J: You're listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, episode number 121. We can be so hard on ourselves, feeding our mind a constant string of negativity and criticism. But when we learn to be compassionate with ourselves, talking to ourselves as we would to a friend, the way we show up in every aspect of life will change for the better. Stay tuned.
Intro: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, stories of vibrant women living happy lives. And now, your host, Jen Riday.
J: Hey friends, Jen here, and this is Vibrant Happy Women; welcome back. Last week, I spoke with Grace Estripeaut all about tweaking a few little things in your day without even taking any extra time to add more peace and that sense of Zen. So she calls herself a Zen master and I don't… I don't know about you, but I want to be a Zen master. So if you haven't listened to that episode, go back and check it out and try out Grace's ideas; I think they're really valid and helpful, especially for those of us who are really busy. Today, I'm so excited to share my conversation with Kristin Neff. Dr. Neff was here in Madison, Wisconsin, presenting a workshop called Mindful Self-Compassion and it was phenomenal. It happened right when everything was going down with my 14 year old, who was having some issues around know a little bit after Spring Break and it just nourished my soul. And sometimes you learn things at the heart level that are hard to put into words, but dr. Neff did a really great job in this interview, sharing how you too can engage in mindful self-compassion. It begins with this idea of loving, connected presence, breathing for yourself, maybe extending your breath to another really being mindful and using touch and meditation and changing your thoughts and letting go of shame to really be compassionate with yourself. And that helps us to be more compassionate with others. It's such a beautiful interview and I can't wait for you to listen, so let's go ahead and dive in.
Kristin Neff 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 a decade ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is the author of the 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 8-week training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, and offers workshops on self-compassion worldwide; which I got to attend recently, so I can't wait to talk. Kristen and Chris are also authors of ‘The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook’, a proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. So I love your work, Chris and welcome to Vibrant Happy Women.
K: Oh, thank you. I'm happy to be here.
J: And I know you have a poem you want to share with us, is that right?
K: Oh yeah. This is a poem, I was actually the first… the last 2 stanzas of a poem that I really like that I think kind of captures the essence of self-compassion, and really compassion in general, it's… it’s the poem ‘Kindness’ by Naomi Shihab Nye. And she writes, “Before you know kindness is the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow is the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. And then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness ties your shoes and sends you into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say, ‘It is I you have been looking for,’ and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.”
J: Mm, that's beautiful.
J: So tell us what that poem means to you and when you became interested in self-compassion and kindness and all of the things related.
K: Well, so the reason I like the poem is, I think it really does highlight how we need to turn toward our struggle, toward our sorrow, toward our suffering with the same loving-kindness and tenderness like we'd show to a friend who is suffering; we need to do that with ourselves, really in order to be able to cope and get by in life. And so there's so much emphasis in our society on being compassionate to others, which of course is really important and we should all practice it, but so many people are very good at being kind and compassionate to others, but just beat themselves up mercilessly, especially if their struggle comes from, you know, feeling inadequate in some way or failing at something. So, you know, I really learned, I think through my own experience, that the more we’re able to support ourselves to be that good friend to ourselves, having the shadow of kindness that follows us wherever we go, especially when times are difficult, it just makes a huge difference in our ability to cope and be strong and in situations that are quite challenging.
J: So tell us more about how you developed this desire to teach self-compassion, where did that journey begin? What did it look like in your life? And then how did you reach the definitions of self-compassion and all the amazing things you teach? Where did that all begin?
