Being Kind to Yourself

Self-criticism is often seen as a virtue. But psychologist Kristin Neff says there’s a better path to self-improvement — self-compassion. She says people who practice self-compassion are more conscientious and more likely to take responsibility for their mistakes.

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Additional Resources

BOOKS

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015 

Fierce Self-Compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. Kristin Neff, HarperCollins Publishers, 2021

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A proven way to accept  yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. Kristin Neff, Guildford Press, 2018 

RESEARCH

Compassion, Well-being, and the Hypo Egoic self, Kristin Neff, Emma Seppala (in press).  In K.W. Brown & M. Leary (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Hypo-egoic Phenomena: Theory and Research on the Quiet Ego. Oxford University Press. 2016

The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships, Kristin Neff, S Natasha Beretvas, Self and Identity, 2012 

The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing mediators, Kristin Neff, Elizabeth Pommier, Self and Identity, 2012 

Self-Compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relation to oneself, Kristin Neff, Roos Vonk Journal of Personality, 2008

A pilot exploration of heart rate variability and salivary Cortisol responses to compassion-focused imagery,  Helen Rockliff, Kirsten McEwan, Paul Gilbert, Stafford Lightman, Clinical Neuropsychiatry, June 2008 

The Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Self and Identity, 2003 

Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments, Justin Kruger, David Dunning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000 

GRAB BAG

The space between self-esteem and self compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen, February 2013 

Kristin Neff’s website

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you take the wrong turn off the highway or fumble a presentation at work, do you get mad at yourself for making a mistake? Do you silently kick yourself or maybe actually kick yourself? Self-criticism is often seen as heroic, maybe even noble. Many people think it's the shortest path to self-improvement. But is it?

Kristin Neff: The belief that we need to be hard on ourselves, criticize ourselves to succeed or reach your goals or make a change is actually the number one block to self-compassion we found in the research. People are afraid that if they're kind to themselves, they just won't get anything done.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, the story of a psychologist who learned to stop beating up on herself, and how you can convert your harsh inner critic into a friend.

Kristin Neff: People who are more self-compassionate, take more responsibility for their mistakes, they're more conscientious, and more likely to apologize. Ironically, even though the word self is in self-compassion, when you take that approach, it means you don't have to be so self-focused.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin Neff's father left the family when she was a very small child. It was the late 1960s, and he decided he was going to be a hippie. He picked up and moved to Hawaii.

Kristin Neff: One of my first memories is going to visit him when I was about six years old, in Maui, and him telling me, "Please don't call me Dad, call me Brother Dionysus. Because we are all God's children." I was incredibly uncomfortable. And he said that to my brother as well.

Kristin Neff: And so we couldn't call him Brother Dionysus, that was just absurd. But he didn't want us to call him dad. So for many, many years, both my brother and I were like, "Excuse me, could you pass the salt please?" Without using any sort of name for him because we didn't know what to call him. So that was the backdrop of feeling unwanted and rejected.

Shankar Vedantam: As she grew up, Kristin's insecurity about her dad shaped her romantic relationships.

Kristin Neff: And I always felt insecure. And so there was always that sense of, if any boy liked me enough to want to be with me, I should go for it because there aren't a lot of options. And that actually played into my first marriage.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin married young. Her husband was a guy she met in college.

Kristin Neff: He was a good guy. He was intelligent, he was handsome. And up until then, my boyfriends had all been jerks. And so I thought, "Okay, I've got a good one, I'll say yes when he asks me to marry him, that's amazing that someone would actually ask me to marry them, I'll just go for it." And I didn't have the larger understanding to realize what is it that I actually want in a man. It was like, if it was somebody that was good enough.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. She assumed her marriage was good. Her husband was committed to her.

Kristin Neff: But there wasn't a lot of passion. But I didn't really know what I was missing until the man I worked for as a research assistant in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I found out I did have a lot of passion with Peter and I started to realize, "I see, this is what I'm missing."

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin refers to this man as Peter, although that's not his real name.

Kristin Neff: First of all, he was much older than me. He was about 15 years older than me. And so looking back, it's probably played into some of my father issues, right? And so we just started developing this intense attraction toward each other. At one point, I was working with him at his office, and he was looking at me and I was looking at him and we started kissing. So we started having a physical relationship and the passion and the intensity was like and nothing I'd ever experienced before. It's almost like it became a split personality. So I was having this affair with Peter, and I was hiding it from my husband and I was split in two. The half that was... The part of me that was still married was horrible, the part of me that was with Peter, I was like on cloud nine, I'd never felt such love, such passion, I felt so deeply seen. It was amazing. So it was like the best and the worst simultaneously. And the two sides of me just didn't talk to each other.

Shankar Vedantam: There was one more complicating factor. Kristin and Peter were also hiding their affair from his partner.

