Episode summary:

Susan talks with Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self- Compassion about the importance of treating ourselves with kindness and care. You’ll learn how to soothe yourself when you’re overwhelmed and how to manage those mean voices in your head that fuel shame and regret. A powerful interview that will help you move through the world a little gentler with yourself.

Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion over a decade ago. She is author of the book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” and the 6 CD audio set called “Self-Compassion Step by Step.” Kristin offers workshops on self-compassion worldwide and is also featured in the bestselling book and award-winning documentary The Horse Boy, which chronicles her family’s journey to Mongolia where they trekked on horseback to find healing for her autistic son. www.self-compassion.org

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Transcript here:

Speaker 1: (00:12)

Hi everyone. Welcome to the parenting without power struggles podcast. I’m your host, Susan Stiffelman. I’m the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Preseence and I’m a family therapist and a parent coach and my work and everything that happens on this podcast is all about helping you have more connection and fewer power struggles with your kids. And as you’ll hear in this conversation today with yourself today, my guest is Dr Kristin Neff.


Hi Kristen.

Speaker 2: (00:44)

Hi Susan. Happy to be here!

Speaker 1: (00:47)

Kristen is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of self compassion and hopefully you’ll tell us a lot of the other things that you’ve done in this field.


We’re going to really be talking today about self compassion, which in my mind is a key element in healthy parenting. So in addition to her pioneering research into self compassion, she’s developed an eight week program to teach self compassion skills. So hopefully we’ll hear more about that. I met Kristen when she took part in an online summit I did which is still on my, on my SusanStiffelman.com website. It was on co-parenting without power circles.


I had read your story Kristen and it’s such an amazing story about the evolution of the untangling of your partnership and raising your son together. So I was, I was inspired by your message. I’m really glad that we can share some of your wisdom today with everyone. So thank you for being here. Can you start with little bit about your story?


Yeah. So, my, my life’s work is self compassion. Everything I do is related to that. but it really started out as a personal journey. it happened when my first marriage broke up and I was feeling a lot of shame and stress. so I learned mindfulness meditation as a way to try to deal with my stress. And lucky for me, the, the woman teaching the class talked a lot about the importance of self compassion, how we needed to be, you know, kind and supportive to ourselves, especially when we are going through a difficult time. Um, so actually tried it. I tried to be explicitly warm and supportive and encouraging toward myself. Um, and I was just really blown away by the huge difference it made in my life and my ability to just get through every day. Um, and then, uh, later I had a son, right?

Speaker 2: (02:54)

And I’m a son named Rowan who was autistic and that, I think that’s, he’s probably the biggest reason I’m so passionate about self compassion because I know from my research that it, that it helps. But I know from, I know from real life experience that when they, you know, what hits the fan self compassion gets you through, you know. So I’m sure you probably have some special needs parents who are listeners, you know, when that happens, you have all these feelings you think you are supposed to have like feelingsof disappointment or maybe even kind of irrational guilt or shame? And I just knew that through the mindfulness practice I knew we just needed to let all the feelings in to allow them to arise. But because of my self compassion practice, I knew I had to be kind, warm and supportive, supportive toward myself. Like when, when Rowanwould have these terrible tantrums, I would actually acknowledge this is hard for me.


I would say, How can I help myself in the moment? I wouldn’t blame myself. I wouldn’t judge myself. When I made the steps, it’s like self compassion was this friend that I had inside my head at all times and it just made a radical difference in my ability to cope.

Speaker 1: (04:07)

I was reading some of your material. There’s so much wonderful guidance and support you’ve gotten. You’ve produced and offered people online. And there’s a quote that I wanted to share and ask you to elaborate on.


“The inner critic is not wise, not evolved and is very reactive. It encourages us to run, to hide, to try to control the part of us that feel so scared.”

