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Fierce and Tender Self-Compassion

Getty/Anna Bezrukova

Kristin Neff, PhD, created the scale that psychologists worldwide use to measure self-compassion. Now she reveals the hidden superpower that makes being kind to yourself a primal force for justice.

You’re essentially the mother of self-compassion.

The idea that you can turn compassion inward is ancient. But in the scientific literature, no one had defined self-compassion. My contribution is a three-component model that defines self-compassion as mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. I also created a scale to measure it.

That was back in 2003, and since then we have created other ways of researching self-compassion, as well as training protocols, exercises, and practices to teach people how to do it. I think that’s why there’s so much excitement. The last time I checked, there were over 3,200 articles with “self-compassion” in the title, and that not counting the papers that use self-compassion as a measure.

How’s your scale holding up?

Very well. Of course, when you create a scale, other people try to tear it apart. It’s actually been good because it’s made me be a much better scientist. I’ve had to get better and better. There’s one person whose entire career is devoted to trying to take me down. I guess that’s flattering.

You first awakened to self-compassion in a meditation class. Take us back to that.

I was at Berkeley finishing up my PhD in psychology. I was stressed about finding a job after spending so much time and money. I had also gone through a really messy divorce and was feeling a lot of emotional self-doubt. Luckily for me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist community, the Community for Mindful Living, was literally just down the street.

I went there to learn mindfulness meditation, but the woman leading the group started talking about compassion. I kind of expected that. But then she started talking about self-compassion: how we needed to include ourselves in our circle of compassion. She said that compassion had to flow inward as much as it did outward. That was a revelation. It had never dawned on me that I could intentionally give myself kindness and support.

I tried self-compassion when I got home, and the differ- ence in my mental state was like night and day. I immedi- ately felt so much better. Mindfulness meditation took me a lot longer to figure out. That’s why I became so enamored of self-compassion.

You then spent a couple of years studying self-esteem. Why?

Actually, I got interested in Buddhism and the idea of the self. What is the self? What is an empty self? And that led me to work with Susan Harter at the University of Denver, who studied self-concept development. I wanted to figure out how this thing called a self develops: when it first forms and how it changes over time. So, it was a byproduct of working with Susan that I got really into the self-esteem literature.

Self-esteem is a judgment or evaluation of self-worth, and that evaluation can be unconditional or conditional. So, you might say that self-compassion is an unconditional source of self-worth. Unfortunately, most people have a very conditional self-worth. I say unfortunately because the number one basket people put their eggs in, so to speak, is perceived appearance or perceived attractiveness. Susan Harter studied this developmentally, and one of the things she showed is that around the fourth grade, you start to see a discrepancy between girls and boys in self-esteem, which is pretty much directly linked to perceived attractiveness.

Feeling attractive is important for both girls and boys, but the standards of beauty are much higher and more unattainable for girls, so their self-esteem starts to go down. Again, it’s not that boys don’t care. What’s interesting is that boys just think they’re pretty attractive. But the bottom line is girls and women tend to be damaged by that drop in self-esteem that’s based on how attractive they feel against a standard that’s unattainable.

You write that self-compassion has the benefits of self-esteem without the drawbacks.

Yes. Self-compassion is also a source of self-worth, but it’s much less conditional. It’s not dependent on attractiveness or popularity or success. By definition, self-compassion is in the context of suffering because compassion is about the alleviation of suffering. So, it’s there for you when you fail. On both good days and bad days. I did some research that found that the self-worth from self-compassion is much more stable over time than the self-worth that comes from self-esteem because it’s not a judgment of good or bad. It’s just being kind to yourself.

The self-worth from self-compassion is much more stable over time than the self-worth that comes from self-esteem because it’s not a judgment of good or bad. It’s just being kind to yourself.

Does self-compassion lead to better performance than self-esteem?

