When Self-Compassion Becomes Self-Abuse

Feature: Inside the latest feel-good New Age social trend

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• May 26, 2017 12:00 pm


Two weeks before Christmas last year, Dr. Kristen Neff stood in front of an audience at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. She was, in the words of the MC, a "very, very special guest" speaking on a "very, very interesting topic"—namely, compassion. Not just any sort of compassion, mind you, and certainly not the old-fashioned sort defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as "sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." She was there to talk about her compassion for herself.

"You know the Bible says do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Neff said. "Good idea. But really not such a good idea to do unto others as you do unto yourself." Squinting and throwing up her hands with a look of pained acknowledgment, she continued. "Most of us are shockingly cruel to ourselves. We say things to ourselves that are kind of mean, harsh, cruel, shaming things that we wouldn’t say to anyone we cared about."

Neff is an associate professor of something called "human development" at the University of Texas Austin. She is widely recognized as a trailblazer in the theory and practice of "self-compassion," the subject of her bestselling book and the topic of seminars she delivers across the country.

The idea of "self-compassion" may strike you as oxymoronic, like "a deliberate mistake" or "congressional accountability." You are probably not alone if it sounds to you like an abstract brief for narcissism. But you are also up against the wall that is the fiscal-politico-academic-internationalist consensus: the purveyors of woke capital, the chai financiers and yoga programmers and eco-friendly growth consultants who run our banks and advise our city councils and "develop" our young at centers of higher learning—the painfully well-informed powers that be who, sometime between the end of the Cold War and now, when nobody much was paying attention, managed to usurp the old boring WASP establishment in this country. These folks are famous for liking to "break sh—." But they also like to fix sh—, at least when the thing they are fixing is their feelings.

What is the difference between self-compassion and good old-fashioned self-esteem, about which thousands of books have been written and to whose pursuit millions of seminar hours have been devoted since the '70s? This is a question Neff and her fellow pioneers of self-compassion have tackled head-on. As Tim Desmond, a New Hampshire psychotherapist and former student of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it, "Whereas self-esteem is about evaluating oneself positively, self-compassion is about relating to oneself with a kind and forgiving attitude." In other words, self-esteem means patting yourself on the back after a job well done, while self-compassion means raising a glass to yours truly whether the job was done at all, badly or otherwise. It is the spiritual equivalent of a participation trophy.

Like self-esteem before it, self-compassion is big business—attending one of Neff's short seminars will set you back hundreds of dollars—but it is also big government and big education. According to the National Institutes of Health, self-compassion is crucial to childhood development; per the Huffington Post, it is "the doorway to wise leadership." Beginner's guides to self-compassion can be found everywhere online, especially on websites like that also feature articles on the health benefits of opals and labradorite and offer special discounts on The Original Tibet Healing Bracelet ("Your purchase helps provide Fair Trade Jobs around the world"). "Whether it’s a half-hour long bath filled with lavender scented dead sea [sic] salts," Aimee Hughes writes, "or a sensual self-massage with your favorite essential oils, or a pre-bedtime yoga practice, crafting a special bedtime ritual sets you up for restful, restorative sleep. Beauty rest is the ultimate act of self-compassion." I plan to tell my editor this the next time I miss a deadline.

Self-compassion, however, is not the exclusive province of the sort of anxious consumer who wonders "What Copper Jewelry Is Telling You When Your Skin Turns Green." Like all of our contemporary manias, it has received the priceless imprimatur of science. Professor Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin Madison is a recipient of the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. He is considered one of the world's leading experts on the cognitive science of emotion. Five years ago, Davidson was asked by none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama Himself—to whose series of semi-regular Mind and Life Dialogues he has been a frequent contributor—to study the brains of Tibetan monks.

What did he find? Apparently, "in all these monks, the left front prenatal cortex was much more highly active than the right, they showed an extremely high level of connectivity between their left prefrontal cortex and amygdala, and their brains were producing gamma waves with unprecedented levels of amplitude and synchrony." Monk brains, Davidson concluded, were "the happiest brains that science had ever documented."

Who wouldn't want to have a happy brain? And what exactly is preventing the rest of us from having the kind of connectivity between our left cortices and amygdalae that produce those unprecedented gamma waves, the ones positively bursting at the seams with amplitude and synchrony? Simeon Lindstrom, another self-compassion author and a professed "poet and philosopher at heart and health and fitness enthusiast by habit," offers a list of symptoms common to those of us stuck riding "the roller coaster" of mere self-esteem. We unlikely ticket holders are the sort of people who "sometimes have difficulties making decisions, or accepting the one you do finally make," who "depend a lot on others to take care of you," and who "don't like the idea of change." If you are one of these poor souls, you might be inclined to fret about whether you are doing the right thing or second-guess your enthusiasm for number one. Heck, you might, at the end of the day, even find yourself relying on a kiss from your spouse or a note from your priest saying that he's going to pray for you just to get through the day.