K: So I certainly didn't invent the idea of self-compassion, it's really, I think, at the heart of many religious traditions, spiritual traditions, philosophical traditions, the idea of being kind to yourself and loving and supportive when you're struggling, it's not really a new idea. And so I actually learned it from a Buddhist meditation group. I… I started practicing meditation when I was going through a very stressful time in my life. I was actually finishing up my PhD UC Berkeley. And so I thought, you know, meditation might help me with my stress. And what really surprised me, what I wasn't expecting, is the woman leaving the group talk not only about mindfulness, which of course is very important, but also about this importance of being a good friend to yourself of being compassionate, supportive, tender, emotionally warm with yourself when you're struggling. And so I started practicing this and just saw that it immediately made a huge difference in my ability to cope with the stress I was going through. You know, again, the sense of support of kindness and really I can see it my personal life. And then what happened was, I got a position as a postdoc with one of the country's leading self-esteem researchers and I started understanding the problems with self-esteem. You know, for instance, that we need to be special and above-average to feel okay about ourselves, is not okay to be average, and it leads to this constant, you know, jockeying for position, “How do I compare to her? How do I stack up to him?” And really the biggest problem with self-esteem is that its contingent on success. You know, we feel good about ourselves and we succeed, when we're liked by others, but what happens and we really need, you know, that sense of self-worth when we fail, when we look in the mirror we don't like what you see, or when someone does a lot better than us, our self-esteem deserts us really when we need it the most. And that's where self-compassion comes in because, you know, compassion, by definition, is aimed at suffering; the word means, compassion, ‘to suffer with’. So when we’re with ourselves, when we're struggling in this kind caring way, it helps us feel good about ourselves, not because we're special above average. Just because we're a, you know, flawed human being doing the best we can like everyone else, it's so much more stable sense of value and self-worth. So, again, it was during my postdoc I started thinking about all these issues from more of a scientific perspective. And then when I got the job at UT, Austin, I developed a scale to measure it and, you know, kind of tried to find it clearly. And then, really, the self-compassion field of research just took off and now there's 1500 studies and dissertations looking at it. So…
K: It's really been quite remarkable, yeah.
J: So for those not familiar with your work, what is a good summarizing definition of self-compassion?
K: Right. So self-compassion, it's kind of… it's a combination of things. The first thing is mindfulness. Actually, there's a lot of people know about mindfulness, which is being present with what is. And so with self-compassion, we have to be mindful and present with our own pain. We have to acknowledge, “Hey, this is really hard for me right now.” If we’re just lost in problem solving mode or lost in the drama of what's happening, we can't step outside of ourselves like a good friend and say, “Hey, you're having a hard time. You need support.”
K: So that's kind of the foundation is being mindful when we're having a hard time. And then … then, it's really responding to ourselves to kindness, you know, being a good supportive friend, being warm, being tender, kind of motivating ourselves to get through the situation from a constructive point of view, as opposed to our usual pattern, which is like just to beat ourselves up, “It's because you're a lazy slob. You deserve this because you're worthless.” I mean, you know, it's really quite interesting when you ask people that to look at how they treat their close friends when they're struggling and how they treat themselves, it's often radically different. I mean, we would never say the types of things we say to ourselves with someone we cared about, and yet we say it all the time to ourselves, you know, “You're fat. You're lazy. You're slob. You'll never amount to anything. You know, you should have done better,” in this really kind of harsh, cold tone, and that really undermines our ability to perform and to succeed because we're… you know, we kind of are constantly attacking ourselves. So self-compassion, first of all, we're aware of the pain we're going through, we have a kind response, but really important, what makes self-compassion different from self-pity is this recognition that, you know, everyone is imperfect. We all struggle, we all make mistakes, we all have difficult things happening; it's not just me. And we know this logically, but what tends to happen experientially when we fail or something really difficult happens, we feel like, “You know, this shouldn't be happening. This is not supposed to be this way,” as if… you know, as if everyone else in the world at that moment is not failing, is not struggling, and living a normal, perfect life and it's just me who's having this difficulty. So the word ‘compassion’ actually means ‘to suffer with’, as I said. There's a sense of connectedness inherent to the experience of compassion. So when we get out of our sense of, “Oh, whoa is me,” and just realize, “Hey, you know, whoever said life supposed to be perfect? Whoever said I'm supposed to be perfect? This is what it means to be a human. This is how I learn and grow,” when we take that more connected mind state toward ourselves and, again, it's a really good for our psychological well-being and our ability to cope with what's happening. So there's basically 3 things, mindfulness, kindness, and a sense of common humanity, or if you want kind of a more accessible way of describing it, it's loving, connected presence. So it means, when we suffer, we struggle, we're having a hard time, we kind of turn toward ourselves with loving, connected presence, and that really transforms what we're experiencing and helps us cope.
J: Well, so if someone listening is struggling, which would be everyone because we have this common humanity…
J: … what would you say them to get started with moving into this space of self-compassion?