I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that self-compassion leads to better performance than self-esteem. I don’t think that’s been fully established. What has been established is that people are more motivated with self-compassion than self-esteem. For instance, one classic study at Berkeley started with a really hard vocabulary test that every- one failed. One-third of the students—the self-compassion group—were told to be kind to themselves about failing. “Don’t beat yourself up. It happens to everyone.” Another third of the students—the self-esteem group—were told not to worry:

“You must be smart. You got into Berkeley.” The third group wasn’t told anything and were probably beating up themselves for failing.

The students were then given a chance to study and retake the exam, and it turned out that people who were told to be self-compassionate spent the most time studying. The researchers also found that time studying was linked
to better performance. So, the connection between self-compassion and performance is almost there. I would like to say that self-compassion leads to better performance than self-esteem, but I would be confident saying that it leads to a more sustainable motivation.

Does that work in sports?

Yes. Athletes are very interested; in fact, I just was contacted to be on a panel and Jim Rooney, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is going to be there. I have a dissertation student who’s developed a self-compassion training program for athletes that we call Fail Better. As an athlete, you’re constantly failing, and that’s part of the game. Self-compassion is the way to use failure to your advantage. It’s about being supportive, encouraging change, and encouraging learning. If you slam yourself or shame yourself or criticize yourself, that actually undermines your performance—and people know that. If you choke, you’re toast. That’s why athletes are consciously starting to practice self-compassion.

So how does self-compassion awaken your Mama Bear, what you call Fierce Compassion?

Compassion is the motivation to alleviate suffering. And there are two main ways you can do that. One is tender. One is fierce. I use a metaphor of yin and yang because we have both—and because ideally they’re integrated and in balance.

Yin is the softer, gentler, more nurturing energy of life. Sometimes to alleviate suffering, we just need to accept ourselves. We need to accept that we’re flawed. We need to accept that we’re human beings. We need to accept that shit happens—like the pandemic. So, what are you going to do to alleviate suffering? Be kind to yourself, accept yourself, try to nurture yourself and comfort yourself.

But alleviating suffering can also require taking action, drawing upon the more forceful yang energy of life. For example, first responders don’t attempt to “just be” with people who are trapped in a house on fire. Not at all. They take brave action. By the same token, compassion absolutely requires that we motivate ourselves, that we make changes, that we protect yourselves, that we provide for ourselves. But the motivation of compassion comes from a place of love and support as opposed to shame or feeling that I’m not good enough unless I do this. That’s a much more sustainable motivation over time.

Tender self-compassion is the Nurturing Mother and fierce self-compassion is the Mama Bear.

Sometimes, compassion means doing something really brave.

One catalyst for this book was somebody you knew who was sexually abusing women.

Yeah. I don’t want to go into the details, but it was horrific. A man I was close to was sexually harassing and abusing his employees, including at least one young girl. It wasn’t done to me personally, but I had unwittingly facilitated his ability to do it. And I knew the girl, the one who first alerted me. Her revelation was the tip of the iceberg.

But what really struck me is that she wasn’t angry. This man ran a nonprofit that was doing good in the world, and she didn’t want to rock the boat, she didn’t want to upset people. That may have come from a good place, but people were being harmed. I was mad as hell. And I realized that I needed to help her tap into her own Mama Bear.

That whole experience made me see that we’re in this position because so many women are denied access to this natural protective instinct. Women aren’t socialized to be fierce. They’re told not to get angry. If women are too agentic or too powerful, people don’t like them. That’s why we have the glass ceiling. That’s why there’s still gender inequality. A lot of women I’ve talked to are pretty comfortable with the tender stuff. But the fierce part is a real problem for women.

Believe it or not, men actually have more self-compassion than woman, because men feel more entitled to meet their own needs. Women spend years being socialized to meet other people’s needs, so they feel less entitled to turn that compassionate inward. Luckily, that’s starting to change, thanks to the whole women’s movement, and especially the #MeToo movement.

You open the book with a story about your six-year-old son, who is autistic, acting out during a performance at the zoo. The woman in front of you got upset because he was standing on his chair. She said something to your son, and you lost it.

