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An Interview with Kristin Neff, Ph.D., on Self-Compassion

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 15th 2011

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Kristen Neff, PhD. On this show, we'll be talking with Dr. Kristin Neff about the practice of self-compassion. While doing her post-doctoral work, she decided to conduct research on self-compassion, a central construct in Buddhist psychology and one that had not yet been examined empirically. Self-compassion is important because research shows again and again that it's very strongly associated with mental health. Very strongly associated with less depression, less anxiety, more happiness, more optimism, more motivation to learn and try out new things. It's a very powerful way of relating to yourself. It is a way of feeling good about yourself that doesn't require judging yourself as good or bad or comparing yourself to others. It just involves relating to yourself kindly.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with Dr. Kristin Neff about the practice of self-compassion. Kristin Neff earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1997, studying moral development. Her dissertation research was conducted in Mysore, India, where she examined children's moral reasoning. She then spent two years of post-doctoral study at Denver University, studying issues of authenticity and self-concept development. Her current position at the University of Texas at Austin started in 1999, and she was promoted to associate professor in 2006.

During her last year of graduate school in 1997, she became interested in Buddhism and has been practicing meditation in the insight meditation tradition ever since. While doing her post-doctoral work, she decided to conduct research on self-compassion, a central construct in Buddhist psychology and one that had not yet been examined empirically. In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she has developed an eight-week program to teach self-compassion skills. The program, co-created with her colleague, Chris Germer at Harvard University, is called Mindful Self-Compassion.

Not surprisingly, her recently released 2011 book is titled Self-Compassion. Dr. Neff lives in the countryside in Elgin, Texas, with her husband Rupert Isaacson - an author and human rights activist - and with her young son, Rowan. She and her family were recently featured in the documentary and book called The Horse Boy. Now, here's the interview.

Dr. Kristin Neff, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Kristin Neff: Well, thank you for having me, David.

David: Well, you have written a wonderful book titled Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Now, what led you to write this book?

Kristin Neff: Well, I've been researching self-compassion for almost the last 10 years, and I really wanted to let the general public know about the ideas. It's nice to write research in academic journals, but it doesn't really reach many people, so I just wanted to spread the word.

David: Yes. And I feel like I already know you to some degree because you engage in a lot of self-disclosure in the book, which is one of the things I really love about the book is that you mix self-disclosure with self-help and science.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. I thought it was really important to do that. First of all, I didn't want it to come off across as this perfect person telling other people how to be. I mean I have my flaws and weaknesses I need compassion for, just the same as anyone else. And my husband, who's a writer, said, "You know if you want it to be a good read, you need to tell a story. And you are the only person who knows - the only story you really know is your own." And I think that was good advice.

David: Yeah, and so one of the things you do is kind of weave your story throughout the book with sort of brief vignettes as one goes through the book, and so I know that self-compassion has been an issue in your life as a result of that reading. Maybe you could say a bit about that. Tell us a little bit about your own story.

Kristin Neff: Right. Well, right about the time I discovered self-compassion, which was my last year of my Ph.D. at Berkeley, I was going through - just had a very messy divorce and had a lot of stress in my life, and I really needed self-compassion to get me through it, to get through all the emotional turmoil. So even before I really understood what mindfulness was - because it was a Buddhist group and they talked about mindfulness and compassion - the self-compassion bit really hit me almost immediately. I just thought, wow - I'd never really considered that before. I have the right to compassion like anyone else. And I just really, really needed it, and it got me through.

And that was more for self-judgment, but then later on, after about - gosh, I guess seven years down the road, when I had a very well-established self-compassion practice, my son was diagnosed with autism. And, again, I can tell you it just saved me, having that to fall back on, giving myself the time to deal with my grief compassionately without judging myself for my grief, which actually a lot of parents do. And when he was having terrible tantrums, in those very, very difficult moments I would just send myself compassion quite intensely. And, like I said, it just saved me, so I know it works.

David: Yes. Well, thanks for sharing those pieces of your story, and maybe other pieces of it will crop up during our conversation here. Now, as you mentioned, compassion and self-compassion are themes in the Buddhist tradition, and you've mentioned that you have a background in Buddhist meditation. Maybe you can say just a bit more about Buddhism's take on that and how it fed into your thinking and writing of this book.