K: Right. So a lot of that is just getting over these beliefs we get from our culture that somehow we aren't supposed to be compassionate with ourselves, and we should always be focused on other people helping others. You know, there's a lot of beliefs that somehow it's selfish to be kind to yourself and there's a lot of other beliefs that get in the way we think, you know, we're going to lose our motivation, we think we're going to be weak and we think we're going to be self-centered. And the research shows is the exact opposite, right? So, again, self-compassion is not a weakness, it's an incredible source of coping and resilience. It doesn't make you lazy, it actually motivates you. Just like, if you had a coach, you know, he either said, “You're a lazy slob. You'll never amount to anything. Give up now,” versus the coach just said, “Hey, I believe in you. You could do it. Here's how we're going to try this and this approach,” but, you know, believes in you, even though they may give you advice for your behavior of course, you're going to be more motivated. And we know that self-compassionate people are more motivated. And here's the big thing, it is not selfish because, the more resources you give yourself, the more your state of mind is filled with loving, connected presence, as opposed to self-pity and shame, right…
K: … the more you're actually going to be able to give to other people. When you're in a state of shame and self-loathing, you have no resources to give to anyone else. And also the people you're interacting with, you know, they're interacting with someone who’s in a state of shame and self-loathing, which doesn't help them or you, when you're in a state of loving, connected presence, everyone who interacts with you actually benefits by your own presence. So I really think that being self-compassionate is one of the biggest gifts we can give to others. And I just have to say, you know, I really saw this in my personal life, you know, your listeners may not know this, but when I really kind of found out the power of self-compassion was when my son was diagnosed with autism. You know, and it was definitely a tough journey; no doubt about it. He had terrible tantrums. He had a hard time interacting with people. He wasn't potty-trained till age 5, you know, and luckily, I had a solid self-compassion practice by the time he got diagnosed. So whenever he had these challenging behaviors, the first thing I would do was support myself, you know, and acknowledge how hard it was for me, acknowledge my feelings that feeling overwhelmed, helpless, you know, that I wanted to jump out a window or just really hold myself, again, in this loving connected presence. And what I found, without a shadow of a doubt, is not only did it give me more stability to help him, to be there for him, to be more loving to my son, but also, he would resonate with my mood. I mean, those times when maybe I would lose in that… and I'm only human, sometimes I would just be really frustrated and irritated, his behavior will get worse every single time I did that. Like his tantrums would go up, his behavior would be more volatile when I was internally volatile. But if I could maintain this more peaceful, accepting, loving state of mind, “I'm doing the best I can. This is really hard,” I mean, you know, and I focused on myself, I'm here for myself, I found that he would really respond positively to that. So, you know, again, I've got a lot of research to support this idea that I really believe in self-compassion for my own life experience. It makes a huge difference; it helps yourself, it helps others.
J: So a lot of people say that we need to love ourselves first in order to be able to love others. And does that resonate for you with what you said about self-compassion?
K: I mean, put it this way. It’s like, empirically, it's not true, and if you actually look around the people, you know, in your life, it's not true, in that, there are many people who are truly kind, caring, compassionate to others, you know, giving, a lot of nurses, a lot of parents, or they really do care about others and they aren't necessarily that way with themselves, right? So it’s always in the direction of people being kinder and more compassionate to others than themselves, but there are many people that could beat themselves up, even though they might be angels of feathers. And so it actually is possible to be that way. The only problem is, you can't sustain it. You know, over time, you will burn out if you just give and give and give and don't replenish your own resources, you don't acknowledge your own struggle, you will burn out. So I would say self-compassion is necessary to really sustain giving to others, you know, to be able to like not lose yourself while giving to others. But people do quite well at being kind to others and bad to themselves all the time; it's just not a sustainable way of being.
J: So if someone is in a moment of deep stress…
J: … do they begin by repeating self-compassionate phrases? Do they begin by being mindful? What's the first step that we do to start being self-compassionate right in that moment?
K: Yeah. Well, so really the first pass to being mindful is you have to be aware that you're struggling. And, again, you might think that's totally obvious, but we need to be aware in a kind of mindful unbalanced way. So, in other words, it's not like, “I'm struggling!” when you're lost in the story line.
