't be my full, true self, I'd rather be alone. I'm kind of at that point in my life. So if someone's lying to you, you need to confront them. Again, wisdom has to play itself out but sometimes you just need to say I'm sorry, it's not good enough. It's not good enough for me. I need to protect myself. I need to leave. And that happens.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. So we will have to be on the lookout for Book Two to see…
Dr. Neff: I write a lot about it, yeah. I go into a lot of my dirty laundry is in Book One and there’s a lot of dirty laundry in Book Two. You don’t want to come off as this know-it-all self-help guru who's got it all figured out. I am compassionate but I’m still a work in progress.
Dr. Joy: A work in progress like we all are. Something that we loved is that there are so many exercises in your book, Dr. Neff. I wonder if you can kind of give us a closing in terms of what exercise you feel is best for people who really want to get started working on self-compassion.
Dr. Neff: There is a practice, probably the most portable practice is in the Mindful Self-Compassion program which we developed. It’s the self-compassion break. In the book, I called it the self-compassion mantra. We’ve renamed it the self-compassion break to kind of give a sense of when you need a break, like a three-minute timeout to do this, it's kind of the reset button on your computer, you know, you just kind of press this button and reset. And I've got a recording of this on my website. If you just google self-compassion, you'll find me.
Basically, what you do is you just call in these three components of self-compassion intentionally. The first one is mindfulness. You just are mindful of the fact that this is really hard that you're in pain. This could be something that's happening, maybe you're lonely because of social distancing, maybe because you're angry at yourself. Whatever the pain is, you're just mindful of it and you validate it–this really hurts–and you get in touch with that, you’re open to the pain.
And then you remember common humanity, you remember that you aren't alone, there’s nothing odd or unusual about having these things happen. This is part of the human experience. It's not just me. That sense of it's not just me like adds insult to injury; It’s not just you. This is what it means to be human. So you know, okay, so this is normal, this is part of life.
And then the third one is bringing in the kindness. You can bring in the kindness. Sometimes touch can be a really important way to convey kindness, you can put your hand on your heart or your face or your stomach, some sort of warm touch to remind yourself physically of your own presence. And then in terms of language, you might just think: What would I say to a really good friend I cared about in this situation? What types of supportive language would I use with a good friend? And then you try that language out with yourself.
And so just bringing in the mindfulness, the common humanity and the kindness–and you can do it very, very quickly–really shifts your ability to relate to what's happening with more strength and also more peace and it makes it easier to bear.
Dr. Joy: Nice. I like that.
Dr. Neff: And then sometimes the mindfulness is, “This is not okay.” The common humanity is, I'm empowered because it's not just me; it's my brothers and sisters, whoever, who's also in this situation. And the kindness may be like fierce protective kindness, like, “I'm gonna do what I can but I need to stand up for myself and to say ‘no more.’” It's not always just like a soft acceptance. Sometimes it's like a fierce way of relating with the situation. It can be either, depending on what you need in the moment.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. What is the best way for us to stay connected to you and your work, Dr. Neff? Where can people find you?
Dr. Neff: Probably just my website, Self-Compassion.org. You can spell it any way, you'll find me. You can take your own self-compassion test, I've got videos, I've got guided meditations, I've got tons of research if you're into the research. I have a lot of resources. There's also links to The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion if you want to actually get training. We're doing all our training online now, so it's much more accessible than it used to be.
We just added to our board a woman named Sydney Spears. She's a professor from Kentucky University, and she is offering affinity practice groups. That may be of interest for people of color, for instance, or people with a non-heterosexual orientation or transgender. In other words, people can practice self-compassion with members of their own community, and so they can discuss to talk about how self-compassion is relating to the form of suffering that's relevant to people in a community.
We are just starting that up and we're so excited about it. Typically, if you go to one of our regular workshops, it's mainly white middle-aged women with graduate degrees. That's kind of our demographic. We're really working hard to change that and so one of the ways, if you want to practice with people who are more like yourself, Sydney Spears is leading these affinity groups. So that is a resource at The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and you can link to that from my website. We're really excited to see where that goes.
Dr. Joy: Nice. And we will of course include all of that in the show notes. We really appreciate your time and expertise today, Dr. Neff, thank you so much.
Dr. Neff: You're welcome, Dr. Joy. Thank you.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Dr. Neff was able to join us this week. Be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session167 to connect with her and to check out the resources on her website. Don't forget to share your takeaways with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession, and please text two sisters in your circle right now and encourage them to check out the episode as well.
If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic and connect with some other sisters in your area, come on over and join us in the Yellow Couch Collective where we take a deeper dive into the topics from the podcast and just about everything else. You can join us at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/YCC.