Kristin Neff: So one more layer of something that I was horrified about that I just didn't deal with.

Shankar Vedantam: To top it off, even as she was breaking all sorts of moral codes, Kristin was in graduate school to study moral development.

Kristin Neff: There were so many ways in which it was wrong. Of course, it didn't even cross my mind at the time that I was his research assistant. He was really bad on his part. Not to mention, he was cheating, but he was, I guess you consider that a sexually inappropriate relationship from his point of view. But at the time that didn't even cross my mind.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin was preparing to spend a year in India for her dissertation research. Peter promised her he was going to leave his partner and join her.

Kristin Neff: And we had made these plans. I thought this was it. I thought we were soulmates without a doubt, he was going to leave his partner for me, he was going to come to India, we were going to spend our lives together.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin hadn't thought through how she'd tell her husband that their marriage was over.

Kristin Neff: I assumed that I would just tell him at some point, but I hadn't even gotten to that point, when my husband discovered us.

Shankar Vedantam: She and Peter were at work one day when her husband paid a surprise visit.

Kristin Neff: And he knocked on the door of the office. And it took a long time to answer that knock, let's just say. And when he opened the door, he knew, and I knew, and it's like, it all just came out. Oh, God. It was one of the worst moments in my entire life. I told him how sorry I was for hurting him. But I also said this is the love of my life. And I need to do this, and we need to get a divorce. And obviously, he was very, very angry about it. I felt horrible for hurting him.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin and her husband filed for divorce. She left for India and waited for Peter to join her.

Kristin Neff: And I really thought he would come and he kept on saying he would come.

Shankar Vedantam: Eventually, he broke the news to her.

Kristin Neff: After I was there about three months, he actually said, "Kristin, I'm not going to come." And to say I was a basket case would probably not be an understatement. It played into that storyline again of, okay, here I am rejected yet again. I was very hurt and also felt betrayed. And I started to realize, well, did he even mean what he said about wanting to spend the rest of his life with me? Maybe not. That was also hard.

Shankar Vedantam: After a year overseas, Kristin moved back to Berkeley to finish her PhD. She was still angry at Peter and had no interest in seeing him ever again. But then, Peter's partner, who knew about his affair with Kristin, contacted her.

Kristin Neff: She sent me an email and said, "Kristin, I need to tell you something. Peter is in the hospital with brain cancer. He only has a couple months left to live. If you want to see him, here's the visiting hours you can come when I'm not there." Holy s***, huh? First of all, I felt overwhelmingly grateful to her, like, what kind of woman would be so kind to this woman who tried to steal her partner that she would do this and let me know?

Shankar Vedantam: Peter's partner had more news for Kristin.

Kristin Neff: She said, "Kristin, I have to tell you, this isn't the first time this has happened with another woman." For whatever reason, she had decided to stick with him. But I guess this was the pattern that he would meet younger women, say he was going to spend their life with him, and then dump them.

Shankar Vedantam: Still, Kristin decided to visit Peter at the hospital.

Kristin Neff: I just actually went once to see him because he was actually very close to the end. And it was really difficult because he couldn't talk, but he could see me and he was making these weird sounds and faces because I don't know if he was in so much pain. He didn't seem happy to see me. And so I said my goodbyes and I think I told him that I forgave him because he was about to die and I didn't want him to end thinking that I hated him. It wasn't a Hollywood script version of how you say goodbye, it was a very awkward, uncertain, unclear version of how you say goodbye to someone.

Shankar Vedantam: Peter died a few days later. And Kristin was saddled with a toxic brew of emotions.

Kristin Neff: I'm still incredibly angry at myself. I will admit, there was a part of me that thought this somehow was life, saying, "Okay, Kristin, if you do something like this, and you cheat and you have an affair, look what happens." I didn't really believe that. But that thought crossed my mind. Because I still felt so much shame and guilt about what I had done to my husband.

Shankar Vedantam: I asked Kristin about the conversation she had with herself in the days that followed her visit with Peter.

Kristin Neff: You're feeling horrible for lying, it's not who you are, you've broken your vows, you've hurt someone. And then add on that coming back and all the layers of being angry at him because, I don't know if he used me or not, but he basically wasn't honest with me, dumped me, left me in India, and then he's got brain cancer and me wanting to forgive him. I'm laughing but of course, it wasn't funny at the time, it was like a bad soap opera.

Shankar Vedantam: Of all people, Kristin told herself, she ought to have known better. She was doing a PhD on moral development, for crying out loud.

Kristin Neff: Honesty has always been one of my core values. I am by nature, an incredibly honest person. Lying comes very unnaturally to me. So not only was I studying moral development, not only was morality part of my self-concept, and honesty part of my self-concept, so that when I had done this, not only was I hypocritical, but I was completely inauthentic.