K: Or it can be like, “I got to get this suffering away! I got to fix this! It's horrible! The worst thing that ever happened to me!” that's not helpful. But you need to be able to kind of step outside of yourself and say, “Well, I'm having a really hard time right now. This is really hard. What can I do to help myself in this moment?” So that's really the first step is just awareness that you're in this state and not being so lost in it, take having a little more balanced perspective. And then there's different ways to support yourself, right? So, for some people, it could be like, you know, thing, “Well, what would I say to a really good friend who is in the same situation? What tone of voice would I use?” you know, maybe speaking to yourself silently of course, but kind of with warmth and tenderness, words of support and kindness of understanding, you know, as opposed to harsh self-judgment. So that's one thing is just think about what I would say to myself. Another really easy way to activate the sense of care is to touch, right? It’s mammals, and this is not just humans, but all mammals, we’re really programmed biologically to respond to warm, tender touch as a signal of care. You know, just think of a… your own mother or your own parent or maybe even like a kitten with its pups, little baby kittens, I mean, I'm sorry, a mother cat with its kittens, right? So we're designed physiologically to respond to touch as an indicator of care and support. So a very easy thing to do is just to touch yourself in some way that feels comforting. You know, put your hands on your heart or hold your own hand or maybe, you know, cradle your face. People are different in terms of what works, but it's often a quick and easy way to let your body know that you're there, you're present, you support yourself, you care; so that's a good thing. And then also, again, just the wisdom of remembering that, “Hey, this is a human experience, it's not just you,” you know, the idea that somehow we're supposed to be perfect and get it right and that life’s supposed to go well. No, I mean, it's one thing to acknowledge that logically, but to really take that in, you know, “Hey, this hurt, this is hard, but this is also how we learn and grow and this is… you know, this is not just me, we're all just doing the best we can.” And that's kind of the wisdom element of self-compassion. So when we bring in that wisdom, it also really helps us be more self-compassionate. There's many, many ways to access it, put it that way, it's not… you know, but it's also not rocket science because we know how to be kind to others, we just need to remember to do with ourselves.
J: Yeah, yeah. Well, I was at your Mindful Self-Compassion workshop in…
J: … Wisconsin not too long ago, and I felt like a lot of the beginning of self-compassion is focusing on the breath, so can you speak a little bit to that?
K: Yeah. Well, so the breath is really a tool and anchor of mindfulness of the present moment, right? So, you know, first of all, meditation is not at all necessary to learn self-compassion. It is a tried-and-true though because, when we focus on our breath, we aren't lost in the story line of what's happening and we're just aware the change in the breath, which means we're where the present moment. And it's a useful tool for, you know, again, just noticing what's happening so you focus on your breath. And if you're struggling, for instance, we know that focusing on the breath kind of help calm and soothe ourselves. But, some people, you know, focusing on the breath actually isn't that useful and it may be something like feeling the soles of your feet or just noticing that the stabbing pain in your chest, you know, that might be the way to trigger mindfulness. So the breath isn't special, but it is an effective tools; because we all have it or else you're dead. (Laughs)
J: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Right, it is there; it is comforting.
K: So it’s there.
(Interview resumes) [22:14]
J: In the workshop, you taught us a meditation where we take a breath for ourselves and then a breath maybe for another person. So talk us through that. I found that really helpful.
K: Yeah, it's a really useful practice, especially in a caregiving situation or when you're with someone you're really struggling with what they're feeling and what you're feeling with them. And so what it is, is it's when you breathe in, you just kind of imagine that you're breathing in compassion for yourself, you're kind of acknowledging, “This is really hard for me.” Maybe if you're a caregiver, you're dealing with somebody who's really sick for instance, you're kind of acknowledging, “I'm feeling pain just like this person is by being in their presence.” There… maybe it's not the same degree, but you're just acknowledging, “This is hard for me,” breathe in for yourself, but then you breathe out for the person. You know, the person, yeah, it’s hard for them as well, and they're suffering. So what it does when you breathe in for yourself and breathe out for the other, it's a way of acknowledging, I think, the pain of both yourself and the other, instead of usually we just focus on the other and we totally forget about ourselves. It kind of sets up a sense of connectedness naturally, breathing in, breathing out, remembering that, you know, again, we're all part of this great web of life; we all struggle. It also has… think about focusing on the breath, again, the breath always kind of is a great tool for mindfulness and bringing us into the present moment. And the reason this is so nice is a lot of people will say, for instance the caregivers, you know, “Practice self-care,” the self-care is almost off the job. Most of those techniques like, you know, “Go do yoga. Visit with your friends. Eat healthy,” you know, “Get a massage.” But what do you do when you're with someone and they're physically ill or really emotionally going through a hard time and you're feeling it, you're resonating with their pain? What do you do in the moment when you're with the other person? And the breath is a great way to, again, acknowledge your own struggle, but also acknowledge the others’ struggle. So it's a really nice practice and care givers especially like it.
J: So tell us the story of being on the airplane with your son and how… just to illustrate, because a lot of listeners of the show our moms and I think… I love how that played out for you; so let you tell that.