Kristin Neff: Yes. Well, so I practice meditation in the insight meditation tradition, and that tradition is probably - not the only one - but the most responsible for a lot of the scientific research now investigating mindfulness and, increasingly, compassion. It's a very, very you might say secular type of Buddhism. There's not a lot of bells and whistles, like they say. And that, again, really impacted me on a personal level, much more and much earlier than I even began to start studying self-compassion.

But from the Buddhist perspective, and I think from many spiritual traditions, the idea is that the separation between self and other is an illusion, that in fact we're all part of this big, interconnected, interdependent whole. So it wouldn't really make sense to have compassion for others and not ourselves, because that would create an artificial separation to develop. Whenever Buddhists talk about compassion, it always includes all sentient beings: animals, other people, ourselves. There's no one usually excluded from the circle of compassion.

David: Yes. Now, why is it that many of us find it easier to be compassionate toward someone else than toward ourselves?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, it's a really good question. Part of it, I think, is cultural. I think we're told that we should be self-sacrificing, that we shouldn't complain. I think a lot of people confuse self-compassion with self-pity, which is a real confusion because, at least the way I define self-compassion, self-compassion's about recognizing the fact that the human condition entails suffering. It's just part of being human. Self-pity is about "Woe is me. Poor me." It's very egocentric, very self-focused, which is something quite different.

And probably the number one reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they confuse it with self-indulgence. They really think that they need self-criticism to motivate themselves, and that if they were kind to themselves, they would basically let themselves get away with anything. So that's one of my big missions, is explaining why that myth is false and presenting the research that shows it's false.

David: Okay. And we may come back to that theme. Now, staying on this notion that sometimes it's easier to be compassionate towards someone else than towards ourselves, I note that you actually have an exercise in the book where you suggest that the reader take the point of view of a compassionate friend and write themselves a letter as if it were coming from that friend. Do I have that right?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people don't know how to be compassionate to themselves because they aren't in the habit of doing so, but most of us do have quite well-developed skills in being compassionate, understanding, kind, supportive to those we care about. So I really try to encourage people to use those skills, draw on what they know, but really turn it around and apply it to themselves. And it's almost easier to give yourself compassion if you're thinking of yourself as someone else.

I know it's kind of crazy, but it does seem to work. I think people might be a little less self-focused when they're thinking of themselves as someone else. They can see themselves a bit more objectively. They can do more perspective thinking, and that seems to really help people, again, use the skills they have, which they do have skills of compassion.

David: Well, I guess I'm the same kind of crazy that you are, because I actually have an exercise of my own that I think I developed in my many years of teaching. Sometimes class would fall on Valentine's Day, so I developed an exercise of asking students to write themselves a Valentine.

Kristin Neff: Oh, really. That's [unclear].

David: Yeah. And I always believe in anything I ask my students to do, I should do, too. And so I found that to be a powerful exercise and one that certainly the students felt shy about, reluctant to take on, but I think gratifying in the end.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, and I think in some ways one of the things that - well, not easy but it allows people a doorway in - is because you aren't talking about some aspect of yourself you don't like or some way in which you're suffering, so at least we don't have to worry about feeling vain. In the last chapter of my book, I actually talk about self-appreciation, and in some ways that's even harder than self-compassion. We want to be special and above average. We all see ourselves through rose-colored glasses to try to gain self-esteem. At the same time, we feel very uncomfortable to think about positive aspects of ourselves, so we're just very conflicted, I think, in terms of how we relate to ourselves.

David: Now, before the formal part of the interview began, you mentioned to me that you're something of an evangelist for self-compassion. So let me ask you what might seem like a very obvious question. Why is self-compassion important? You know what's the "So, what."

Kristin Neff: It's very strongly associated with mental health

David: Ah.

Kristin Neff: I mean all the research shows that again and again. Very strongly associated with less depression, less anxiety, more happiness, more optimism, more motivation to learn and try out new things. It's a very powerful way of relating to yourself that I argue is quite different than self-esteem. That was another one of my motivators.

When I did my post-doc after at Berkeley, I studied with the leading self-esteem researcher, and the self-esteem movement, as you know, has really fallen out of disfavor because it often promotes narcissism, social comparison - again, needing to be special and above average. It can often be very unstable. Oftentimes people are aggressive when they're trying to defend their self-esteem.

So self-compassion is a way to feel good about yourself, and we definitely need to feel good about ourselves. If we hate ourselves, we're depressed and anxious. But it was a way of feeling good about yourself that doesn't require judging yourself as good or bad or comparing yourself to others. It just involves relating to yourself kindly. And you can do that all the time in any condition. So I found it so powerful in my personal life, I just wanted to encourage other people to adopt this stance.