Speaker 2: (04:34)

Yes. So, um, you know, I work a lot with trying to help people shift from inner criticism to self compassion as a motivator. And the great thing is, is now there’s a ton of research that shows it’s actually a lot more effective. The inner criticism. So yeah, so our, our inner critic and the first of all, we don’t want to like judge ourselves for judging ourselves. We have an inner critic is we’re just trying to stay safe or trying to, you know, correct or behavior. We’re trying to be, well we’re trying not to harm ourselves or others. So you might say the motive of the inner critic as a good one, it’s actually trying to help us. The problem is, is the language of the inner critic is often either the language we picked up from other people, maybe people are really critical or our fears of what other people do to us if they knew where imperfect, you know, so the language of the inner critic is kind of unnecessarily harsh.

Speaker 2: (05:28)

It focuses on the self or the than the behavior. You know, instead of saying, well, maybe you could do this a little better, it says you’re a stupid loser, right? Which isn’t very helpful. It tells you Shame like, you know, the power of shame to try to get us into shape. So we don’t want to face the shame so we’ll get it right. The only problem with that approach is that shame undermines our ability to learn, right?


So it’s self compassion does is instead of saying using fear as a motivator, you know, hate you if you don’t get it right. Self just uses kind of care and love is a motivator. Yeah, I care about you. I see it. This behavior is, is causing problems. It’s causing problems in your relationships. Perhaps. Let’s look at what you’re doing. You’ll just look at the behavior, not the person. You know what’s going wrong. It uses constructive criticism, encouragement and support to make a change. And we know, again from the research that you know, if you use inner criticism, you’re going to become afraid of failure. You’re going to lose confidence in your probably give up eventually self compassion is a much more sustainable and actually much more effective form of motivation. Wow. So then how does that play out in in terms of your parenting or your co parenting with, um, theapartment that you are no longer living with?

Speaker 2: (06:42)

Right. Yes I guess you want to say unlucky in love. My second husband and Rowan’s father, we just, we just finalized our divorce. Um, so yeah, I mean, um, so especially if I make a parenting mistakes with Rowan, let say I really have learned to, uh, relate to it with self compassion. So I’ll, I’ll just give you an actual, real example. We had homeschooled Rowanand at some point I realized that it just really wasn’t working for him. He wasn’t getting, you know, the, the academics he needed. I mean, the good thing that they give them as, he’s just such a lovely kid because he’s never been bullied and he never had any issues. But I think just even though we hired someone to ask to school and he just wasn’t getting the rigorhe needed. And so I, so I put it, I’m finally in a high school by the way. He loves it. He adores it.

Speaker 1: (07:43)

so there are people here of red horse boy and you know who may know your story. So I just sort of yeah. To speed with where we are now.

Speaker 2: (07:51)

Yeah. Yeah. He’s 17. Um, and I put him in a really excellent public school. One of the, has one of the best autism programs in Texas. and he is thriving, you know, but I could’ve been as a ninth grader because he was behind because he was a home homeschooled. And then sometimes, you know, it’s like, wow, they’re, there are basic things. He doesn’t know that he didn’t learn like how to take a test because what we tested it was alternative. I mean, a lot of basic stuff he’s really behind on. And sometimes if I would see my mind start to go down the path of like shame, oh my God, how could I, how could I have like let this go? Like feeling like I was the most negligent parent even though there were reasons I raised them the way I did.

Speaker 2: (08:36)

But I think I also made some real mistakes that, you know, luckily it stopped too late. Yeah. He’s getting the help he needs. But so just really feeling this come up, this feeling of um, you know, wow, I really blew that one, that that was the wrong choice. And then so what do you do in that moment when you realize it’s the wrong choice? We’ve got a couple of ways. Either you can beat yourself up, which, which doesn’t help you. Can you can some people take the path of not wanting to admit it? Well, you know, no, it wasn’t the wrong choice. There was nothing. Absolutely. You know, it was perfectly fine and that doesn’t help you learn either. So really had to use my self compassion practice to say, now listen, I did the best I could in the circumstances. I thought it was the right decision, maybe it, maybe it turns out it actually wasn’t the best, but I’m correcting it.