K: Yeah. And so it's kind of related to this fact that when… you know, when your child screaming or having a hard time, for instance, your mirror neurons are actually resonating and the pain centers of your brain so it's really real suffering. And so I think a lot of moms can resonate with this because of course you're very empathetically attuned to your own children. And so what happened was, I was taking Rowan to London where his grandparents live. I was on a transatlantic flight and it was that point in the flight where they turned the lights down so everyone can get some sleep. And for whatever reason, I've no idea why, Rowan… it triggered Rowan. And he was 5 years old and just went into a full-on like screaming, flailing tantrum on the plane. So, of course, I just wanted to die, right? I felt bad for distributing the other people. I felt self-conscious. I figured a lot of people wouldn't know he's autistic and are probably judging me or judging him and, you know, I just felt overwhelmed. So I thought, “Oh my god, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I have very few options and I came up with the brilliant idea of taking him to the toilet, letting him scream in there so maybe it’ll muffle his cries (unclear) [25:20]. So, you know, I carry him, (unclear) [24:24] pretty big 5 year old carrying him down the aisle to plane get to the toilet, which of course is occupied, right? And so that plan didn't work out. So, you know, it's just there in that little space outside the toilet when Rowan was screaming and I just kind of realized that the only thing I could do was give myself-compassion; it really was my only option, but it was a good option, right? So I just… and I made sure Rowan was safe, but I would say maybe 95% of my attention was toward myself, just really, “This so hard for you, Kristin, and I'm so sorry.” I spoke to myself, you know, very supportively, tenderly, kindly, just assuring myself of my own support and care and concern. And… and when I did that, what I found was, not only did it help me, but again, kind of like I said, it helped Rowan because he could like sense the change in my internal mind state as I got less overwhelmed with the stress and actually started being filled more with a sense of love and connection and presence. It actually helped him and he calmed down as well. So… and we had many experiences like that through the years. And, again, that's why I'm so passionate about self-compassion, especially for parents. You know, it's not true that you have to focus all your love and care on your kids. If you focus… you know, first of all, love and care, they aren't like limited quantity, “We got 7 units, so that’ll make it 4 to myself. I only 2 for my kids.”
K: It doesn't work that way, right? It's an unlimited pool. And actually, the more we call in this loving, connected presence, the more we have to give to others. It's like we're tapping into this pool which is so much larger than ourselves. And so I really think, for parents, they need to give themselves permission, first of all, acknowledge the fact that they're struggling too, they aren't perfect, to acknowledge that they're going to make mistakes and then to do the best they can, and to really be understanding, to be patient, to be kind and be supportive to themselves. And the more they do that, it actually… the more they'll be able to be loving, kind, and supportive to their children, right? So the 2 really go hand-in-hand. And I also like… this is the great phrase for parents or for anyone really, you know, just, “When you really accept the imperfection of life and the imperfection of yourself and you give up this agenda of everything going perfectly and getting it right all the time, what you start doing is you start embracing the idea of ‘the compassionate mess’.” There's a meditation teacher who says, “You know, the goal of practice is just to be a compassionate mess,” in other words, we can read all the self-help books we want, we can go on, you know, numerous meditation retreats, we can get it all right, but we're still going to be a mess because we're human beings and human beings are not perfect. So we will never get rid of the fact that we are a mess in our life is a mess, but we can do, what is an actual achievable goal is to being a compassionate mess. You know, so every time you struggle, you make a mistake or you get overwhelmed or something's up with your kids, if you bring… you can bring compassion to the situation. And, you know, it won't necessarily change the situation, but it will give you the emotional resources you need to cope. And, again, so that your primary response is one of kind of some calm and some connectedness, as opposed to just being overwhelmed and distraught. And that is an achievable goal, you know; I can… I can check that box off. (Laughs)
J: Yeah! And giving yourself the permission to be a mess, finally, instead of perfection.
K: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, again, Carl Rogers has this famous quote, “The curious paradox is, the more I accept myself, the more I can change,” right? So when you become a compassionate mess, ironically, that's going to give you more resources to be able to do the best you can. Yeah, you won’t be perfect, but maybe you can, you know, in this kind of calmer mind state, you can think of more creative solutions to your problems. So, you know, it actually does help you be your best person, but it comes from the sense of unconditional acceptance, as opposed to, “I gotta get it right in order to accept myself.”