David: Sure. Now, you've got an early chapter in your book titled "Ending the Madness." Wow. That implies a pretty strong statement. Tell us about the madness that you're referring to there.

Kristin Neff: Well, again, this is very - the reason it's mad is because we are so conflicted that at the same time - you know there's research showing about what they call the better-than-average effect or the Lake Wobegon effect, that almost any trait you look at most people think they're better than others on that trait. So they're better drivers, they're nicer people, they're more intelligent, they're friendlier, they're more responsible - any culturally valued trait people think they're better on. Even in Asia, where modesty's valued, people think they're more modest and humble than others.

So we seem to have this drive, that whole system when we do have this physiological social ranking system that wants to see ourselves on top. And yet at the very same time, we suffer tremendously from self-criticism, feeling we aren't as good as other people; from beating ourselves up, using language to ourselves that we would never say even to a stranger: "You're so stupid. You're so lazy. I can't believe you said that." You would never say that to anyone else unless you're really, really, really angry at them, but not someone you cared about. And that's why I say it's madness, really.

Although I also have to say you need to have compassion for the madness, because I think people both inflate their ego and criticize themselves. They're both different ways of trying to keep ourselves safe. We feel safe if we're at the top of the pack so we won't get kicked down. And yet at the same time, if we show our belly, if we're at the bottom of the pack, if we criticize ourselves before others can criticize us, and if we really believe that it keeps us in line - which most of us do - that's also quite understandable. So it is madness, I think, and yet there's a reason for it. It's just that there's another way to feel safe which is much more effective, and that's self-compassion.

David: Okay. Now, you're probably the right person for me to bounce this off of, which is I keep hearing about research that says that, relative to people in other industrialized countries, that our youth has a very inflated sense of self-worth, self-esteem; and say when they take tests I believe in math and science, if I recall correctly, that they just think that they've done really, really well compared to others in Europe and Asia, when in fact the people who really did well were those in Europe and Asia, but those people rated themselves lower in terms of their self-assessment.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, absolutely. There's some great work, too, by Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge. They've been tracking narcissism levels over the past 20 years or so. And they correlate it with the self-esteem movement, they argue, in the schools, Narcissism levels have been raising steadily, so now they are the highest it's ever been recorded. And self-esteem levels are also the highest that have ever been recorded. So all this emphasis on love yourself, gold star, you're the best, has led to a lot of ego inflation.

At the same time - again, that's why it's mad. At the same time we've got this bevy of narcissists, we also have horrific self-criticism, and anxiety and depression are also incredibly common, which almost always related to self-criticism.

I did a study, actually a cross-cultural study. It was quite interesting. I looked at Thailand, Taiwan and the States. And people in the States definitely have the highest level of self-esteem, no question. But in terms of self-compassion, the Thais actually had the highest level, and they take their Buddhism very seriously in Thailand. The Taiwanese have the lowest levels; Confucianism really emphasizes the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. They really emphasize self-criticism. And Americans were in between. So it's really interesting. These are two different processes, and even though Americans have high self-esteem, they don't necessarily have a lot of self-compassion.

David: Now, speaking of that research group that you just mentioned that's done research on self-esteem and narcissism, just this morning I saw an article from the New York Times citing a study by a psychologist who is somewhere in that same group, I think, who reports a statistically significant trend towards narcissism and hostility in popular music. And according to this researcher, the words "I" and "me" appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there's been a corresponding decline in "we" and "us" and expression of positive emotions, And also - and I think you just referred to this - that narcissism has been rising among our undergraduates since the 1980s, as measured by the Narcissism Personality Inventory.

Kristin Neff: Right.

David: So all of this raises the question as to how self-compassion differs from being narcissistically self-centered.

Kristin Neff: It differs in many ways. So, again, for one, narcissism is all about me. Self-compassion, although that term "self" is there kind of as the target of the compassion, it really is all about recognizing the shared human condition. Compassion, almost by definition, means to "suffer with." So you suffer with someone else or you suffer with yourself in the sense that you frame yourself as part of this larger human community. And it also, the way I define it, entails mindfulness, which is seeing things clearly as they are as opposed to getting lost in your own personal soap opera. So when you see things as they are, you don't get lost in self-pity and the story of "poor me," and you recognize this is the human condition, to be imperfect, then it's really actually not self-centered at all. So that's one way it's different from narcissism.