Speaker 2: (09:23)

I’m taking proactive steps to do better, you know, and I’m doing the best I can, but you know, I had, I had to give myself like real compassion when I’ll get reactions from other people. Say Your sons never done this, your son’s never done that. And it’s like, no shit. I guess he probably should have been doing that, you know? Um, so yeah. So, you know, I, I live this every day. This isn’t just something theoretical, but I can tell you that my ability to do that means that I’m able to approach his, his new situation with just being fully present and fully responsible and fully committed and he is doing amazing now. So, yeah.

Speaker 1: (10:03)

So that’s really, that’s amazing. You know that you have developed that practice where as you said, you can be fully present for what is as opposed to getting caught in the things you, you might have done or could have done. Why do you think that it’s so hard for parents to treat themselves with the same acceptance and kindness and gentleness as they do their children or as they tell their kids to do with other people? You know, there’s really a double standard, isn’t there?

Speaker 2: (10:29)

Yeah. Well the, there is and I think part of the problem and, and again, we don’t want to be too harsh with ourselves because we do this. So what happens is when we feel threatened and we do feel threatened and we will only make parenting mistakes, it’s like one of the most scary things we can possibly encounter or when we make any sort of mistake or anything we feel bad about ourselves for, we feel really threatened. And so our natural threat response in our most instinctual response is to either fix the problem immediately or fight the problem. And of course, the problem is us, we fight ourselves and we really think that if we’re really hard and cold and you know, really harsh with ourselves, we’re going to be safe from the problem will go away and we’ll keep ourselves in line and everyone will be safe.

Speaker 2: (11:15)

Um, the only problem is, is that’s kind of, that’s more of a reptilian brain who’s having that reaction. It’s not exactly our most mature part. And so we have another way to stay safe. And that’s kind of the care system and that’s actually the system we naturally use with our children. You know, that’s a system that makes us feel like we know that love and kindness and support and encouragement keeps us safe. No, no. We know that, uh, toward our children and you know, the, the care system also gets activated towards other people we love in our lives, but so what we’re doing with self compassion is we’re learning to activate the care system for ourselves. So, you know, this is an actual physiological system is kind of related to the attachment system, release oxytocin and opioids. And our heart rate becomes were variable.

Speaker 2: (12:04)

And when we feel safe because we’re cared for, it actually allows for much more flexible thinking. We can respond rather than react. Um, we’re still motivated to alleviate suffering and again, from this place of blood as opposed to this place of fear. So we have both systems in place. And I think it’s really useful for parents because usually we want to be ideal parents for our children. We want to be encouraging. We won’t use constructive criticism, you know, we don’t want to be indulgent, but we don’t want to be too harsh. And we kind of want to be our best selves with our children. Well, in a way in what we’re doing with self compassion is we are also parenting ourselves. And sometimes it’s like reparenting ourselves because I’m parents were humans and they may not have been able to meet our needs or make us feel safe or whatever they had going on.

Speaker 2: (12:56)

So you can actually treat yourself as if you would, you know, in the same way you would want to treat your child, making yourself feel safe and cared for, but encouraged and supported. And believe it or not, they’ve actually done research with people with childhood trauma, maybe who are abused sexually, physically, uh, mentally by their, by their parents. And you can actually, um, reform your adult attachment Schema by this kind of reparenting of oneself. Asking yourself, well, what do I need at the moment? And trying to react in the most supportive way possible. So it’s, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, not only for our children but also for ourselves.

Speaker 1: (13:36)

You know, one of the things that I often will counsel parents to do when they’re just flooded and overwhelmed with huge feelings or feeling shame or feeling, you know, guilt or fear used to actually, I’ll, I’ll walk, I have a monthly membership program, so we practice this in the program. I’ll have the person I’m working with take their right hand and pat their chess over there and just say “There there.”