K: So it's pretty powerful stuff, you know? And the thing about… I mean, of course love and kindness and appreciation, all those things are amazingly important, but to think about compassion because, you know, by definition, it’s aimed at suffering, it's aimed at struggle, it really helps us deal with those things that tend to knock us off balance, you know, when really difficult things happen; and that those are the moments when we really need the positive resources the most. So it is kind of like it's… it almost has this almost alchemical quality of transforming suffering. You know, still hurts like hell, but holding it in this loving, connected presence actually means that our awareness can be more grounded in this loving, connected presence, as opposed to just that distress and the suffering; and that's really, it's magic right there.
J: So you mentioned the chemical change.
J: What do you guess happening in our bodies as we tap into that loving, connected presence?
K: Yeah. So, I mean, you know, we know this a little bit through self-report research; I'd like to do more research on the physiology. But basically, you know, as human beings, we have 2 basic nervous system responses. We have the sympathetic nervous response, which is our fight, flight or flee response; all animals have this. So when there's a threat or danger in the environment, and let's say we fail… I mean, our self-concept is threatened and from our self’s point of view, we think we are like being attacked when we fail or feel inadequate. And so what that tends to do is trigger the sympathetic nervous system response, right? And so we feel stressed, we feel overwhelmed, we can't think straight, our attention narrows. And basically we do things like we beat ourselves up or we hide in shame because we're trying to keep ourselves safe at some level, you know, this is this fight, flee or play dead, right?
J: Yeah, yeah.
K: These are ways that maybe we can keep ourselves safe from danger. But the problem is, of course when we… like, for instance, we fight the problem, we fight ourselves by beating ourselves up, it actually just makes things worse, right? It actually increases the sense of threat. So another way we have to feel safe it's the sympathetic nervous activity… I'm sorry, sympathetic; the nervous system which is basically what mammals have. This is a system where, you know, we feel safe because we feel connected, we feel loved, we feel cared for, it's related to the attachment system and being cared for by our parents or we can also trigger the system by caring for ourselves. And so, you know, the first system is linked to things like cortisol and adrenalin and the threat defense response. The care system is more associated with like opioids and oxytocin and kind of that feel-good sense. And so, in some ways, what we're doing with self-compassion is we're helping ourselves feel safe less from the threat defense, beating ourselves up with being with ourselves, more through this caring, nurturing, tender, warm response to ourselves. And that makes us feel safe and also changes our physiology. So some of the data we have is that it, you know, reduces the cortisol and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It increases things like heart rate variability, which means you can flexibly respond to any threads. So… and you can really feel it then you practice it. Like, if you put your hands on your heart, that doesn't work for everyone, but if it works for you, you can actually feel your system kind of relax, calm down. Probably what's happening, we need some data online to like to figure out what's happening physiologically as we practice self-compassion, but I suspect we're down regulating sympathetic, increasing parasympathetic response. And that's why it feels more safe and relaxing and it feels good.
J: Hmm, I love that. And you said putting your hand on your heart, what are some other ways we can, you know, activate various…? Well, in the workshop, you had us stand with our fists clenched and then described how we felt. And I was shocked; I was shocked how quickly I actually felt anger and rage in my body. So is it…
J: … is it true that our physiology, you know, the things we're doing with our body it affects our mood and those chemicals just by touch and poses and all of that?
K: Right. Yeah, well, so, you know, usually it's not like we go around with our fists clenched intentionally, but what happens when difficult things happen or it's scary or we feel nervous, is we tense up our body, right?
K: And we know, again, like… you know, sometimes if you get really bad news, you'll get a huge hit of cortisol and you'll feel stressed. And, again, that dangerous system is saying, you know, “Run to the hills! Run for the hills! Threat! Threat! Threat!”
K: And so our body clenches up and that's kind of symbolized by that clenched fist…
K: … that sense of, you know, having to fight things and it… you’re clenched and tight. And then what happens, we can actually use touch to help soothe and calm ourselves. You can just think of like cradling a crying baby or, you know, you give your friend a hug when they're really upset, these are natural caregiving responses we just have built into us as human beings. And then, so if we learn to do that with ourselves… I have to say, it feels weird at first because we’re so unused to it, the actually giving it to ourselves, but it does get more natural over time. You can hold your own hand or, you know, again, like you can give yourself a hug if you don't… in your own private, you don't have to worry about looking so funny. It really can change us physiologically because what's happening is, the touch is a symbol of the care.