Another is that narcissism - and self-esteem for that matter - they're evaluations of self-worth: I'm good or I'm bad. And when you frame it that way, everyone wants to see themselves as good. But, again, self-compassion is not a judgment. It's a way of emotionally relating to yourself with kindness, understanding, support, and it's equally relevant when you fall flat on your face, when you notice something about yourself, you just made a huge mistake, or a way in which you really feel inadequate. At the same time it's also relevant to the good things about yourself as well, so it's not contingent on evaluation, which makes it much more stable. And in fact our research shows that the sense of self-worth associated with self-compassion is much more stable over time than that associated with self-esteem.

David: Fascinating. I was going to ask you about the relationship between self-compassion and self-esteem, and you've just really spoken to that in terms of self-esteem involving judgment that is missing is self-compassion. And in your book you tell a story about the Dalai Lama and self-esteem. Do you recall that one? Maybe you could share it here.

Kristin Neff: Right. Well, it's a famous story that he was meeting with various Western Buddhist teachers, and they all asked him, "How do you deal with low self-esteem?" And he just looked confused by the concept, like "Low self-esteem?" and "How many of you here have low self-esteem?" And everyone raised their hand. So, from his point of view, it was very, very strange to hate yourself or dislike yourself. Again, from his perspective, all human beings are intrinsically worthy of respect. So that's something - again, Tibet, I'm sure, like Taiwan - I bet if you measured self-compassion levels in Tibet or maybe Nepal, they'd also be through the roof because they just practice compassion all the time. And they don't make a distinction between self and other. Everyone's worthy.

David: Yeah. Backing up just a little bit. When we were talking about narcissism and kind of the inflated self-esteem that shows up among young people, do you think it's generational? I'm wondering, are you and I of a generation that is more self-critical, maybe, than the younger generation? Or not.

Kristin Neff: Well, I just have a little bit of data on this, and I need to do more. It seems, if anything, people get a little more self-compassionate as they get older. So I'm not sure that self - again, that's why it's mad. We have this inflated self-esteem and narcissism at the same time that we beat ourselves up, and I think partly the reason for that is that our expectations of our self are so high, and if we have to be better and above average, we're always comparing ourselves to others, and inevitably you'll fall short in one of those comparisons. And when that happens, we criticize ourselves. And then we also think self-criticism is a way to make us feel better. So, at some level, it doesn't make sense, and yet it's true. We're very self-critical and we're narcissistic.

David: Just kind of thinking on my fee right now, it occurs to me that maybe it's a situation of the lady doth protest too much. Maybe it's a reaction to an underlying sense among young people of inadequacy, of inadequate preparation, of some awareness of kind of feeling like, in some ways, a bit of a lost generation.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. I mean you would think so. They've actually looked at that in research. They have a way of testing unconscious attitudes with what's called the Implicit Association Test. If you're aware of that, it involves how quickly you respond to certain words flashed on a computer screen, and your response time. If you respond really quickly, the idea is it's inline with what your subconscious thinks. And if it takes slower, it's out of line with what your subconscious thinks.

David: Oh, you know I didn't know it by that name, but that general idea goes back to Carl Jung.

Kristin Neff: Interesting. Right. Yeah, so they call it the Implicit Association Test. And apparently narcissists love themselves subconsciously and consciously. It's very strange. Well, here's what's interesting. So we've measured, obviously, the correlation between self-compassion and narcissism and then also self-esteem. But there's no correlation between self-compassion and narcissism. It's like zero, and that's because people who really hate themselves aren't narcissistic either. And yet there's a very strong correlation between self-esteem and narcissism.

And these are two slightly different tracks, self-esteem and self-compassion. And in fact they're related to two different physiological systems which evolved separately. So they just seem to be different processes and lead to different outcomes.

David: Okay. You've got several chapters exploring what you refer to as the core components of self-compassion. Maybe you can take us through those core components.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So what happened when I decided I wanted to research self-compassion? At that point, no one had done it in an academic context and even defined it, let alone measured it.

David: Isn't that amazing?

Kristin Neff: Yeah. So, I feel a little bit proud of myself. I was brave. I was pre-tenure. I got great advice from a mentor that said just go for it; even though you're pre-tenure, it doesn't matter. If you're really passionate, you'll do good work. But what I did, of course - and I didn't come up with the idea - what I did is I read every single book I could get my hands on, and they were pretty much all from the Buddhist tradition. And I just thought, well, how is it being talked about in these books? And what I realized is there really were necessary components to self-compassion.

