by Fred Ingham
Dr. Kristin Neff spoke on December 5 at Kane Hall in Seattle WA, in an event organized by the Center for Child and Family Wellness at the University of Washington. Dr. Neff, currently an Associate Professor at UT-Austin, is the originator of academic interest in the concept of “self-compassion”, which brings together elements of Buddhist practice and Western psychology. It is an approach that has been shown to foster wellness and effectiveness in a range of experimental settings, and one that seems promising when applied to parenting.
Self Compassion is Not Self-Esteem
Dr. Neff began her talk by contrasting “self-compassion” with “self-esteem”. The most important difference is that self-esteem is typically comparative and contingent. It is something “earned”, and often tied to external attributes, such as appearance (especially for women), financial success, or social approval. When feelings of self-worth are tied to these types of things, we can end up anxious and self-critical, because we can always see the ways in which we fall short when compared to others or to some internal ideal. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is fundamentally about treating ourselves kindly, as if we were a friend that we loved and cared about. Dr. Neff said that we are typically much harder on ourselves than we are on others.
What is it and How Does it Feel?
Dr. Neff has identified three aspects of self-compassion: self-kindness (as opposed to self-criticism); common humanity (feeling connected to the universal human experience of suffering and imperfection, rather than isolated and alone); and mindfulness (as opposed to over identification with feelings). Dr. Neff gave us a simple exercise for us to get a sense of what these different mind states feel like. We started by holding our fists in front of us, tightly clenched. This is what self-criticism feels like – separate and tense. Then she asked us to open our hands in front of us, palms up, and to just breathe. This is the feeling of open awareness, mindfulness, and acceptance. She next suggested that we extend our arms out, as if to embrace a friend or loved one. This is the feeling of welcoming and kindness. Finally, she asked us to bring our hands together over our hearts. This is the feeling of self-compassion.
How it works and Why
Dr. Neff presented several research studies that showed very high correlations between measures of self-compassion and wellbeing. I wondered if perhaps these correlations simply meant that people with better mental health are just naturally more compassionate with themselves. Dr. Neff addressed this issue by presenting research that participants who were taught self-compassion skills, or given simple tasks designed to reinforce self-compassion, saw significant improvements on scales such as depression, body image, anxiety and resilience, and that these changes persisted long after the experiments concluded (at least a year in one study of an 8 week self-compassion training program).
Dr. Neff suggested that one mechanism by which self-compassion may operate is by reducing the physical symptoms of stress created by self-criticism. She explained that self-criticism activates our body’s “fight or flight” system, releasing stress hormones in response to a perceived threat. Our bodies’ stress response system evolved to help us deal with physical danger, but, in the case of self-criticism, the perceived threat is to our self-concept, and the source of the threat is ourselves. For those who are in the habit of self-criticism, this is a threat that can’t be escaped, so stress levels stay elevated. Elevated stress has been associated with a range of negative physical and psychological outcomes. Self-compassion, by reducing self-criticism, may relieve what had been a state of chronic, self-inflicted stress.
Self-compassion and Parenting
Self-compassion has been shown to assist people with traits that are important to parenting. It increases resilience and coping skills, and enhances perspective, forgiveness and compassion for others. It has even been shown to be effective in healing attachment wounds from our own childhoods, which, if left unaddressed, can hinder our own effectiveness as parents. Dr. Neff spoke about her own experience as the mother of an autistic son who sometimes goes through intense melt-downs in public that cannot be soothed. In these moments, when she’s feeling helpless and when she might become critical of herself or her son, she has found refuge and resilience in self-compassion. By simply placing her hands on her heart, mindfully acknowledging the distress she is feeling, and expressing kindness toward herself, she has gotten through these difficult times with the capacity to treat her son (and herself) kindly rather than with anger, criticism or rejection. Dr. Neff said that research on parents of children with autism has shown that self-compassion reduces “burnout” and that a parent’s level of self-compassion is a better predictor of coping than the severity of the child’s autism symptoms.
Little research has been done on directly teaching self-compassion to children, but Dr. Neff suggested that as parents, one of the best things we can do is to act as a model. Our children will learn to treat themselves kindly by seeing how we handle our own mistakes. When things are hard for our children, Dr. Neff also suggested a way for us to counteract their stress and foster feelings of safety, by using warmth, gentle touch, and gentle vocalizations. We all use these techniques to settle our children when they are infants, and they can often be helpful for older children (and adults!) when stress levels rise.
Dr. Neff has a website, www.self-compassion.org, which is filled with self-study materials, guided meditation tracks, and links to research, training and other helpful resources. Dr. Neff has also written a book, “Self-Compassion”, that makes the case for self-compassion in detail. But the best news is, we all already know how to be self-compassionate. We simply need to treat ourselves as we would treat a close friend, with empathy, whole-hearted attention and kindness. It’s a path to being a more resilient and compassionate parent, and a happier person.