Kristin Neff: So I just felt a lot of shame. A lot of shame that this had happened, that I had allowed it to happen. There's even the slight thought, did I somehow cause this to happen through my karma? I didn't really believe in karma, but Brother Dionysus, my dad, certainly talked a lot about karma. I was really cold to myself. "Well, maybe you deserved this. You did this, this is what happens. I don't feel sorry for you." It was just an intense coldness toward myself. Coldness mixed with shame.

Shankar Vedantam: Perhaps you are familiar with an inner voice that says things like this, that castigates you, criticizes you, belittles you. A voice that tells you that you are no good, that you deserve to suffer. In the aftermath of her meltdown, Kristin became more and more aware of that voice inside her. She would never dream of saying harsh and cruel things to other people. So why was she doing it to herself?

Kristin Neff: The vast majority of people say they're significantly more compassionate and understanding and kinder to other people than they are to themselves.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Kristin Neff made a series of choices in her personal life. She would come to regret them for a long time. These mistakes filled her with shame and judgment and self-criticism. After she became a psychologist, she started to study the harsh ways people talk to themselves. Kristin, I routinely find myself saying very critical things to myself that I would never dream of saying to another human being. You've studied all the ways people beat up on themselves, what do you find?

Kristin Neff: In my research, actually, the vast majority of people say they're significantly more compassionate and understanding and kinder to other people than they are to themselves. Especially when they make a mistake or fail in some way.

Kristin Neff: It's interesting. Some people manifest this with harsh language, with name-calling, they swear it themselves, they really use a harsh tone. Other people like myself, it's more just a sense of coldness or shame. Other people almost like they disassociate, almost like by abandoning themselves, just the way you might with someone you didn't like, you just stop returning their calls. And so that can manifest as just shutting down or going numb. Sometimes it's just a feeling of disappointment, like a sigh out, that's the way it manifests. But pretty much everyone has a self-critic that comes out one way or another.

Shankar Vedantam: But you've talked about the concept of the inner critic, I think all of us have experienced this. What is the role that the inner critic plays in our lives?

Kristin Neff: Well, so, the inner critic actually plays an important role. And I like to say we shouldn't beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up because the inner critic comes from the simple desire to stay safe. So what we know about the inner critic is tapping into the body's fight-flight or freeze response. And so when we're scared of something, and gosh, when we make a mistake or fail, it's scary, we feel frightened, we feel threatened. So we either fight ourselves thinking we could control the situation and be safe, or we flee in shame from the perceived judgments of others, or we freeze and get stuck in rumination. And these are all really natural ways we try to stay safe. So you might even say the motivation of the inner critic is a good one, even though the consequences are anything but.

Shankar Vedantam: Our inner self-critic may have first evolved to teach us how to survive. If you make a mistake when dealing with a predator, a mistake that costs you a limb, for example, it might make sense to beat yourself up over your mistake, so you never repeat it. But today, this harsh teacher shows up even when we commit trivial infractions.

Kristin Neff: And we actually feel incredibly threatened even when we do something as simple as a friend, and you see that she's, we don't know if she's put on a little weight, you notice she's got a little bump. And you say, "Oh, when are you expecting?" And she says, "I'm not expecting." And by the way, that happened to me not too long ago, I was really bloated. And someone said to me, "When are you expecting?" Then I said, "I'm not expecting." And so something like that happens and it feels as serious as a predator chasing you, about to kill you. Because what's happened is your self-concept at that moment is obliterated and it feels like a death because our ego is hurt. And we confuse our ego with our actual bodily cells, at least mentally. And when we fail, or we make a mistake, or someone criticizes us or doesn't accept us or reject us, it does feel like a death. And I hate to say this, but some people do go as far as to try to take their own life if they feel too much shame. Shame is a big factor in alcoholism, and addiction and suicidal ideation, eating disorders. A huge number of dysfunctional behaviors are driven by shame. Shame is the undercurrent behind everything. So the difference between shame and guilt, for instance, guilt is, "I did something bad," it's about our behaviors. Shame is, "I am bad."

Shankar Vedantam: Is the connection between perfectionism and our inner critic, is that also connected do you think to the phenomenon of shame?

Kristin Neff: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Some perfectionism is like, "I want to do my very best, but if I don't, I'm still okay." That's actually useful perfectionism. A maladaptive perfectionism, unhelpful perfectionism, is if I'm not perfect, I am bad. And that feeling of I am bad is shame.

Shankar Vedantam: Feeling shame, feeling the pain caused by the inner self-critic prompts many of us to do things that are unhelpful to our mental well-being. One of those responses: We try to suppress the pain by artificially propping up our self-esteem.