The first is perhaps the most obvious: being kind, understanding, supportive towards yourself as opposed to being harshly judgmental. The second also came pretty quickly, which was a sense of common humanity. With compassion, it's "there, but for the grace of God, go I." If there's a feeling of separation between people, it's pity. If there's not, it's compassion. So there needed to be some sense of togetherness, of recognizing interdependence - interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh calls it - common humanity versus feeling really isolated and separate.

And then I didn't realize it at first, but after thinking about it and reading more books, I realized you needed to have mindfulness in order to have self-compassion. So you can't avoid, ignore, or suppress your suffering, which, surprising, a lot of people do. So, for instance, the suffering associated with self-criticism is probably the most intense suffering we experience, but when we're in the midst of haranguing ourselves, we aren't thinking from the perspective of the person being attacked - you know, this is really difficult; this is a moment of suffering. We're kind of lost in the attack mode.

And, similarly, when something very difficult goes on in your life, like your kid gets diagnosed with autism, the more typical response is to go straight into problem-solving mode and not stopping to pause to say, wow, I need some support here; this is really difficult. So you need to be mindful, aware of your pain and suffering, in order to give it compassion.

At the same time, one of the enemies of mindfulness is wild exaggeration, being lost in thought, rumination, getting carried away with the storyline of what's happening. And that's not compassion either. That is more like self-pity or getting lost in the drama. So it involves clearly seeing things as they are, no more, no less; recognizing that pain, suffering, is part of the human condition, and responding with kindness to that.

David: One of the things that you wrote about in relation to mindfulness was - you said it was an oft-used metaphor, but it was the first time I had encountered it - which was the movie metaphor.

Kristin Neff: Yes, which is a great metaphor that a lot of teachers use. So the idea is you're watching a movie, and maybe you're really engrossed in the storyline, and we could think of this as thought. And then, all of a sudden, something happens to break your reverie: someone coughs or something like that. And then you realize, oh, I'm watching a movie. And similar with mindfulness.

Mindfulness is quite distinct from thought, and you can actually watch your thought using mindful awareness. And many people don't even know that their thoughts aren't a direct perception of reality. They think their thoughts do directly perceive reality, and therefore they can't really notice when maybe their thoughts are wildly off-base. And of course, as you know, that's one of the important techniques of therapy is drawing people's attention to their thoughts and questioning whether or not they're true. And mindfulness is incredibly helpful for doing this.

David: Yes, I've been intrigued by the sort of coming together of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which gets people looking at their thoughts, and mindfulness coming from the Buddhist tradition on the other hand, which gets people looking at their thoughts.

Kristin Neff: Right. And they're similar, only that with the mindfulness techniques - in both cases you question reality thought. With mindfulness, you actually accept that the thought is occurring. You don't try to resist the thought because, from that perspective, any resistance makes it stronger. You know, what you resist, persists. And where some of the at least more traditional CBT stuff, the idea is to change your thoughts.

And I think that's the big difference and why a lot of people are excited about mindfulness, because it allows you to accept your present moment experience as it is, at the same time that you don't get caught up and carried away by it. But it really is the third wave in psychology, and hopefully - I'm hoping that compassion is going to be part of that wave because compassion and mindfulness are really two wings of a bird that go hand in hand.

David: Yes, and I like your clarification of the difference between CBT and mindfulness. Now, I think you've run through these, but let's review them again. What are the benefits of self-compassion?

Kristin Neff: Yes, so mental health, happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, better coping skills, less depression, less anxiety, less negativity, less rumination. And it goes beyond that. So a lot of those are done with self-report, but now there's research showing that it helps people stop smoking, especially if you're very self-critical. It helps people stick to their diets. People who are self-compassionate are more motivated to make changes in their life. When they fail at something or they don't reach their goal, they're more likely to pick themselves up and try again. It's associated with better relationships with friends and with romantic partners. And the list is growing, and growing all the time. More and more people are doing research on this, and I'm probably not even completely up to speed at this point.

David: Oh, my God. Are we going to see Dr. Neff's self-compassion diet book?

Kristin Neff: Well, no. But it has been written by a woman named Jean Fain, and she - there was a great study by Claire Adams and Mark Leary out of Duke, looking at how people - dieters with self-compassion were more able to stick to their diet when they blew it and made a mistake. And so there's a woman named Jean Fain who's written a book called The Self-Compassion Diet, and she's a fitness and nutrition expert. So that book actually has been written.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Kristin Neff: So I don't need to write it. It's done.

