Compassion isn’t always easy, but when we do feel compassionate, it’s usually a feeling focused on others rather than aimed at ourselves. This tendency is one that Dr. Kristin Neff is trying to counter. Kristin’s professional research on self-compassion began as a reflection of her personal life. “For me it’s primarily a personal journey,” Kristin says. “I started practicing self-compassion during the last year of my PhD at UC–Berkeley, and, you know, I was under a lot of stress thinking about whether I was going to get a job. I had just gone through a divorce and it was very messy. I started practicing Buddhism, and the group I joined talked a lot about self-compassion, so I started trying to be more kind and supportive of myself and it made such a huge difference.”
That life-changing experience led Kristin to study the impact of self-compassion. Before becoming a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, Kristin served as a post-doctoral researcher studying self-esteem. At that time she recognized that people often use unhealthy methods, such as comparison or narcissism, to achieve a greater sense of self. Given that this may have unintended negative consequences, Kristin wondered whether it wasn’t more important to study how compassion toward oneself might affect one’s wellbeing. After all, self-compassion allowed her to manage her life during a difficult time. “If you have a voice in your ear saying ‘you’re crap, I’m ashamed of you, you’re worthless’ versus a voice in your ear that says ‘I believe in you, it’s okay to make mistakes, I accept you as you are,’” she says, “which voice is going to give you more emotional resilience and an ability to cope with whatever is happening?”
But it isn’t just in times of crisis that self-compassion matters. Self-compassionate people may also benefit physiologically from being kind to themselves. Although there isn’t a great deal of empirical research on the topic, Kristin refers to a few studies that suggest self-compassion can lead to a stronger immune system and better heart-rate variability. “There have also been studies on diabetes patients, for example, showing that self-compassion stabilizes glucose levels – and there are self-reports from patients that they experience fewer aches and pains and have to see a doctor less often,” she notes. “This physiological outcome makes sense because what happens when we criticize ourselves is that we activate our sympathetic nervous system, and the body functions better when it isn’t in a heightened state of awareness.”
Gender may also play a role. Kristin admits that approximately 80-85% of those who attend her workshops on self-compassion are women. She says that “women tend to be more receptive to the message. [Self-compassion] goes against male gender norms because it seems ‘weak’.” Overall, however, Kristin reports that “women are pretty consistently a little less self-compassionate than men. The difference is very small, but consistent.” But perhaps what matters more is “gender role orientation.” According to research in progress, Kristin says it seems that women with a strong feminine gender orientation are much less self-compassionate and much more compassionate toward others. While the research on this issue is still underway, she has observed that the gap between feminine and masculine gender orientations seems to be significant.
How best to become a more self-compassionate person? According to Kristen, “The easiest thing to do is just notice how you talk to yourself – how you treat yourself when you are struggling.” When experiencing difficulties and stress, you should ask if you are treating yourself like you would treat someone you care about. If the answer is no, then you have to ask why – and adjust your inner voice accordingly. “It’s not rocket science,” Kristin says, “we know how to do it – we just don’t give ourselves permission to treat ourselves with compassion. We think it’s a virtue to be hard on ourselves, even though all the research shows it doesn’t help you in any way.”
As for her own self-care, Kristin enjoys expressive dance, nature walks with her son, and yoga. “[The] biggest gift I gave myself is I hired someone to come to my house for yoga class. I may have to buy my motivation,” she says with a laugh. “But I know it’s important for my fitness and well-being.” In the end, it is all about being kind –not only to others, but to yourself. We should all follow suit, fight those negative voices in our heads, and engage in daily acts of self-kindness. It certainly can’t hurt!
Dr. Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas-Austin. She is an internationally recognized, pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion. She focuses primarily on applications of self-compassion and teaching people how to relate to themselves with greater kindness. You can learn more about her work and her workshops at www.self-compassion.org.