Speaker 1: (14:02)

And just the physical act of offering the same kind of comfort that you would to your child who might be flooded or overwhelmed or afraid. Can you, um, is that something that you’ve incorporated into this?

Speaker 2: (14:16)

Oh yeah, absolutely. We call it soothing or supportive touch. And we know that, you know, the body doesn’t really know the difference between touch by self or touched by other. And touch is one of the most powerful signals of care. I mean, you know, think about it. When a baby is born, they don’t have language for the first year or two. So the, all this care needs to be communicated to touch and your tone of voice. So we use both touch and also tone of voice is very important to communicate care to oneself, right? And, and, and, and it’s very effective. Um, and then also I, you know, your listeners may be interested to know they’re really, they’re really two forms of self compassion and both are needed. So one form of self compassion, I kind of borrowed the metaphor of Yin and Yangfrom Chinese philosophy doesn’t really have to do with that, but I borrowed the metaphor.

Speaker 2: (15:08)

So Yan is kind of more that receptive, slightly more feminine way of being a little more passive, but more accepting being with um, Yangis more an active, a little more masculine way of being. And both these elements are needed by all people, regardless of whether you’re male or female. So the human form of self compassion is kind of being with ourselves in this tenders soothing way, validating or pain. The metaphor for this might be like a parent rocking cradling their child saying they’re, they’re absolutely important. But there’s also some important young side of self compassion. This is like, you know, taking action to protect when a firefighter jumps into a burning building to save the people inside as an incredible act of compassion, even though it takes action, right? Or an apparent works, three jobs to put food on their table for their kids.

Speaker 2: (16:00)

Is also an act of compassion. And then also motivating, you know, when we motivate other people because we care about them, that’s, that’s taking action for their wellbeing. So these are three forms of self compassion that are also essential, protecting ourselves, which sometimes means drawing or boundaries saying no. Um, providing for own means as well as those of others. Right? The problem is, especially from woman, I have to say, the providing is, it just goes one way. We give when we giving the gift, but we don’t meet our own needs. And then so we burned out. It’s very unbalanced. So, so asking ourselves, what do I need? What actions do I need to take to care for myself? We have to ask that question. And then also motivating change. I mean it’s not self compassionate to keep doing it. Behavior that’s harming yourself or harming others.

Speaker 2: (16:48)

So really, you know, taking that action to change what’s needed to the extent we’re able to. And so there’s really many forms of self compassion. And so what I’ve been working with more lately as an addition to the end, which is incredibly important, also helping people find their voice, you know, find the ability to say no, find their ability to draw boundaries, find the ability to say, wait a second, my needs count to find the ability to motivate themselves with, with kindness. Um, and then taken all together. So I could say self compassion is just an incredibly powerful tool, um, for people to use.


Oh man, this is just awesome. I love that. Share you with our parents. Thank you. Thank you.


I’m also realizing and thinking of, I talk to parents all the time about this, considering what your children are seeing as they observe you, treating yourself however you treat yourself. It’s not just about all the wonderful things at Christmas, talked about in terms of just loving yourself and being kind to yourself. But it’s also the message that our children are receiving. Uh, that will influence how they treat themselves as they grow up. If you sit at a stop light and you’re really tense and you’re like, oh my God, I’m such an idiot, I was late, I should have left the house earlier. They internalize that message and as they grow up, they start to kind of mimic.


At least that’s what I’ve seen in my practice and when we yeah, model for them. Ah, “well we’ll get there. When we got there, you know,” in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have, you know, washed out the pots and pans or whatever, but we had a gentleness, right? Yeah. Well, so it’s very true both explicitly and done silently so as explicitly as it’s wonderful that explicitly out loud model, self compassion. But there’s another reason parents often don’t think about about why it’s important to be self compassionate.


