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Finding the Friend Within: The Science and Art of Self-Compassion

When we think of the word “compassion,” it can be tempting to apply it to everyone but ourselves. Yet a growing field of research is showing the importance of self-compassion for our physical and emotional well-being. 

Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, self-compassion experts and co-founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, visited the Center for Healthy Minds to share the latest research on self-compassion and why it matters. Their talk was edited for length and clarity.

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On how self-compassion is defined scientifically…

Kristin Neff: Self-compassion entails mindfulness of your own suffering, responding to yourself with kindness and feelings of interconnectedness with humanity. The word “passion” means “suffering,” and “com” means "with." 

The first step in giving yourself compassion is to be aware that you’re suffering – that’s mindfulness. You might think this is easy, but we don’t like to be aware when we’re suffering. We either go into problem-solving mode or try to suppress it, or we get lost in the suffering and over-identify with it. We need to step outside of ourselves and say, Hey, I’m having a really hard time right now, and it takes some courage to be with ourselves and our own pain. The next step is to respond to your pain with the same type of kindness you would show to a friend you cared about. Rather than being cold or judgmental, we are warm and supportive toward our friends. Ironically, however, we’re often harsher and more unforgiving to ourselves than anyone else in our lives. 

Finally, what differentiates self-compassion from pity is framing your own struggle and imperfection in light of the sheer human experience. It’s important to realize your experience is not isolated from a larger whole and that life and people are imperfect, everywhere. This is the nature of actually being human. At the very least, everyone struggles and gets ill and has difficulties in life. We know this rationally, but what happens emotionally when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, or we fail at something important to us, we feel that something has gone wrong and say to ourselves, This isn’t supposed to be happening. This is abnormal. We can feel very isolated in our struggle. Not only are we suffering, but we add insult to injury by thinking that there is something wrong with us for suffering.

"The next step is to respond to your pain with the same type of kindness you would show to a friend you cared about... we're often harsher and more unforgiving to ourselves than anyone else in our lives."

Kristin Neff

On the “big questions” being asked in self-compassion research…

Neff: We’re curious whether we can teach the basics of self-compassion skills without meditation as the vehicle. For pediatric workers, doctors and others in health care who may benefit from these practices, they want to learn the skills but often don’t have the time to meditate. So, we’re trying to figure out how to teach these skills of self-compassion with more informal practices. Although we don’t have formal data yet, we’re informally seeing some success with it.

On the scientific effectiveness of self-compassion…

Neff: We’re looking more at intervention studies, but the bottom line is it works. Self-compassion really seems to help and is strongly linked to well-being. We know that people who receive self-compassion training feel less depressed and stressed. They also suffer from less maladaptive perfectionism, feel less shame, and have less performance anxiety, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and chronic pain. When you hold your pain in a sense of kindness, care and connectedness, it tends to reduce these more pathological states of mind. Even though the pain is there, it feels good to be in a state of loving, connected presence – another way to describe the three components of self-compassion. That’s why it generates positive emotions and reduces negative emotions at the same time. We find that self-compassion often increases insight and life satisfaction through increased happiness, coping and resilience, motivation, concern with others, health behaviors, and even immune function.

We know that mindfulness training programs like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) also increase self-compassion, but they do it implicitly as a byproduct of holding ourselves and others in a more mindful, tender way. With our 8-week self-compassion program, we really wanted to learn whether we can teach concrete skills designed explicitly to teach people how to be kinder to themselves. In the few randomized control trials of the program, we’ve found that participation in the program increase self-compassion quite a lot, actually – by 43 percent. One thing we are really excited about is none of the gains we made in the program were lost after a year. Once you learned how to practice these skills, once you build that muscle, you can still continue to use the skill later on.

On how to actually build self-compassion during a difficult situation…

Christopher Germer: Kindness is central. You can think of this as treating yourself as how you would treat a good friend of yours. Self-compassion is a resource – just like compassion for others and mindfulness – that allows us to actually be in our experience, especially when it’s difficult. When challenging things happen, we have an instinctive threat response that might make us mutter, Ugh… This shouldn’t be happening! This is the reptilian sort of threat response. Compassion sounds more like a nurturing Ahh… and is associated with the caring aspect of our mammalian nervous system. In our training, we really emphasize informal practices. One of the most popular informal practices is using language. It’s called the self-compassion break, you can do this any time (see full practice below).

