My favourite Positive Psychology book of the year (so far) is “Fierce Self-Compassion” by Dr Kristin Neff. Self-Compassion is one of my key areas of interest and in this blog, I hope to outline the new insights into this concept described in the book and how they might be useful in everyday life.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness and caring that you would show to a good friend. The research shows us that being high in self-compassion is associated with wellbeing in a variety of ways. self-compassion has three components:
● Mindfulness of suffering without overidentification. That is, being aware of the difficult emotions you are feeling, without being too caught up in them and overwhelmed by them.
● Recognising that your experience is part of Common Humanity. This means you realise that your hardship is a normal part of what it is to be human and that many other people may have similar experiences. This is not intended to negate your experience but to put it in perspective and help you feel connected to others rather than isolated from them, because feeling isolated makes suffering worse.
● Acting with Self-Kindness rather than self-criticism in difficult moments. Self-Criticism amplifies suffering.
Self-compassion has traditionally been represented as a way we relate to ourselves internally. This Tender Self-Compassion is characterised as manifesting the three aspects of self-compassionas Loving, Connected, Presence and is about accepting ourselves the way we are.
Self-Compassion and the external world
In “Fierce Self-Compassion”, Neff (2021) unpacks how we can use self-compassion in our interactions with our outer environment to help us take action to manage our suffering. This is described as manifesting in three ways:
● Protecting ourselves from harm by drawing boundaries and being able to say no to things when we need to. The three components of self-compassion are manifested in this mode as Brave, Empowered, Clarity.
● Providing for ourselves and being able to take action to meet our needs. This is expressed as Fulfilling, Balanced, Authenticity.
● Motivating ourselves to change. Learning and growing, facing up to the things that we do that are bad for us and our world and working to change these through love not fear. The elements of self-compassion show up here as Encouraging, Wise, Vision.
What does this mean in practice?
This makes sense when you think about the compassion we show to our children, pets or other vulnerable beings we care for. We accept and love them for who they are no matter the mistakes they make (tender self-compassion). We also want to protect them, which means that, for example, we don’t just let them have the whole packet of sweets, because we know it is bad for them (protective fierce self-compassion). Likewise, we work that extra shift to provide the money to pay for the school/vet trip that we know they want to go on and will be important and useful for them (providing fierce self-compassion). Also, there are times when we have to encourage our loved ones to do things that are hard, but necessary for them to develop, such as sending them off on their first day at college (motivating fierce self-compassion).
As with the difficulties we sometimes have in showing kindness and acceptance to ourselves, we also sometimes neglect harnessing the energy we use to protect, provide for and motivate others, when it comes to our own needs. Neff uses the metaphor of a fierce mother bear looking after her cubs to embody fierce self-compassion, which I find helpful. I know that I don’t always fight for myself in the same way as I would for my children and maybe that is not OK. Think about it, do you bring the same qualities of empowerment, encouragement and vision to addressing your own problems as you do to those of the people you love? Or are your own issues always at the bottom of your list and a target for self-criticism? Whilst it is also important to consider the needs of others a lack of internal (tender) and/or external (fierce) self-compassion can leave us burnt out and unable to support the people and environment around us in the way we would like to. This brings us to the question of balance.
The Yin and Yang of self-compassion
One of the key points of Neff’s book is that we need to be able to balance our inner healing, based in tender self-compassion, with our fierce compassion for outer change if we are to create a caring force to allow us to develop our authentic self and flourish in life. Some authors prefer the terms inner compassion and inter compassion (to self/other).
Others talk about the flow of compassion from self to others, others to self and within the self. I think the overall point is that we need to highlight our connectedness. Self, other, gender, sexual orientation, community, race, nation, ecosphere, planet, universe; we all have needs and experience suffering and the drive to balance these within and between systems at all levels is complex and nuanced. It is necessary to do so for the survival and growth of our world and neglecting this balance at an individual level is a poor foundation for progress. The research supports the notion that we are more resilient when we have self-compassion. If we cannot address our own issues, how can we make a better world for the people we love (and those we don’t too)? As I see it, this comes back to two central tenets of positive psychology. The first intervention is ourself and the tension in the dialectics is where the solutions might be found.
Developing Fierce self-compassion
I would encourage you to reflect on these ideas in relation to your own life and see if the concept of fierce self-compassion might help you with the challenges you face. More information can be found at https://self-compassion.org/. In particular, Neff has created motivating, protective and providing versions of her (tender) self-compassion break, which can be found on the website. These are short meditations of about 7-8 minutes which are aimed at helping you develop these fierce self-compassion skills and can be easily used in real-time when you are practised at them. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll know that the original (tender) self-compassion break is one of my go-to practices for coping with life’s difficulties and I’m finding the new versions equally useful when I need to stand up for (and to) myself.
Reference: Neff, K. (2021). Fierce Self-Compassion, Penguin Life.
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