A burgeoning area in psychological research comes with a simple message: Stop beating yourself up so much. But "self-compassion" is more complex than it may seem, says Kristin Neff, one of the pioneers of the field. An associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the forthcoming book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Ms. Neff spoke to The Globe and Mail why it's much more than some Stuart Smalley exercise in self-affirmation.
What is self-compassion?
When you notice that you're suffering or feeling bad about yourself, it's treating yourself with kind, caring concern. Most people understand what compassion for others is. I really define it as the same thing, it's just applied toward the self.
Why do you think some people are so hard on themselves?
I really think it's our culture. We have a long history of self-sacrifice and [the belief]that we should put all of our attention on meeting others' needs. And people really think that self-criticism is an effective motivator, and they believe that if they were kind and supportive to themselves it would mean they wouldn't work hard, they wouldn't strive to improve.
Right, people would think, "It's okay, I can keep eating these doughnuts because I'm a good person."
That's really the key shift I'm always trying to make in people's minds. Compassion is really about caring for another's well-being, not wanting the person to suffer. So when you have compassion for yourself you want to alleviate your own suffering. Which means you won't eat three pounds of Dunkin' Donuts because that will cause you to suffer.
Why is self-compassion a better motivator than self-criticism?
I use the example of a parent with their kid. If you love your kid and you don't want your kid to suffer and they come home with a failing exam grade and you say, "You're so stupid, you're so lazy," that's not going to motivate the child to change. And yet somehow we think it's going to work on ourselves.
Can it be used as an excuse to put off taking action to change for the better?
What we're finding in our research is that it actually greatly enhances motivation, the desire to change, the desire for personal growth. It doesn't at all lower your standards in terms of what you want to achieve in life.
What effects on health has self-compassion been shown to have?
In terms of mental health, it has a very strong negative relationship with both anxiety and depression.
Some people might dismiss this as the Stuart Smalley view of life - "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." What do you say to those people?
That's really much more about self-esteem, about just thinking you're great. The whole reason why I'm drawn to self-compassion is because it actually doesn't do that at all. Self-esteem is all about seeing yourself positively - they taught that to kids for years and years, and now we've got the most narcissistic group of college students ever recorded. Self-compassion is how you deal with your inadequacies. It actually focuses on your failures, your mistakes. The Stuart Smalley approach is just don't think about them.
Life has become so competitive, not just at work but even socially, where, for example, some parents feel pressure to throw the biggest and best birthday party for their kids. It can be very overwhelming. Is self-compassion a reaction to that?
I think the culture is ready for something else. Probably because of all these pressures, people are finally starting to get the drift that this constant emphasis on self-esteem, feeling good about yourself, being better and special, is just kind of an un-winnable game. And I think people are tired of it. This whole thing of comparing ourselves to others, not only does it make us feel bad but it also creates a sense of separation and isolation. I think people are yearning for some way of being in which they can feel more connected to other people.
And self-compassion fulfills that yearning?
Self-compassion is really just a way of relating to the imperfect experience of living life. Stuff happens. We aren't perfect. Self-compassion just makes sense. We aren't all above average, duh. That's just logic 101.
This interview has been condensed and edited.