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mental health Philosophy Psychology

On Becoming a Compassionate Mess

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, then I can change.” – Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person

A recipe for self-compassion and why it works: the key takeaways.

Self-compassion is good for us.

Kristin Neff is a self-confessed self-compassion evangelist. Self-compassion is a central construct in Buddhist philosophy, defined as the desire to alleviate one’s own suffering – and Neff has spent the last two decades investigating this concept empirically. As one of the first academics to conduct studies into self-compassion, Neff created the Self-compassion Scales as instruments for researchers, leading to a large volume of empirical support within the field of self-compassion research.

These are my notes from the conversation with Kristin Neff on The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos: Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Self-compassion makes it safe to fail.

“Why is self-compassion a more effective motivator that self-criticism? Because its driving force is love, not fear.”

Kristin Neff

Motivation of self-criticism is a motivation of fear. It might even work in the short-term, but it creates a number of unintended consequences – such as anxiety, fear of failure and the undermining of confidence. Failure is our best teacher, but how can we learn from failure if we’re afraid to fail?

A common behaviour associated with fear of failure is procrastination –one of our natural responses to threat. By practicing self-compassion you are shifting from your defense system to the care system. It means when you fail, you won’t desert yourself. It encourages us to pick ourselves up after failure, overcome procrastination and try harder to reach our goals.

Self-compassion beats self-confidence.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, then I can change.”

Carl R. Rogers – On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy

True self-compassion isn’t dependent on success or failure. The problem with self-esteem is that it is contingent upon success. We can fall into the trap of constant social comparison, which might lead to bullying ourselves and others. We all have strong intuitions about how to motivate ourselves to create better habits; and harsh self-judgement is a fairly universal one. But the research shows being hard on ourselves doesn’t deliver results.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resources we need as an alternative to self-esteem. It is not selfish or self-focussed. It’s not telling yourself lies to make yourself feel better, or seeking solace in self-pity. It’s opening yourself up to the truth. A core component of self-compassion is self-acceptance, which Neff describes as “tender self-compassion”. When self-esteem asks, “how am I different than others?”, self-compassion asks, “how am I the same as others?” Taking steps to acknowledge this common struggle leads to connection instead of isolation. Some suffer more than others and this also needs to be acknowledged, but we do all suffer. Being imperfect is part of the shared human experience and self-compassion encourages us to accept ourselves and our flaws non-judgmentally.

It slays our inner critic.

“The more compassion can flow inward the more it can flow outward…it’s additive. The more we give ourselves compassion, the more resources we have to give to others.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Try this thought experiment. Think about it your child (real or imaginary) came to you after making a mistake. Imagine the effect on that child if you shamed them instead of offering care, kindness and warmth. We have the ability as adults to be good parents to ourselves, even if our own parents didn’t happen to model that for us. When our inner critic is strong we are both the attacker and the attacked. Self-compassion helps us to feel safe. It looks for what is good for us, rather than telling us we aren’t good enough.

It gives us an ally.

What makes you weak versus what makes you strong when you go into battle? Combat veterans who were able to be compassionate to themselves about what happened when they were overseas were less likely to develop PTSD on returning home. These findings can be applied to all of us:

“For all of us, at some level, life’s a battle. What’s going to make you stronger when you go into battle? If the inner voice inside your head is an enemy, cutting you down, shaming you ‘I hate you’, ‘you aren’t good enough’ – is that going to make you stronger? Or is it going to be stronger if you’re an ally: ‘I’ve got your back’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘you can do it’, ‘how can I help?’ Clearly, having an ally inside your head is going to make you stronger than having an enemy inside your head.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Compassion has a fierce side too.

There will be times when we need to draw boundaries to protect ourselves and make the necessary changes to meet our needs. For example, in certain situations we need self-compassion to help us take action – to remove ourselves from the metaphorical firing line. We need it to support healthy habits and to find fulfillment in our lives and relationships. Whereas tender self-compassion encourages self-acceptance, “fierce self-compassion” cultivates courage. It helps us to move forward and put ourselves first.

“Imagine you have the ultimate compassionate coach, one who is very wise and knows what needs to change. The wise coach can help you decide what does need to change. The good coach is going to help you get there.”

Kristen Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

The goal of practice is simply to become a compassionate mess.

Like most things worth striving for, it takes practice. The first step is to give yourself permission to be self-compassionate – and remember to do it.

I like this as a reminder (although it’s not especially snappy): ‘self-critical shaming mess’ leads to hopelessness and inertia; ‘compassionate mess’ leads to care and motivation. Simply become a compassionate mess!

Compassionate Mess

The Recipe

Ingredients
  • Common humanity (replaces isolation)
  • Mindfulness (replaces over-identification)
  • Self-kindness (replaces self-judgement)
Method
  • Actively give yourself kindness by choosing the right words and using a nicer tone.
  • Do a short mindfulness exercise and practice naming or acknowledging (validating) any pain or discomfort as you notice it.
  • Practice soothing touch by placing a hand on your heart or giving yourself a hand massage.
  • Display a quote by someone who has overcome tough times to remind yourself you’re not alone.

Read Kristin Neff’s own tips for practice here.

Books

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert (2010)

Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Self-Compassion to Speak Up, Claim their Power and Thrive by Kristin Neff (2021)

Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff (2011)

IMAGE: One Green Planet

By The Wellbeing Wordsmith

MSc Psychology student writing about wellbeing.

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