Kristin Neff: Self-esteem, there's nothing wrong with self-esteem. Self-esteem is just a judgment or evaluation of self-worth. And when you care about yourself, you're going to have a higher sense of self-esteem. The problem is a lot of people get their self-esteem from, again, identifying with their ego. So, I have high self-esteem if I think I'm attractive, or if other people like me, or if I succeed in business, or sports, or whatever it is, is important to me to succeed at. And so, in an odd way, when we're basing our self-esteem on our ego, this judgment of self-worth, that anytime we fail or make a mistake or get rejected, then, because we're identify with our ego, again, it feels like a death when this happens, it feels very, very serious.

Shankar Vedantam: And, of course, the times that you actually might need a boost is actually when things are down for you. And that might be precisely when self-esteem deserts you.

Kristin Neff: Exactly. So I'll just give you an example. A funny, sadly true story. I was with a group of friends, we were visiting some riding stables, and there was this old Spanish riding instructor. I was younger. I'm part Greek, so I've Mediterranean looks. And he looked at me and he said, "Oh, you're very beautiful." And I was like, "Well, gosh." My self-esteem boost, feeling good about myself. And he said, "Don't ever shave your mustache!" (Laughs) Okay, self-esteem here one moment, gone the next. And so it's very fragile. It's really humiliating when someone tells you not to shave your mustache. It's a fair-weather friend because it's based on externals. Or even when it's based on internals, because we aren't perfect, we're always going to get it wrong sometimes.

Shankar Vedantam: Right, because you might think of yourself as being a very conscientious person or a very persistent person, and then you might not succeed or persist at a certain task. And then what happens to that inner self-concept that you have?

Kristin Neff: Exactly. That's the problem with self-esteem. There's nothing wrong with having it, but it's how do you get it? Do you get it from being better than other people? From being a narcissist and really ego defensive? Or do you get it from having to be perfect or having to succeed? And all of these things are bound to eventually lead to problems.

Shankar Vedantam: The harsh inner critic doesn't have consequences just for us. When we are harsh with ourselves, that harsh voice can also come out in our conversations with others. Part of the problem is that many of us go to pains to hide our inner critic from the outside world. Even as our inside voice gets harsher, we try to project confidence and success to the outside world. Eventually, the gap can become overwhelming.

Kristin Neff: If you don't give yourself compassion and kindness and support when you're experiencing these negative emotions, and instead of the way you try to deal with them is by shoving them down, suppressing them, bottling them up, then what's going to happen is you haven't actually dealt with those negative emotions, you haven't processed them. And what we know very clearly from the psychological research is whatever you resist actually grows stronger. So trying to avoid them creates this pressure, so that eventually you've actually strengthened the negative emotion so that when it comes out, it's even worse than it would have been otherwise.

Shankar Vedantam: I feel like one of the things that happens for many people, you come home after a stressful day, you're exhausted, you've had a difficult time, maybe the day has not gone well, maybe you're beating up on yourself for things that you have done or things that you should have done that you didn't do. And one of the things that we do because we're not processing this in a way that's healthy is that we take out this anger or our impatience or frustrations on other people.

Kristin Neff: If we're criticizing ourselves and beating ourselves up, it means we're agitated, our cortisol levels are elevated. And so that activation means we're more likely to have a shorter fuse with others. And then also other people can pick up on our internal mindset. So if you're feeling grumpy and agitated, other people, not only are they grumpy and agitated because you're being grumpy and agitated, but they can also "feel your vibe," so to speak, which makes them grumpy and agitated. So it leads to this really downward spiral. And then it doesn't lead to good outcomes, typically.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about one related idea, the role that our inner critic plays in shaping our relationships with other people. In the movie Bridesmaids, the main character, Annie is a single woman who feels her life is a mess. She complains about it to her friend, Megan, and I want to play you a short clip from the movie.

Kristin Wiig, as Annie: I got fired from my job, I got kicked out of my apartment, I can't pay any of my bills, my car is a piece of shit, I don't have any friends. The last time I-

Melissa McCarthy, as Megan: You know what I find interesting about that, Annie? It's interesting to me that you have absolutely no friends. You know why it's interesting? Here's a friend, standing directly in front of you, trying to talk to you, and you choose to talk about the fact that you don't have any friends.

Kristin Wiig, as Annie: You know what I mean.

Melissa McCarthy, as Megan: No, I don't think you want any help.

Kristin Wiig, as Annie: That's not true.

Melissa McCarthy, as Megan: I think you want to have a little pity party.

Kristin Wiig, as Annie: No.

Melissa McCarthy as, Megan: Yeah, I think Annie wants a little pity party.

Kristin Neff: So, I think what was happening in that clip is when you just focus on self-criticism and everything's wrong, and we're really in this negativity bias, you can't even see the good things like you actually have friends, so things aren't as bad as you think they are. You criticize yourself, "I'm so hopeless, I'm so worthless," and it starts morphing into self-pity. There may be part of us that's hoping that that will get a compassionate response from others. But of course, it doesn't because who wants to be around someone who's full of self-pity?