Yeah. I’m a mindfulness teacher and here I am calling this woman a bitch. [laughs] It’s not the example I want to set for people, yet it happens. So, what do you do with that? Do you just shame yourself?

When I called that woman that name, it wasn’t the right thing to do, and this book is in part about my own struggle with anger. I’m not writing the book as someone who’s got it all together. I’m still very much a work in progress. I’ve struggled with this my whole life because I’m actually a lot more yang than yin. I’m pretty fierce by nature. Every person is different. If you’re a very yang woman, a lot of people don’t like that.

So, the book is partly about learning to honor my own fierceness rather than accepting the narrative that it’s wrong—that I shouldn’t be this way, that I just need to be more mindful, even though there’s some truth to that.

There are real problems with reactive anger, and the goal is to integrate and balance fierceness with tenderness so that anger can be harnessed for good. I’m making little baby steps in that direction. But the big revelation for me was realizing that fierceness is where my power comes from. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I’ve achieved in life if I didn’t have that fierceness.

If I could snap my fingers and integrate my fierceness with tenderness all the time, I would. But if I had to cut out my fierceness to prevent anger from occasionally spilling out, I wouldn’t. No way. That’s where I get my strength. So, it’s a struggle. And I think women struggle with it in a different way than men do. People like angry men. They believe them. They give them power. Look at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings: People saw him as passionate and strong because he was angry. But if Christine Blasey Ford had gotten angry they would have thought, “Oh my God, what’s wrong with her?” For women, a big first step is to stop shaming ourselves for being fierce. That’s why my book is for women.

I’m also really interested in anger because there’s constructive anger and there’s destructive anger. Constructive anger is what motivates us for social justice like the George Floyd protests. If you’re not angry, you’re asleep. There’s plenty to be angry about: racism, sexism, the planet. Anger is a power source that helps us focus and be brave. But the anger needs to be constructive rather than destructive. That’s Mama Bear.

What’s the best way to arouse your Mama Bear?

The book is structured to help people do just that. You want to start with tender self-compassion. If you start from yin tenderness, then you won’t be fighting against people. You won’t be trying to harm the people who are causing the problem. Instead, you’re focused on the harm or you’re focused on alleviating suffering. That’s a healthy form of anger. If you arouse fierceness first—it can get out of control.

My book teaches people how to develop tender self-compassion but also draw on fierce self-compassion. I’ve got exercises to help women give themselves permission to say no to others and to meet their own needs. What’s really important throughout the book is integrating yin and yang energies. That’s the problem our gender-role socialization throws out of balance.

If I could snap my fingers and integrate my fierceness with tenderness all the time, I would. But if I had to cut out my fierceness to prevent anger from occasionally spilling out, I wouldn’t.

How do you know if you’re in balance?

That’s a good question, and I don’t really have an answer. Each person’s journey is personal. But the quintessential self-compassion question is “What do I need right now?” Maybe I need to draw boundaries at work, for example. Whatever the need, it has got to be from your own wisdom. What the book can do is help you to harness and integrate the yin and yang energies of fierce and tender self-compassion.

For example, let’s say you’re really motivated and you really want to achieve. Then you should also accept that you’re not going to achieve all of your goals. The more integrated and balanced goal is not about endless striving. We strive to do our best while also understanding that the bottom line is unconditional self-acceptance—and that balanced bottom line actually takes us further toward reaching our goals and a happier life. The same idea is true with anger: We may have cause for righteous rage, but if our hearts aren’t open, we’re more likely to burn out and not solve the problem.

You write about a tone of voice for talking to yourself. I talk to myself all the time but have never really paid attention to the tone.

Tone is so important because it’s preverbal. We’re wired to respond to the tone of voice independently of the words. The words you say count as well, of course, but it’s a separate factor. So, when you need acceptance, you want to use a softer, warmer tone of voice. If you need to be motivated, you don’t want to yell at yourself, you want an encouraging tone like a coach. If you need to be fierce and draw a line in the sand, that’s another voice. It’s important to pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Otherwise, you may not take it in—or it may even be counterproductive.