All this reactionary muck, the detritus of our atavistic attachment to "states of mind that result from basing our sense of self-worth on external events," as opposed to whatever's going on in our own private Idahos, is gumming up the works of what the late Professor Jaak Panksepp called the "basic emotional circuits." These are, to wit, the "Care Circuit," the "Play Circuit," the "Fear Circuit," the "Grief Circuit," the "Rage Circuit," the "Seeking Circuit," and the "Lust Circuit." According to Panksepp, whose most famous scientific studies involved years spent tickling rats at Bowling Green State University, a skilled practitioner of self-compassion can ensure that these circuits work in tandem to "comfort our negative emotions and reduce distress." Best of all, self-compassion can be achieved entirely by oneself, without help from friends and relations. "From your brain's perspective comforting yourself is almost identical to being nurtured by someone else."

When I say by one's self, I really mean sitting alone in a room with nothing but a pack of cards. The Self-Compassion Deck, the triple-bylined magnum opus of Chris Willard, Psy.D., Mitch Abblett, Ph.D., and Tim Desmond, is a set of 50 oversized novelty playing cards featuring pithy headers like "Mirror Time" and "Rest on Your Laurels" and such solace-bringing directives as "Think of a successful experience from your life."

Trying to follow the instructions on one of these cards affords God-fearing folk the rare opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be a cradle atheist attempting prayer for the first time. "Ask yourself," Mssrs. Willard Abblett, Ph.D., and Desmond, implore, "if there is any part of you that resists self-compassion." On the contrary, if you are like me, there are very few parts of your self that are not crying out almost ceaselessly the mental equivalent of a sign in big capital letters reading "ME! ME! ME!" Another card says, "Place a hand gently on your, arm, or cheek. Take a moment to just feel the sensations and emotions that arise." "Check in with your body. Ask if it needs anything to feel more comfortable. To stretch, walk, relax, breathe? Give yourself permission to enjoy whatever action you take." "Name three things that you like about yourself. Notice how receiving recognition makes them feel that much stronger." "Try forgiving yourself for a small recent misstep. Now wish yourself well."

Neff, however, offers a more systematic approach based on what she calls the "core components of self-compassion." These are "self-kindness," "common humanity," and "mindfulness." Suppose you're having an off day. Maybe you just bungled a job interview or swiped your debit card a couple times without checking the balance and have just been hit with a wave of overdraft fees. "One way to soothe and comfort yourself," Neff suggests, "is to give yourself a gentle hug." It might seem "a bit silly at first, but your body doesn't know that. It just responds to the physical gesture of warmth and care, just as a baby responds to being held in its mother's arms." Exactly like it, I'm sure. After all, the "power of self-kindness is not just an idea—some feel-good but insubstantial notion that doesn't really change anything. It's very real."

But the auto-maternal embrace might not cut it for those of us who suffer from what used to be called pangs of conscience. If you are one of these hard cases, your best bet is probably "changing your critical self-talk," i.e., not beating up on yourself—or at least, being nice about it for a change. "While engaging in this supportive self-talk," Neff recommends, "try gently stroking your arm or holding your face gently in your hands." Do try it sometime, on a bus or a plane. And if you're still having trouble, you can always consider "writing a compassionate letter to yourself."

Some of you are probably thinking that this sounds too good to be true, almost like magic or something. In fact, comparisons to alchemy and the other black arts have been invited by Neff and her colleagues, including Tara Bennett-Goleman, the author of Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. "In many ways," Neff says, "self-compassion is like magic, because it has the power to transform suffering into joy." Like the philosopher's stone then? Exactly. "When we give yourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgment starts to dissolve, replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance—a sparkling diamond that emerges from the coal."

It might have occurred to you by now that the sorts of emotions described by Neff and other pioneers of self-compassion are not exactly universal. Listening to hours of these talks, and reading hundreds of pages of journal articles and books about self-compassion, I sometimes found myself wondering whether any of these people has ever talked to the checkout lady at Walmart (assuming they've been to their local Walmart or live within 20 minutes of one). Most Americans don't have time for existential crises occasioned by a loss of faith in karma, as Neff tells us she experienced towards the end of her Ph.D. at Berkeley, just before her divorce from a man who was "extremely skeptical" of her commitment to various New Age practices. Indeed, many of us outside Silicon Valley can't "Put this card down and do something kind" for ourselves because we are too broke.

Whose lives would be improved if we decided to follow Neff's advice and "stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether"? "To stop trying to label ourselves as ‘good' or ‘bad' and simply accept ourselves with an open heart" was Nietzsche's dream too, and Raskolnikov's, until the axe fell. Imagine thinking that people like Neff exercise and go on diets—remorse over cookies and cupcakes is one of her go-to examples of "critical self-talk"—because they don't love themselves.

I don't mean to sound too nasty. As hard as it might be to swallow, the truth is that the self-compassionate don’t deserve our scorn or derision. What we owe them is compassion.

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