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that I took away from your work that was really interesting is that self-criticism can sometimes be an outgrowth of self-focus or self-absorption, that in some ways, the person who is regularly criticizing themselves really is often unable to step outside themselves.

Kristin Neff: Right. So shame and self-criticism, they're incredibly self-absorbed states. You're just thinking about how awful you are, how horrible you are, what a big mistake you made. So self-deprecation, other people may like it a little bit. But self-criticism is, especially when it's done without humor, but it's really serious, just can turn people off and derail you, really.

Shankar Vedantam: So, besides being very critical of ourselves, can you talk about how some of us denigrate others to feel better about ourselves? So it's superficially designed to boost our self-esteem, but I can't imagine that this can be good for relationships.

Kristin Neff: Right. So, well, Shankar, can I ask you a question?

Shankar Vedantam: Yes.

Kristin Neff: If I said your podcast was average, how would you feel?

Shankar Vedantam: I would feel deeply wounded.

Kristin Neff: You'd feel deeply wounded, right? If you said my book was average, I'd feel deeply wounded. So we all suffer from this, don't we? We all have to feel special and above average just for baseline to feel good about ourselves. And so this social comparison is really built into the need for self-esteem. And so what we start doing, because we all want to be above average, is one way to feel above average is to say, "Oh, that other scholar's work isn't quite as good as mine. Or that other person's podcast isn't quite as good as mine." We do it subtly, maybe not even intentionally. But we're always trying if we can get away with it, to subtly put others down and puff ourselves up in comparison so that we can, again, boost our self-esteem.

Shankar Vedantam: But in some ways, I think what I hear you saying is that this is like a sugar high. It's a transient burst that you get, but in some ways it's keeping us from exercising the kind of compassion that can actually draw us closer to other people or closer to ourselves.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So, when we have to feel better than others to feel good about ourselves, that creates distance in relationships. But if we can be compassionate toward ourselves and others, we accept that we're flawed, it also allows us to be closer to others because we accept that they're flawed, we accept that we're flawed, we can actually feel connected to others in our imperfection, as opposed to thinking that they're flawed, but I'm not. So that's one of the reasons that self-compassion is so good for relationships, that when we can be more forgiving toward ourselves, we can be more forgiving toward others. We don't have to be better than others, in order to feel good about ourselves, which means we can have more intimacy in relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how to take the voice of our inner critic and turn down the volume. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

New Speaker: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Kristin Neff is a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. She finds that we're often harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. We criticize ourselves for our shortcomings, beat up on ourselves for trivial mistakes. Kristin, while you were in graduate school, and you went through this terrible saga, you found all kinds of ways to beat up on yourself but you also started a journey toward self-compassion. Can you tell me what happened in your own life that led you in that direction?

Kristin Neff: Yes. So I was a basket case, like I said, but I was also nervous about getting my PhD, would I get a job? And I had learned that mindfulness meditation was good for stress. I had heard this and I was in Berkeley. It was a meditation group just down the street from where I lived. And it was a Buddhist group. And the very first night I went, the woman leaving the group talked about self-compassion. I had heard of compassion, I knew that Buddhists talked about compassion, but I'd never heard of self-compassion before. And it was a real lightbulb moment for me. It was like, "Wait a second, you're allowed to be kind and supportive to yourself even if you've done something wrong?" So this is when I was going through everything with Peter and all the shame and all the guilt and all the drama of it. When I tried to turn the lens of compassion inward, and I tried it out, "So, Kristin, yes, I know you feel really horrible about leaving your husband and cheating on him and all that but everyone makes mistakes. You did your best at the time. You wanted this new experience of love that you'd never had before. And that's so human." So I started being warmer and more supportive and more understanding toward myself. And the crazy thing is, it didn't make me say, "Okay, well, that's fine, I'll just cheat on whoever." It's not like it caused me to dismiss my behavior. It actually allowed me to take more responsibility for it. I could turn toward it because what was happening was I couldn't even look at it, it was still so painful, and I was feeling all the shame. But I couldn't even really hold or process what I'd done. And so the more I was able to say, "Yes, you're feeling pain, it was human, you made a mistake." I still felt guilty in the sense that yes, I regretted my behavior, I wish I would have had the wherewithal or the maturity to not have been in that situation. But that's where I was. And so, the kinder, more supportive, I could be toward myself, the more able I was to take responsibility for what I had done, but also to move on from it. So instead of being stuck there, I was able to learn my lessons. "Okay, I'm never going to get myself in that situation again if I can help it," and to really commit much more firmly to honesty and trying to be a force for good in the world and not to harm others.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting as you're saying this because I'm realizing that when you were really hard on yourself, part of what was happening, I think was, you were telling yourself, "Look, I'm such a good person that I can beat up on myself for doing this really bad thing." But when you're self-compassionate, it's almost like you're saying, "I'm actually acknowledging what actually happened."