A Self Compassion Break

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Both Neff and Germer offer 3-5 minute guided practices on their website.

Think about a problem in your life right now. On a scale of 1-10, pick something that is a 3 or 4. Not a pebble, not a boulder. Just a rock that you can hold in your hand. Enough of a problem that when you think about it, you don’t want to think about it, and it makes you a little agitated.

We’re going to meet that problem with the three components of self-compassion. If right now, at this point in your day, you don’t feel like doing this, then don’t. If you’re wanting to do this, please allow your eyes to close. Let’s give ourselves a nice, audible Ahh. You can also feel this quality of relaxation that comes with compassion. Or maybe imagine a cute puppy. Aww. Right now, you’re starting to activate the physiology of self-compassion.

Allow yourself to find your way into this situation in your mind. In other words, perhaps in your mind’s eye seeing the setting of this difficulty, maybe some people. Perhaps there are some words associated with this problem. Mostly noting how it feels in your body right now as you relive this problem in your mind.

Then offer yourself the words: “This is a moment of suffering. This, right now, is a moment of suffering.” Now, notice how it feels when you can validate that for yourself. This is hard. Notice what happens. OK, so that’s the quality of mindfulness, the first component of self-compassion.

Now the second component. I’d like you to consider these words: “Suffering is a part of living.” It’s part of being human. And we’re not saying this to invalidate the experience, but rather to know that this is how it feels to be in a situation like this. Suffering is a part of the human experience. So, take that in. Feel the size of it. “I am not alone right now, though it may feel that way. All beings suffer.” Noticing how it feels inside your body to connect in this way. Not to be isolated, but to be connected in this way and we all struggle, and this is your flavor.

Now I would like to invite you to put a hand over your heart or on your cheek or gently feeling one hand in the other in your lap. Whatever feels most comforting or soothing to you. Then offering yourself a kind invitation: “May I be kind to myself. Why? Because of this situation. May I be kind to myself in this situation. May I give myself the compassion that I need.” How does it feel in your own body to offer yourself this wish? This is self-kindness, but we are going to take it a little further.

If you’re willing, imagine that a friend, or somebody whom you like, were in exactly the same kind of situation. Same problem. It’s a person you care a lot about. Can you imagine a friend in your situation? Imagine that you just have a few moments with that person and you’d like to share something with that friend, heart-to-heart. You’re not trying to give advice, you’re not trying to fix anything. You just want to say something and your words will roll through your friend’s mind throughout the day. What would you like to say to your friend?

Now seeing if you can… you knew this was coming… see if you can offer yourself the same words in the same tone with the same kindness. Try that now. Perhaps just surrounding yourself with these words. Maybe you’ve been allowing these words to be absorbed, just like you would absorb warmth from the sun. 

And now release the words and give yourself a moment to notice now how it feels in your body. What is it like to bring kindness to yourself simply because you have been in this difficult situation? Now, if you don’t mind, release the practice and to slowly, whenever it feels right, open your eyes.

On what emotions you might expect to come up when practicing self-compassion…

Germer: If you want to learn self-compassion, you have to get ready for backdraft. It’s like when a firefighter goes into a burning building – when the door opens, the oxygen goes in and the fire comes out. So, when we open the door of our hearts, the love goes in, but what comes out? Pain. There is a saying that love reveals everything unlike itself, and what we say in the self-compassion training is that when you give yourself unconditional love, you discover the conditions under which you were not loved. The art of self-compassion training is to work with backdraft. It opens us to all pains, but it also is a resource to meet those pains and is a re-parenting process. When I accept myself as I am, I immediately think about how I have not been accepted. This is part of how human beings know that this is a fundamental healing process.

On why your motivation behind self-compassion matters...

Germer: In our view, whether or not a person actually benefits from self-compassion hangs entirely on a central paradox: We give ourselves kindness not to feel better, but because we feel bad. Imagine you have a child who has a multi-day flu, and on day one, you’re kind to the child. Why? Because the child is suffering. Compassion and self-compassion are not strategies. The wish to manipulate how we feel is part of the problem. What would it be like to respond to our own suffering the way a parent responds to a child with the flu – just because

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