The MWS Podcast: Episode 23, Kristin Neff on Self-compassion

In this episode Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas talks to us today about self-compassion, how she feels it differs from self-esteem, its contingent nature, and why it’s such a useful thing to cultivate in life. She goes on to talk about remorse, responsibility, shame and guilt and what her understanding is of the Middle Way.


MWS Podcast 23: Kristin Neff as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

8 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 23, Kristin Neff on Self-compassion

  1. Thanks, Barry and Kristin. My question for Kristin would be to ask how she understands the ‘self’. If we are to have compassion for ourselves, to me that suggests a recognition that we are not unified as a starting point, so that there is one part of us that is compassionate, another that is the recipient or object of compassion. It strikes me that the biggest barrier of assumption to self-compassion is that people often do not recognise this lack of essential unity in themselves. Self-compassion thus appears to be equivalent to integration between different desires and beliefs found in an individual’s experience. Would you agree?

    1. Hi Robert. I’m not sure if this is part of your question, but often people ask me if “self”-compassion reifies the self and obscures interconnectedness. In response I usually say that most people (including practicing Buddhists) are much kinder and compassionate to others than to themselves. Even if intellectually there is some understanding of interconnectedness, emotionally we cut ourselves out of the circle of compassion, and feel separate as a result. Self-compassion draws us into a deeper understanding of interconnectedness. It involves self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness, whereas it’s opposite involves self-judgment, feelings of isolation, and over-identification with thoughts and emotions.

      In terms of interconnectedness within the individual (which I think is more your question), I’m probably most aligned with Dick Schwartz (founder of Internal Family Systems Theory) view that there is a core “true self” that is wise and compassionate, but also parts of ourselves that have some psychic cohesion that sometime conflict with one another and often obscure our true self. Typically people have a self-critical part, a mature part, a young wounded part, an angry protector part, etc. My experience isn’t that self-compassion integrates these parts into one, but allows us to become in more harmonious relationship with them so that we have access to our true self more often.

  2. Hi Kristin,
    There I must disagree with you. I don’t think we have any grounds to believe in a “true self”. Both Hume and the Buddha have established strong arguments against this, and they’re really quite simple. Look at all your experiences, then say, and which of them is the “true self”? We may encounter an ego that wants to be a true self, but otherwise there is just a set of experiences. Nor, on the other hand, can we be certain that there is no “true self” – so strong agnosticism about the self is an important part of our response to this issue.

    What’s more, I would expect that belief in a “true self” would be a long-term practical impediment to the practice of self-compassion as you describe it. In order to integrate (and by integrate I mean an incremental process which starts off with developing a harmonious relationship) we need to start off by recognising different elements in our experience and giving them each full respect as part of that experience. If you start off by privileging one particular aspect of your experience that you believe is the “true self”, then you cut off recognition for those other parts that are just as much “truly” you (and just as much not “truly” you). This is thus not just an ‘intellectual’ matter, but a profoundly practical one.

    Avoiding belief in the self or non-belief in the self is pretty basic to the Buddha’s Middle Way as I understand it, and thus I would have thought is also pretty basic to any therapeutic approach based on the Middle Way. I don’t think the concept of interconnectedness can stand in the place of the Middle Way if interconnectedness is not understood in a thoroughly agnostic way to start with: a way which understands both the mind and other systems as mutually adjusting systems rather than having a command centre. It is all too easy to turn “interconnectedness” into an essentialist metaphysics. The emotion of compassion seems to me to depend on that non-judgemental agnostic stance in relation to the objects of our experience.

  3. Hi Robert and Kristen,

    I’m not certain I am grasping at the same ideas at all here but I really enjoyed listening, and then reading your exchange.

    I was thinking, perhaps we could see the self as the sum of our experiences, drives, thoughts etc, and the “true self” as simply whatever part of us that is closest to integration at any particular point in time.

    So rather than a belief in a fixed entity that is constant and separate from the rest of self, we might posit that the “true self” is rather a capacity we have, a surface for reflection that is a possible emergent property from any part of self, when certain conditions are met.

    Perhaps at any given time there are different aspects of “me” that are splintered off, shut out, bound into complexes or myopically engrossed in working on difficult stuff, while some other aspects are less so: more integrated and in balance and, if the right sort of awareness is brought to them – or allowed to emerge from them- have the capacity to step up and create the space and distance needed to do the work of integrating conflicting matter (perhaps leading by example, creating branches or paths which the parts in conflict can then run along and use in order to shift and make room for more).

    …working towards integration often feels “expansive”, and perhaps this is so because we are able to widen the circle of what we can tolerate in ourselves, allowing more paradox, diversity and complexity to reside within. Having done this work we are also able to feel and act compassionate and interconnected to a higher degree, because we can empathize with and relate to a wider cast of characters, both internal and external.

    Whereas a more dogmatic person holds on to a much more restricted list of allowed characteristics, emotions, perceptions and/or ideas, and accordingly the various parts of self must be more tightly held together and monitored so as to protect from that long list of the unacceptable. And then the ability for interconnectedness is severely impaired.