Kristin Neff: Absolutely. So the self-critic, the back of the self-critic is tall. I am such a good person that I know what a bad person I am. And also, the self-critic has a sense of control, as if I should have been able to get it right, even though I didn't. And that sense of control and like, "I am a good person that I know what a bad person I am." That, again, props up the ego. And so what you do is self-compassion. It's not like you're saying, "I'm a bad, worthless person." But what you're saying is, "I'm a human being. Yes, I wasn't in control. There was a lot of immaturity, a lot of factors that played into the decisions I made. I'm not the only one who's hurt someone or that did something they really regretted. And then when you open to that, when you open to the fact that you're a flawed human being, I like to say what you're doing is you're becoming a compassionate mess... You're still a mess. You don't expect yourself to be perfect. But when you're compassionate toward that mess, it becomes much more workable. You're more able to see what you've done to own it, to take responsibility for it. You have more emotional resources to learn from your mistakes and commit to trying to do something differently in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering as you were doing this, though, was there a part of you, the self-critical part of you that would say in response, 'You know what, Kristin, you're just letting yourself off the hook."?

Kristin Neff: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Right. So when you first learned self-compassion, it sounds like this one voice that says, "Okay, I'm going to try to understand and support myself, I'm only human," and another voice that says, "You're full of it, you're just letting yourself off the hook." Because we aren't used to being kind and supportive toward ourself. What happens is the self-critic resists reality. The self-critic somehow believes that perfection is possible if we just try hard enough. The self-compassion, is like, "Hey, reality actually means making mistakes. Well, that's okay. Let's just see what we can learn from them and grow." So, it took a while. But what I started to see in my research that actually, people who are more self-compassionate take more responsibility for their mistakes, they are more conscientious, and more likely to apologize. Ironically, even though the word self is in self-compassion, when you take that approach, it means you don't have to be so self-focused.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin had discovered something important. One reason many people avoid self-compassion is because they think being harsh with themselves is the only way to improve. Of course, many of us do not believe this is the case when it comes to dealing with co-workers or friends, or children. But we turn to old ideas about corporal punishment when it comes to ourselves.

Kristin Neff: The belief that we need to be hard on ourselves, criticize ourselves to succeed or reach your goals or make a change is actually the number one block to self-compassion we found in the research. People are afraid that if they're kind to themselves, they just won't get anything done.

Kristin Neff: So, first of all, self-criticism, it kind of works as a motivator. A lot of people get through med school or law school through self-criticism. But it works in the way corporal punishment works with children. It gets short-term compliance, but it causes a lot of long-term harm.

Kristin Neff: So you may scare yourself or shame yourself into studying more or working harder, or whatever it is you need to do to achieve your goals, but it has a lot of long-term negative consequences. So, for instance, it creates anxiety, a little anxiety is okay. But when you have a lot of anxiety, it actually undermines your ability to perform at your best. If you have a lot of shame, shame actually shuts down our ability to learn and to grow. Because when we become absorbed in shame, we can't say, "Well, what did I learn from this mistake?" You're just thinking about what a horrible person you are. It leads to things like depression. And again, depression, one of the manifestations of depression is the lack of motivation. So again, it may work in the short term, but in the long run, it's counterproductive.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin cites one study that examined the efficacy of self-compassion in learning. Students at our alma mater, UC Berkeley, were given a very difficult vocabulary test. It was designed to be so difficult that all the students failed.

Kristin Neff: They had three groups. One group, they gave a self-esteem boost to, which is, "Don't worry about it, you must be smart, you got into Berkeley, for goodness sake." Another group, they didn't tell anything, which meant they were probably, "These are Berkeley students. So they're probably beating themselves up for failing the vocab test." And the third group, they told to be self-compassionate, "Hey, it's okay, everyone fails, it was a hard test, try to be kind and supportive to yourself." And then they said, "Okay, we're going to give you the vocab test again, you can study as long as you want. Here's some materials you can study. And let us know when you're ready to take the next test." And what they found is those people who are told to be self-compassionate about the failure, actually studied longer for the next test. And study time was associated with how well they did. So it shows that you may boost your self-esteem, but it's not necessarily going to lead to trying to do any better. Because hey, I'm already smart, I don't need to study. Or when you're criticizing yourself, it might undermine your ability to study because you're so full of the shame or the self-criticism. But saying, "Hey, it's okay. Everyone fails. Why don't I just try again?" That's what self-compassion gives you.