K: For instance, they've got research showing you can put your hands in a bath and have someone touch you and, you know, if it's an aggressive touch, if it's an indifferent touch, if it's a warm and tender touch; we're very attuned to touch as human beings. So it's a really nice way to again communicate with yourself, your care, which in turn, you know, changes your physiology. So I have to say as well, just, you know, we also talked about this at the workshop, for some people, you know, touch can be a little activating, you know, maybe especially if you have some sort of trauma history or, you know, maybe your parents weren't traditionally loving supportive people that you hope they were.
K: You know, especially for people whose parents were quite the opposite, what can actually happen is because you've been used to your whole life to feeling closed and defensive to protect yourself, and you really had you to be safe in your child, you can feel a little scary to start opening the doors of your heart with things like touch because, you know, you give yourself some love and you immediately remember all the ways in which you are unloved. So some people… you know, anyone can learn self-compassion. In fact, it's really good for people with trauma histories because what you're really doing is kind of learning to repair it yourself. You just have to accept that, you know, it can go more slowly. There's a term we have called backdraft, which is like doing… you fling open the doors of your heart and you let the fresh air or love in, the flames of pain and sorrow come out.
K: It's really not a problem, it's like actually part of the transformation process. But people just need to be aware, if they do have this backdraft response, it’s normal, it's natural, nothing to be worried about. But, for some people, they actually may want to start going down the path of self-compassion with help with the therapist or someone, you know, and just really allow yourself to be a slow learner. It could be a little more of a bumpy ride for some people than others. But, again, the research is really encouraging that with adequate support, anyone can really learn to relate than themselves with more kindness. You know, even if it's just saying, “You know, I'm really upset. I'm going to take a warm bath,” and it's done with intentionality like that as a choice to care for yourself when you're struggling, you're still practicing the muscle of self-compassion.
J: Yeah, that's great. So I love how you used the term ‘re-parenting’ yourself. Essentially, I feel like (correct me if I'm wrong) self-compassion is giving yourself that loving connected presence, whatever it means, whether it's meditation or mindfulness or the touch or the positive self-talk, instead of the negative self-talk. So being like a mother to ourselves, essentially.
K: Yeah. It's like the ideally compassionate mother, right? We think of… well, then it's actually both. It's one of the things some people get confused a bit. It is being like that ideally compassionate kind of the yin… I call the yin of self-compassion, kind of soothing supportive validating very important. There's also… you know, fathers are also compassionate, right?
K: Or the kind of male like archetype, which I call kind of the yang of self-compassion. You know, going into a burning building and to save the people that are going to be engulfed by flames, that's also a supremely compassionate act.
K: But it's more action-oriented. And so sometimes self-compassion is more yang, it kind of means like motivating yourself, you know, “You can't let yourself be treated this way. You got it do something different. It's not working for you or,” you know, kind of like providing for yourself, “What do I need? How c… you know, what changes do I need to make to help myself be happy and thrive?” that's also a very important way that we're self-compassionate; so it's really both. So you might say the ideally kind, soft, supportive, validating to the mother and the ideally, you know, motivating, providing, helpful, supportive father. You know, and of course it's not male or female, we both have both sides of ourselves; inside, every single person has both the yin and the yang. So it's really drawing on both and kind of integrating them.
J: It really is kind of like having the ideal parents, but you're giving it to yourself; both that yin and the yang.
K: That's right.
J: And validating your feelings and soothing yourself. And I remember in the workshop you said one of the first steps is to name the feeling; and that alone starts to decrease the cortisol.
K: That’s right.
J: And then to identify where you feel it in your body and then to soothe yourself. I loved that sequence. I found it really helpful.
K: Yeah, yeah. And the naming and the find it in your body, those are classic mindfulness techniques. And then the kind of the soothing supporting yourself and maybe using some touch or some words of support or understanding, those are bringing the compassion and the kindness and, you know, perhaps the understanding, the wisdom of the common humanity. You know, “It's not just you. You aren't alone,” you know, “This happened for a lot of conditions that you couldn't control.” And so, yeah, layering in those elements in that order seems to be really effectively fine.
J: Well, there are so many great things I learned in the workshop, but I'm sure we can't cover them all. But is there any other area you'd like to talk about in a relationship to self-compassion?