And that has to do with how our empathy sister works in the brain. You know, we’ve got specialized neurons and are a huge portion of the real estate of the brain is attached to picking up or reading the people’s emotions at the pre verbal level. This is how our brain is designed. We have whole, you know, whole parts. Our brain whose whole job it is, is to feel the emotions of others. Right? Yeah. And so parents may think that they aren’t saying anything are telling, their kids are frustrated, they are angry, they are, and they’re, maybe they’re really good with their language.

Speaker 2: (19:18)

But the thing is is um, we influence each other’s emotions at the pre verbal level. So maybe maybe you’re frustrated with your kids, maybe your kid’s in pain. Well, first of all, you registering that pain or maybe for other things in your life, you’re feeling that pain. So when you interact with your child, your child is not only interacting with what you say out loud, there are mirror neurons are actually picking up on your internal line state. Yes. Okay.


So when you are frustrated and full of self hate and blame and you know, mad at yourself, even if you don’t say it out loud, you’re child is feeling that, right? But when you give yourself compassion, when you give yourself kindness, when you kind of accept that you aren’t perfect, when you kind of, you know, give yourself that supportive, kind, encouraging attitude, while I made a mistake, I will try again.

Speaker 2: (20:11)

Your child actually benefit to their mirror neurons through you’re more peaceful internal state of mind. And so I tell you, I really saw this happen with Rowan, right? They say autistic kids don’t have a lot of empathic resonance, I actually think it’s the opposite. I think there’s so empathic that they actually shut down. So you know, when he would have, he would have these huge, horrible tantrums when he was younger. You know, I’m only human. Sometimes I get really frustrated or as as really overwhelmed or burnout or I, you know, get angry. Even if I didn’t say anything about it, he could feel it. Yeah. But when I gave compassion, I would just say, wow, this is so hard for me. I’m feeling so overwhelmed. This is so difficult and, and be kind and I kind of be soothing. I’d put my hand on my heart and I would actually give myself the compassion that I needed when I did that. He would calm down cause he was reading that. So self compassion, it’s not selfish is that we cultivate inside ourselves. It’s the, I say our children interact with all the time. So there’s, there’s so many reasons to be self compassionate and compassionate to others as both. It’s not either or. This, this illusion that we’re separate is not really true. You know?

Speaker 1: (21:25)

That’s so fantastic. Oh, what a great conversation. Okay. I’m, I’m really sticking to my, uh, short and sweet format here. Great. Tell people how they can find out more about your work.

Speaker 2: (21:40)

Probably the best place to start as my website. If you just Google self compassion, you’ll find it, but www.self-compassion.org. You Take yourself compassion level. I’ve got okay exercises and meditations I got, I got a ton of stuff on there. It’s a good place to start.


I hope that you’re going to think about ways to offer yourself that loving kindness and that care and that self compassion. What just re listen to this podcast a few times. If you need convincing this a host of reasons that it’s an everyone in your lives, best interest for you to treat yourself with love, caring, compassionate.


I hope you’ll subscribe to this podcast and tell a friend we’re hoping to spread the word. You can leave a review or rating or just invite you know someone that you care about to tune into an episode that you think they might benefit from. My website for more information on my work is SusanStiffelman.com


I’ve got a great newsletter you can subscribe to with free advice and input. There’s a Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program, and if you have a question that you’d like me to answer, go ahead and visit SusanStiffelman.com/podcasts because we’ll be addressing questions from parents and some of these episodes.

Speaker 1: (22:54)

If you all listen to the full interviews like the one I did with Kristina on the Co-parenting without power Struggles summit that’s on my website too. I look forward to joining you all on the next episode of Kristen. Thank you again, Kristin Neff from, thank you, Susan. It’s my pleasure.


You’re really on a mission and it comes through and it’s so, so valuable. So thank you for this wonderful work that you’re doing in the world. Ah, thank you.


And everyone remember that you know, to, to to incorporate these ideas into your day today. See what happens, see what magic happens when you use that nurturing, caring, gentle tone with yourself and when you advocate for yourself by action. Take good care. Thanks for showing up everybody and I’ll see you next time. Thanks again. Thanks

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