It’s countdown to one of my favorite holidays, and the last thing I want to pass on to you is a half-hearted bulleted list of Thanksgiving Do’s and Don’ts. (Alright, here’s a Thanksgiving Do for you: Relax, savor and enjoy. Oh, and be sure to make room for your favorite foods. It’s gonna be okay.)
Instead, I’ve got a special treat for us: an interview on self-compassion with one of the leading experts on the topic, Chris Germer, PhD, clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, and author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Dr. Germer and pioneering researcher Kristin Neff, PhD co-created The Mindful Self-Compassion Program, a training available to both the general public and clinicians.
Despite holiday cards and songs proclaiming, “this is the most wonderful time of the year,” for many, the holidays can bring more pain than joy. I hope Dr. Germer’s wisdom helps you to be unconditionally on your own side this holiday season.
Interview with Chris Germer, PhD
First, what is self-compassion? Self-compassion is a kindly response to ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, much as we’d treat someone we love.
The term was first defined by a leading researcher in the field, Kristin Neff, in 2003. In her definition, the three key components of self-compassion are self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and balanced, mindful awareness. Kindness opens our hearts to our suffering, so we can give ourselves what we need. Common humanity opens us to others, so we know we aren’t alone. Mindfulness opens us to the present moment, so we can accept our experience with greater ease. Together, they comprise a state of warm, connected, presence during difficult moments in our lives.
In a fascinating study I’m sure you’re familiar with, researchers asked two groups of college women to eat donuts, then asked them to taste-test some candy. They found the group that was first exposed to a minor self-compassion intervention after eating donuts ate significantly less candy than the control group. Why do you think that is? Yes, some donut eaters were told, “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself [for eating the donut]. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff…” When people eat to improve their mood, they are more likely to eat excessively. In contrast, if we can find a way to be kind to ourselves when we know we made a mistake, it will lead to better choices. Kristin and I call this motivating with encouragement, not criticism. We all need a kind inner coach to help us develop new habits.
What’s the difference between self-compassion and self-indulgence? One of the fears that people have about self-compassion is that it will lower our expectations and lead to a lazy life–giving ourselves whatever we want when we want it. But would a compassionate mother give her children ice cream whenever they asked for it? I don’t think so. Self-compassion allows us to ask ourselves what we really need–what will bring the greatest long-term benefit. Self-indulgence is commonly associated with narcissism, but the research shows that self-compassion has no relationship to narcissism. The research also shows that the goals of self-compassionate people are just as high as others, but self-compassionate people go about achieving them in different ways.
I’ve noticed that in practicing some of the self-compassion tools, there’s often a block for my clients. They’re easily able to feel compassion for others but feel stuck when it comes to self-compassion. Why is that often difficult? Most of us have resistance to self-compassion. For example, before we understand what self-compassion is, we think it will make us selfish, self-indulgent, complacent, or weak. The research shows quite the opposite on all counts. However, the biggest resistance comes from feeling unworthy or undeserving of kindness. Consider how you may react when you receive a compliment? Is it hard to take in? Why? Similarly, we are uneasy about giving ourselves kindness and compassion. We can learn to be self-compassionate by first connecting with how we feel toward some other people when they suffer, and then tuck ourselves into the circle of compassion. Why should we systematically exclude ourselves, and how is it possible to meet our needs and be happy if we do?
How did you become so interested in mindful self-compassion? I am a clinical psychologist and I have also been practicing mindfulness meditation for many years. I realized in my personal and professional lives that we need a lot of warmth and loving-kindness to deal with aspects of ourselves that we don’t particularly like, such as how we look or how we feel when we don’t live up to expectations. Mindfulness focuses on moment-to-moment experience, and compassion focuses more on the experiencer–the observer–especially when things go wrong in our lives. Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox of life is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Sometimes we need to warm things up a bit before we can clearly see what’s going on and do something about it.
I was struck by something I think you said at the FACES conference in Seattle last year, but I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly: “Awareness without self-compassion is like personal warfare.” Can you say more on that? I don’t remember saying that. I think I might have been referring to Bob Sharples comment on “the subtle aggression of the self-improvement.” We often start trying to improve ourselves out of hate rather than love, and it’s good to know the difference because we can’t satisfy the inner critic or the inner perfectionist by endlessly improving our behavior. The inner critic needs to be seen, heard, and eventually to step aside for a new voice to emerge–the Compassionate Self. That is the difference that really makes a difference in how we conduct our lives.
What would you say to those who believe self-criticism is an effective motivator for them? Self-criticism can indeed be an effective motivator, but less so than motivating with kindness and encouragement. In one study, those who failed a test and were self-compassionate studied 25% longer than others and scored higher on a second test.
Great, I’m hoping most of us reading this are on board with the power of self-compassion for our well-being. What are some resources or tools to help us get started? A powerful, simple technique for activating self-compassion is simply to put one or two hands over your heart when something goes wrong in your life, and notice how you feel. For lots more, including free meditations downloads, please go to www.CenterforMSC.org, www.Self-Compassion.org or www.MindfulSelfCompassion.org.
p.s. Dr. Germer’s collaborator, pioneer researcher Kristin Neff, PhD will be in Seattle on March 27-28, 2014 for a two-day workshop teaching the core skills of self-compassion to both clinicians and the general public. Check out the details here. (Unfortunately, her upcoming talk at UW in December is sold-out.)
p.p.s. If you’re still wondering what the heck self-compassion has to do with nutrition or health, the first ever Mindful Nutrition newsletter takes a stab at it here.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful post, Minh-Hai.
Thank you, Krista! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
This is a stunning interview. It gets me right _here_. Thank you so much. I wonder about something, though, and would like to hear more. The part where Dr. Germer is responding to your question about why self-compassion is difficult, he says ‘Consider how you may react when you receive a compliment? Is it hard to take in? Why?’ Why is that? What are your thoughts on that particular why?