Shankar Vedantam: In your research, you found that self-compassion involves three distinct components. What are they, Kristin?

Kristin Neff: In addition to kindness, which is really what we've been talking about, one is actually mindfulness, which is the ability to become aware of whatever's happening as it's happening and accept that it is happening. When it comes to our own pain, again, whether that pain is because we've made a mistake, or we failed, or that pain comes from something that happens like the pandemic or something difficult in life, we usually don't want to be mindful of it. We'd like to pretend it's not there, we'd like to turn away, we'd like to rail against it and fight against it. In order to be kind to ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we're hurting. It's almost like if a friend called you up and said, "Hey, I really need to talk, Shankar. I've got this big problem. I'm feeling badly." And you're like, "I'm sorry I'm too busy, I can't talk to you." You couldn't give them your friend compassion. You can't give yourself compassion. And so the first step of self-compassion is mindfulness, the willingness to acknowledge that we're hurting, even if that hurt comes from some failure or mistake we made. And then we need that before we can be kind to ourselves. But as we're being kind to ourselves, what makes it compassion is the sense of connectedness to others. "I have struggles in my life, other people have struggles in their life." This is actually what separates self-compassion from the self-pity, and it makes all the difference.

Shankar Vedantam: So I'm seeing these three different threads, there's self-kindness, there's mindfulness, and there's, if you will, a recognition of our common humanity.

Kristin Neff: Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: And when it comes to the mindfulness component of it, as I was struck by something you were saying, when we are mindful of what we have done that involves not diminishing what we have done, but also it involves not exaggerating what we have done. So one of the things that mindfulness might give us is it might give us a more accurate picture of what actually we have done, rather than minimizing or exaggerating it.

Kristin Neff: Exactly. So mindfulness is a balanced stance that has perspective. And part of the reason we have perspective with self-compassion is we're usually compassionate toward others, that's what feels natural. And so when we're giving compassion to ourselves, we're stepping outside of ourselves to see ourselves as if we were a friend. And to say, "Wow, you're really hurting." And that distance, instead of being absorbed in the shame , gives us the perspective we need to not ignore, minimize, but also not to exaggerate either. And that's why mindfulness is so key to self-compassion.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, in some ways it's easier said than done to set aside perfectionism, to be kind to yourself, especially if you've spent a lifetime being harsh. You have a very interesting idea about something called a self-compassion break. Tell me about times in your life when you've been caught up with things and you've taken a self-compassion break.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, so the "self-compassion break" is really quite simple. It involves intentionally bringing in mindfulness, awareness of what's happening to you, and the fact that you're struggling, bringing in common humanity, reminding yourself that you aren't alone, even though it may feel like it. So whenever you notice there's pain, that's like the alarm on your phone. You say, "Hey, it's time for a self-compassion break." And part of the self-compassion break is not only kind words, which we do use speaking to yourself, like you might speak to a good friend, but also touch. The very simple act of putting your hand on your heart, or maybe on your face, it triggers those memories, the feeling of being cared for by others through touch. And it can take like two minutes to do and it's like pushing the reset button on a computer, makes a huge difference.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering also if demonstrating more consistent self-compassion can help you become more compassionate toward other people? Does it help you in your relationships with your friends, for example, does it help you help them become more self-compassionate?

Kristin Neff: So the answer is yes. Well, first of all, I have to say, some people say that you have to be self-compassionate before you can have compassion for others. Actually, in my research, I find that's not the case. Actually, most people are very compassionate towards others and not compassionate toward themselves. But when you are self-compassion, what it does is it allows you to sustain compassion for others without burning out. So if we give and we give toward others and beat ourselves up, eventually our cup will run dry, and we'll get burned out, we'll get frustrated, maybe we'll snap in anger. So self-compassion allows you to sustain being there for others. And then also, what we know from the research as well is that when you model self-compassion out loud, other people learn self-compassion partly through a process of modeling. So, when you talk to yourself, instead of beating yourself up, you say something like, "Well, it's okay, I messed up, it's only human, I'll just try again." Then other people get the message that maybe that's a better way to talk to themselves, and they start being more self-compassionate when they're around you.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, Kristin, if one way to help people be more compassionate to themselves is to ask themselves how they would respond if the person making the mistake was not them, but a good friend of theirs.

Kristin Neff: That's actually one of the first practices we teach people for being self-compassionate, is to imagine that a good friend they cared about was in the exact same situation that they are. Because naturally, especially our close friends, the ones we care about, we tend to be compassionate to them. The other thing you could do is you can imagine what that close friend would say to you, and it gives you a model for what type of thing you may say to yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: You also talk about the importance of making friends with your inner critic. What do you mean by this?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, this is really key. Again, we shouldn't beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. But if we can say to our inner critic, "I see that you're actually trying to help me with your self-criticism. But maybe there's a more effective way to help myself, which is actually compassion." It allows our inner critic to feel heard. Again, if we shut down our inner criticism, the part of us that sees the danger is going to try to shout that much louder to be heard. But if we say, "Hey, I hear you, I got it. Thank you so much for pointing out that this behavior is causing harm or this isn't very helpful. I hear you, thank you. But I think with the way I'm going to try to approach this is through encouragement to make a change as opposed to shame to make a change" it's actually going to be more effective.