K: So I… we actually covered a lot of ground. I mean, but maybe I would just say that it's not an intellectual concept ideally, you know, it's an experience. And so I would really encourage people, maybe those who are intrigued, first of all, that your misgivings about it are probably false. I've got an article on my website, ‘5 myths of self-compassion’. It's not going to turn you into a lazy, good-for-nothing, weak person; selfish person. I mean, there's research that shows that. So it's like once you can give yourself permission to give it a try and just kind of see what happens. You know, next time something really difficult happens, see how the difference it makes to treat yourself, talk to yourself with kind of kind supportive language, as opposed to this harsh, self-critical language. See for yourself how it makes a difference. And, again, remembering that, yeah, it may feel a little uncomfortable and it may be not your habitual reaction, you may have to use a little intentionality do it, but it's not the end of the world. It's not… again, it's not rocket science because most people, by the time they're adults, have learned to be supportive and kind and compassionate to their… their spouses, their kids, their friends. You know, we know how to do it, so it's really just a matter of giving ourselves permission and then remembering to do with ourselves. So… and then once you get that new habit pattern started, it's easier than you think really.
J: Hmm, so good. Well, tell us where we can find you online and what we might find on your website and also…
J: … for those interested in your mindful self-compassion workshop…
J: … I mean, which I highly, highly, highly recommend, I would say it was probably one of the top 3 most life-changing things I've ever done, but telling us where… what we can find on your website and where we can learn more about the workshop, please.
K: Yeah. So if you want to find me, just Google ‘self-compassion’, right? You spell it anyway, you'll find me.
K: It gets lot of hits. And so I've really tried to make my website a resource, a hub for people wanting to learn about it and also for researchers. So if you go to it, you can, for instance, take the self-compassion scale I developed, and you can find out, “Well, where are you? How self-compassionate are you?” There's a guided meditation. There's exercises that you can start practicing. There's videos explaining self-compassion; I've got a TED talk. If you're a science nerd, you could find, you know, hundreds of research articles on there. And so I think that's a really good place to start. And then also, I have a link to the Center for Mindfulness Self-compassion website, which really lists where you can take the mindful self-compassion training hopefully near you. You know, I also teach a lot of people, teach like shorter workshops as well. You can take the mindful self-compassion program online. And very exciting is we're coming out with a new workbook this August where we actually take all the practices and exercises in the mindful self-compassion program, we have it in a workbook format so you could, you know, start practicing this on your own. So… and I could say the resources are really available for you. It's more just a matter of choosing to try to relate a different way toward yourself. So…
J: Awesome. Well, I have 2 more questions. I always ask my guests, “What does it mean for you to be a vibrant happy woman?”
K: Yeah! So, I mean, I'm very lucky because I'm so fulfilled in what I do, the fact that my work is so tied to my values and that I'm… you know, have the gift to be able to help people by the work I do is just so fulfilling. You know, and I so I have a great partner and I love my son so, you know?
K: I have to say probably, for my… me personally, I get the greatest joy and fulfillment from the work I do. So I feel very, very blessed in that.
J: And let's have a challenge from you to our listeners and then we'll say goodbye.
K: Okay. Well, so the challenge is, the next time that you notice that you're struggling, feeling bad about yourself or something difficult happens, just pause, notice that you're struggling and just ask yourself, “How can I be a good friend to myself in this moment?” you know, “What would I do for a good friend who is going through this?” and just try with yourself and just take that little step to first notice how you're treating yourself. Ask the question, “What would it be like if I did it differently?” and that will maybe start you on your path.
J: So good. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. And, yes, your work really is a legacy, it's so amazing. So thank you for sharing it with us today.
K: Thank you, Jen, it was great to be here.
J: I love everything Dr. Neff teaches, and I especially loved being in her 2-day workshop and learning how to be compassionate with myself and how that compassion extends to everyone around me. I hope you'll take some of what Dr. Neff talked about and applied in your life and see what it would look like and feel like to have more self-compassion; it's so beautiful. For those of you who are members of the Vibrant Happy Women Club , we will be continuing this conversation in our small groups this week and you also have a worksheet with journal prompts that will help you to go really deep on what you've learned. For those not in the Vibrant Happy Women club, the doors are currently closed, but they will open again and you can get on the wait list by going to vibranthappywomenclub.com. I'll be back later this week with a happy bit and I'll be back next week talking with Geneen Roth, all about showing up in our own 2 feet and being truly present in our bodies. You know, it's funny, many of us tend to treat our bodies really badly, and the word ‘nurture’ comes to mind. What would it look like to actually nurture your body the way you might nurture a child? And in contrast, how would a child act if you treated the way you've been treating your body? Inquiring minds want to know and we'll be discussing that next week with Geneen Roth. I'll see you then. Take care.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast at www.jenriday.com.