Self-compassion is at the forefront of everything Dr. Kristin Neff pursues and that is exemplified in her achievements.
As an associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, Dr. Neff has had extensive opportunities to share her findings and knowledge.
Her insightful books further relay her discoveries and include “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive” and “Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals.”
Dr. Neff has also fostered a relationship with Dr. Chris Germer. In conjunction, they have developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide. Together with Christopher Germer, she hosts an 8-hour online course, “The Power of Self-Compassion.”
This self-compassion expert has provided individuals across the world with the opportunity to attend one of her lectures and workshops. She has also furthered her reach by authoring an audio program, “Self-Compassion: Step by Step,” and has published numerous academic articles. She is the co-founder and board president of the nonprofit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.
Christine Andreu: What are some specific ways self-compassion can help the individual struggling with issues of race and privilege?
Dr. Neff: I really believe that self-compassion is the key that unlocks the shame that actually allows White people to wake up — and if that doesn’t happen, we aren’t going to be able to take action. If action comes from the outside, it won’t be sustained.
When we have compassion, we realize, “I didn’t create the racist system, it happened well before I was [born]. I do benefit from it, so, therefore, it’s my responsibility to change it, but I don’t have to blame myself or harshly judge myself or be lost in shame because I don’t want to admit my own privilege.”
Then, of course, action needs to be taken, and I think self-compassion can also help with taking action, especially in terms of sustaining the energy. So, for instance, I know a lot of kind of woke White people that use shame toward their fellow Whites to try to get them to change. It’s amazing the barrage of shame: “Why aren’t there more people of color at your workshop? Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing more?” And the thing about what happens is if you shame people, they shut down and they can’t see, and they defend themselves; it’s just really counterproductive… The research shows self-compassion allows you to take responsibility by making it safe to do so.
Christine Andreu: Your primary focus in your research is on gender issues. How is this related to the race conversation?
“The Yang of self-compassion is what we need to unlock ACTION.”
Dr. Neff: I talk about fierce self-compassion, as well as tender self-compassion. And so, the side of self-compassion that’s protective, especially self protective, it says to alleviate suffering. “I need to stop you from harming me” is the act of self-compassion. I need to stand up for myself. I need to say no. I need to go to the polls. I need to march. I need to call out that sexist comment. I need to speak up if I’ve been abused in some way. I need to speak up for my sisters that have been abused or harassed in some way. The whole movement is intricately tied to self-compassion… We need to take care of ourselves and do what we need to do to alleviate our own suffering.
What I’m talking about … is the Yin and the Yang of self-compassion. To get away from the masculine-feminine terms because they’re a little bit limiting, so the Yin of self-compassion is kind of the tender, nurturing, accepting ourselves as we are, which we really need. The Yin of self-compassion is what we need to, for instance, … unlock our shame and to accept our own flaws.
The Yang of self-compassion is what we need to unlock ACTION.
So, this is what we need to take action to do something, to be active and competent and powerful and help alleviate our suffering by really eliminating these systems of injustice, whether it’s race or gender. So from my point of view, the two go hand in hand. They’re all part of self-compassion; but people don’t realize that, they think self-compassion is kind of soft and weak … It’s not like that. [It’s more like] “Oh wow, poor thing. I feel shame or that really hurts, and now I’m going to do something about it.”
Christine Andreu: Can you clarify your use of the terms Yin and Yang?
Dr. Neff: In Chinese philosophy, Yin is kind of accepting, more of a passive energy. It’s mostly the feminine energy and kind of the more tender nurturing energy —— things women are allowed to be. And it’s also the energy of self-acceptance, being with ourselves as we are. Then Yang, in Chinese philosophy, is more [of] the masculine energy. It’s a powerful energy. It’s the energy that takes action and does stuff in the world. That’s also part of self-compassion: It alleviates. Think of a firefighter who jumps in to save a burning building. The Yin … sees a building that is burning and says, “Oh, that’s so terrible. I really feel for those people;” the yang jumps in and risks their life to save the people.
Sometimes compassion means taking action to alleviate suffering and to reduce harm. And so again, it’s the same thing with self-compassion: sometimes–not sometimes, often —— we need to take action to care for ourselves, which means fighting against injustice. So compassion means acceptance of our flawed humanity at the same that it is also taking action to alleviate suffering. It’s really both.
So, this is what compassion does: “I’m only human. I make mistakes. I’m not perfect.” This is part of [life]; no one ever said a human being was supposed to be perfect. And also: “It’s not just me. I’m part of this larger whole.” … No one chooses to have unconscious bias. We got it from watching TV, society. And so, once you kind of realize that, and self-compassion helps you realize that, it actually helps you to take responsibility because you don’t have to hide.
Christine Andreu: What would you like to share with audiences in regards to your message and where we’re at today?
Dr. Neff: Self-compassion is absolutely key for being able to deal with stress … First of all, knowledge of stress. For most people, they know that they’re distressed; but…instead of just being lost in that distress, [we get] to kind of turn toward ourselves and say, “Why am I really struggling. What do I need right now?” That’s a kind of mindfulness. Remembering that we aren’t alone. Ironically, it feels so lonely, especially when we’re isolating at home. It’s just remembering that we aren’t alone. That it’s not just us. We’re all in this together. Like literally, we are all in this together. It helps us feel less
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