Shankar Vedantam: Are there examples, Kristin, in your own recent life, where you've helped someone else show greater compassion for themselves?

Kristin Neff: Well, so my son, for instance, so my son, I have to try to help him have compassion all the time. My son, you might think, because he's my son is never self-critical. But his autism actually causes him to be very self-critical because when he beats himself up, he's under the illusion that somehow that's going to allow him to control things, so he won't make mistakes. So whether he gets a grade he doesn't want in school or one time, he forgot his keys when he needed them and he was just beating himself up. For years, he resisted me, he's like, "Don't give me that self-compassion stuff, mommy," because he was going through his adolescent rebellion like all kids do. Now, he really gets it. So now, for instance, I'll hear him say to himself when he makes a mistake, "It's okay, everyone makes mistakes. It's not the end of the world." And it's actually helping him cope now.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to spend a little time talking about the research that you and others have done into the benefits of self-compassion. I'm imagining that there are some people who are listening to this who say this is just happy talk just being kind to yourself. But you and others have found that there's actually empirical backing at an emotional level, at a practical level for the benefits of self-compassion. Can you describe that work to me, please?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, well, the literature now is huge, it's approaching 4,000 studies on the benefits of self-compassion, so it ain't just happy talk. And these studies are either by looking at people who are naturally more self-compassionate, they tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed, less anxious, more motivated. There's also a lot of experimental research, either putting people in a self-compassionate frame of mind in the moment or else training them to be self-compassionate over the long run. And again, people are less likely to contemplate suicide, they're less likely to procrastinate, they eat better, they sleep better, they're less likely to engage in behaviors like addiction, or ways to try to escape their pain that are unhealthy. They're more likely to practice safe sex. When you care about yourself, you're more likely to do things that protect yourself. The benefits go on and on. It makes you stronger. When you're an inner ally to yourself, you're going to be much more capable of getting through the hard times than when you're an enemy and you cut yourself down. Well, of course, I'm a little biased, but I think it's incontrovertible at this point that self-compassion is good for well-being.

Shankar Vedantam: You and a colleague once looked at the role of self-compassion in relationships and the effects it had on personal and intimate relationships. What did you find?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, so it was really interesting. So we had couples and we had each person in the couple fill out the self-compassion scale, but we had people rate their partner's behaviors. Like, how intimate is your partner with you? How kind are they to you? How supportive are they to you? How often do they get angry at you? Get at negative behaviors. And what we found is that people who are more self-compassionate were rated by their partners as being much better relationship partners as being closer, more caring, more intimate, they felt more satisfied with self-compassionate partners. And basically, that's because when we resource ourselves with self-compassion, and warmth, and care, that actually gives us more resources to give to others. When we are lost in shame and self-criticism, we actually have less emotional energy to give to others.

Shankar Vedantam: It's almost a paradox, isn't it? That the more we're able to see our imperfections, the more we can do something about it. The more we beat up on ourselves for our imperfections, the less we can do about it.

Kristin Neff: Exactly. Well, Carl Rogers famously said "The curious paradox is the more I accept myself, the more I can change." But it's not like I have to change in order to be worthy. It's: “I want to change because I care about myself and I don't want to suffer.” It's a much more effective type of motivation and more sustainable in the long run.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristin Neff is a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of "Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself," and "Fierce Self-Compassion, How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive." Kristin, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Kristin Neff: Thank you, Shankar. It's been a pleasure.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Alex Curley. Alex works in NPR's programming department. He handles many projects, including the huge task of coordinating all the work that shows do to get ready for Public Radio fund-drives. It's work that happens entirely behind the scenes and involves many different moving pieces and many partners. Alex is endlessly organized and patient. And we're always grateful to work with him on our radio show. Before we go, we're putting together a show about misunderstandings. We're looking for a story about a time when you assume the worst about someone else. Perhaps a co-worker, friend, or family member told you something that upset you. You could have given them the benefit of the doubt. But instead, you interpreted what they said or did in the worst possible light. We're looking for a story about a misunderstanding that started out small and then gradually escalated, perhaps to Titanic proportions. Something that looking back, you came to regret. If you have a story along these lines that you are willing to share with the Hidden Brain audience, please record a short voice memo, two or three minutes is plenty, and send it to us at [email protected] Please use the subject line misunderstandings. Okay, thanks. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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