    But then I come from a meditative practice that encourages your “God self”, the most interconnected part of you, to “step up” and sit in compassion and witness to the rest. Also the Quakers speak of “that of God in everyone”. Both of these practices are profoundly meaningful to me. It doesn’t follow however that I believe that there is an actual fixed part of me that is always integrated or interconnected… or Godlike. Rather I believe that we all have the capacity for something like it to arise- though maybe not at all times, unless we have worked hard? And that this capacity can be nurtured once we figure out the conditions that are needed for it to arise… which may be different for us all.

    Either way, a lovely podcast! Pondering the difference between guilt and shame was particularly nourishing for me.

    1. Hi Emilie,
      Good to see you back on the site!

      I’d agree that it’s possible to interpret ‘true self’ in that way, and that may be what some people mean by it – Kristin will need to speak for herself in that respect. The test of a term is in the end what people do with it – and in this case I’d suggest it’s the provisionality with which we treat such a ‘self’ in its association with aspects of experience.

      Your reference to the Quaker ‘God self’ reminds me that like talk of God, talk of the self might be understood or used archetypally. Indeed, Jung used the very terminology of the self archetype. The question for me would then be whether the archetype is (in Jung’s terms) ‘resolved’, or (in mine) ‘integrated’. Do we recognise the archetype as a type of symbol, a meaningful construction for us that allows us to project ahead where we want to be? Or is it alternatively a repository of attachment to fixed ideas of our identity?

  4. Barry,
    I have seen a TED talk with Brené Brown and it was great :) So I will absolutely check those videos out, thanks! I was reading the other day, on a blog ( thefluentself.com ), about a meditation that the writer had had and where she encountered her “wall of shame”. Her realization was that the wall was there in a twisted attempt to protect her from greater pain. Shame is really powerful, fascinating stuff, there can be so much wound up in it, cultural taboos, religious dogma, family culture stuff… and that is barely scratching the surface of the inner world… I feel that having compassion with your own shamed self is very difficult but important work!

    Robert,
    I agree that it is important to recognize that we are using metaphors and archetypes. But for me it is also important not to psychologize in absurdum. Basically, I feel we should be agnostic in our interpretations, but not in our experiences.

    This falls back on the discussion we had a while ago about being agnostic about everything. I feel that being agnostic is crucial, as long as it is an approach applied equally to everything outside of experience. To me, god is just one of the myriad of concepts we need to watch out for. As you point out, self might be another. And I am not afraid of using either, or any concept that describes something meaningful. I just try to remember that the concept it is a jar that I put certain things into, but others probably put in totally different things, and so when I use the jar in any interaction with someone else, we are perhaps talking about the same jar but with vastly different contents.

    Also, the jar isn’t the contents, it is just the container for them. Dogma to me is more about the container, and of confusing the jar and contents into one thing. Whereas the contents (my experiences) are simply innocent squiggly little things that may be true or untrue, but either way meaningful and useful, though perhaps not constant or translatable or meaningful to someone else. Also, I must remember that I don’t have grounds to see my experience as more valid. It may just part of the integration work I am doing at the moment, and therefore feel meaningful to me, but will fade away as I move on, rather than being part of some eternal truth. But true nevertheless. And useful. But meaningless to anyone not engaged in exactly the work I am doing, at the exact same time.

    However the contents are also vulnerable. I feel it can be an impediment to our growth if we try to rationalize or reduce them in the name of being provisional or rational. I am ok (or I try to be) with being wrong for a while if it leads me forward. And it usually does, more quickly if I follow the experience willingly where it leads. I want to scale the cliff, and it involves feeling my way and accepting that I have to use the existing crevices in the rock that I come across, and sometimes rest and recover a while in one spot f I get tired.

    I feel that the avoidance of dogma can perhaps become a dogma in itself, especially if it is sprung from a wish to be invulnerable, to avoid belief in things that are false, and so the person avoids belief in anything, just to be on the safe side. That is like the cliff scaler that just stands at the bottom and determines that there isn’t a perfectly straight path up the cliff so they would rather just stay where they are.

    Or it can be the gentle striving for non-judgement in a humble recognition that one cannot be absolutely certain about anything. That is mindful cliff scaling with an eye on one’s destination. This may be hair splitting but I feel there is a vital difference between the two.

    I should also clarify that the concept of “god self,” or god soul, isn’t Quaker but from the Feri tradition (which is a polytheistic occult tradition) and refers to a belief that the human soul is tripartite and that one part is in connection with the divine or eternal. In Quaker tradition people speak of “inner light”, and “that of god within”, and refer mainly to some inner spark off of the monotheist, abrahamitic G O D . These two traditions, though both quite undogmatic, are vastly conflicting, but they both “speak to my condition”, as Quakers put it.

    1. Hi Emilie,
      An impressive post with which I thoroughly agree! I hope you will feel free to share more of these insights into the Middle Way in your own blog posts.

      Just to clarify terminology a little, I’d see agnosticism as something that could only be applied to beliefs – not to experiences themselves, or even to the meaningfulness of the symbols we use to represent that experience. It’s only when meaningful symbols are put together into propositions making claims that we need to start worrying about agnosticism, but Kristin’s “view that there is a core “true self” that is wise and compassionate” did seem to me to at least potentially fall into that category. And of course, even then, confident and justified beliefs that relate to experience are important and necessary. Agnosticism is just a tool that I try to apply to beliefs to distinguish metaphysical beliefs from provisional ones.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by psychologising ‘in absurdum’, and how this relates to your other points. Could you explain this?

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