You write about post-traumatic growth, that tender and fierce self-compassion is the way to grow through trauma. I visualize trauma—at least for some people—as a heavy boulder they’re carrying until at some point they put it down and the boulder becomes a pedestal to stand on that gives them power.

Yes, absolutely. I like the metaphor. I think my early days with my son’s autism were traumatic. Some days I would almost be shell-shocked. It was so difficult. But we have the ability to grow from our difficulties, to find meaning and even a silver lining. The suffering and struggle are not necessarily bad. It may be what we need to experience in order to grow and to become our best selves. That’s where the different types of self-compassion can help.

When something traumatic happens, we may shut down because we don’t have the capacity to process it—and that’s OK. But we can’t stay shut down forever. And if we don’t process our pain, it gets stored in our body, so it’s not a good idea to just move on as if nothing happened. At some point, we need to process the pain, and that means we need to open to it.

That’s where tender self-compassion is so important. Knowing that it’s not just me, that a lot of other people have experienced something similar and felt the same way is really important. Tender self-compassion also keeps us from shaming ourselves or blaming ourselves or feeling so isolated. Opening with tender compassion is what allows us to hold the pain and process it—to put down the boulder.

But there’s a next step. I’ve opened to my pain and I started to heal from it, but I also want to make my pain meaningful and important in a way that can actually change things for the better. So I tap into my Fierce Compassion and step up onto this new pedestal to make sure other women don’t have this experience. If you look at the #MeToo movement, it has both elements. Part of it is opening to the pain and processing it. The other part is standing up and declaring that we aren’t going to let this happen anymore. One element, without the other, would be incomplete.

NOW IS A GOOD TIME TO Get Fierce

Self-compassion is useful for anyone, and most of what I’ve written about in the past has been gender neutral. But I believe that self-compassion is especially necessary for women at this moment in history. Women have had it with mansplaining and being treated as if we were incompetent. It’s time for us to be paid fairly and to have equal power and representation as national leaders in business and government. Fierce self-compassion, especially when balanced with tender self-compassion, can help us fight for our rights and counter the harm done by centuries of being told to keep quiet and look pretty.

I was also inspired to write this book as a consequence of the #MeToo movement. For far too long women swept sexual harassment and abuse under the rug. We feared people wouldn’t believe us if we revealed the truth.

It would bring shame upon us, or it would only cause more harm. But this changed in 2017 as hundreds of thousands of women used the hashtag #MeToo to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Suddenly, the men were the ones leaving their jobs with their reputations in ruin.

My story resonates with those of countless other women around the globe. Despite being a well-known mindfulness and compassion teacher, I was fooled and manipulated by someone who turned out to be a sex predator. A man

I trusted and supported was actually harassing and abusing countless women without my knowledge. My self-compassion practice is what allowed me to cope with the horror of revelation after revelation. Tender self-compassion helped me to heal, and fierce self-compassion spurred me to speak up and commit to not letting the harm continue.

The women’s movement gave us access to the professional realm, but to succeed in it we’ve needed to act like men, suppressing tender qualities that are devalued in a man’s world. At the same time, we’re disliked for being too aggressive or assertive. This leaves us with a false choice: to succeed and be scorned or to be liked and remain disempowered. Women have more pressure to prove ourselves at work, but are also subject to sexual harassment and lower pay. The bottom line is this: the current setup isn’t working for us anymore. I believe that by developing and integrating fierce and tender self-compassion, women will be better equipped to realize our true selves and make needed changes to the world around us. Patriarchy is still alive and causing great harm. We’re being called by the pressing issues of the day—sexual harassment, pay inequality, rampant prejudice, health disparities, political division, our dying planet—to claim our power and take action.

Excerpted from Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive by Kristen Neff, PhD. Published in June, 2021 by Harper Wave.