David: All this research that you're talking about, is this - a lot of this research has been done by you and/or your students?

Kristin Neff: Well, I think at first, for the first few years, it was just me plugging away, and then some other people started looking at it. There's a lot of research interest in MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs.

David: Yes.

Kristin Neff: And then so those researchers started getting interested, and perhaps not surprisingly, one of the major outcomes of MBSR training is increased self-compassion. And there's actually some research that suggests that it might even be more powerful than mindfulness, although I would stop short of going there because I don't think we have really great measures of mindfulness. But nonetheless it does increase from that.

And then other people started looking, and again Mark Leary from Duke is a brilliant researcher. I think social psychologists are maybe the most clever researchers out there, and I'm trained as a developmental psychologist, so there's a lot of people doing research on self-compassion now that are, hands down, better at it than I am, so that's why I'm so excited. I'm a little more of an ideas person; I wouldn't say I'm a brilliant researcher. But there are truly some brilliant researchers looking at this now, which I'm just so happy about. It's really great.

David: Oh, that's got to be gratifying.

Kristin Neff: Oh, yeah.

David: And I share your perception that social psychologists seem to come up with the most ingenious research designs.

Kristin Neff: Absolutely. And I think the other good thing they do - I've been - well, first I was more limited to the scale, and social psychologists love to do little manipulations, telling people to be compassionate and finding out how that changes their behavior. And on the whole it does help.

Of course, now what I'm moving into is I'm developing with Chris Germer, who's a psychologist associated with Harvard, this eight-week program to increase self-compassion levels. It's called Mindful Self-Compassion. And we are in the last week of our first wait-controlled study, wait-list controlled study. So, hopefully this summer we'll be writing that up, and that's what really excites me, is seeing what happens when you increase people's self-compassion levels, because, to me, that's where the real money is. I mean that's what you want to do: is what happens when you help people be self-compassionate? How does it change their life? And that's where I'm going to be focusing my efforts from now on really.

David: Did you say that was a weight-loss study?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, wait-list control group. You know that's usually how they do these intervention studies. You get a big group of people who want to take the intervention, and then you randomly assign half to a wait list, half to the actual intervention group. And then but everyone takes the measures of various things you're looking at, at the same time.

David: Oh, okay. Yeah. I missed that. So, what are the -?

Kristin Neff: Right. And you do that so that you have the same types of people.

David: Sure.

Kristin Neff: That you're measuring, that you're assessing.

David: Yeah, so the control group would be people who wanted to get in on the study, but didn't.

Kristin Neff: That's right; that had to wait.

David: And so what are the things that you're measuring?

Kristin Neff: Well, again, the mental health variables of course, the sense of connectedness, depression, anxiety; and the positive ones - happiness. One thing we're looking at - now this is very interesting and I wrote a bit about it in the book - is compassion for others. I actually had a dissertation student - she just got her Ph.D. - who made a compassion-for-others scale using my three-component model because there wasn't really a great measure of compassion out there.

I thought for sure self-compassion and compassion for others would be correlated. They aren't, not at all. And the reason - you know I see why the reason is: people who are self-compassionate, they're equally kind to themselves and others. But a lot of people are very, very kind to others and very, very hard on themselves. So it's really more about the discrepancy between compassion for self and others, not whether there's more compassion if you have self-compassion. Now, having said that - I'll find out in a couple weeks - I suspect that increasing people's self-compassion level will also increase their compassion for others, but we don't know quite yet, so check back with me.

David: Yeah. We'll be interested to find out how that turns out.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, exactly. And then we're also measuring mindfulness again to kind of see what seems to be the key component associated with this increase in mental health. Is it more the mindfulness? Is it the compassion? Is it both? Some interaction thereof? So that will be really interesting as well.

David: What about the role of touch?

Kristin Neff: Ah. This is great. It's so funny; some interviewers have asked, have said, "Isn't this kind of a touchy-feely idea?" And I say, "Yes. Exactly. And that's great." Paul Gilbert, who's just I think a brilliant researcher at the University of Derby in the U.K., he talks about how self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-compassion are associated with three distinct physiological systems which evolved separately.

Okay, so self-criticism is part of the threat defense system, where the amygdala goes crazy, because when you criticize yourself you're both the attacker and the attacked. You release cortisol and that's part of the reason it leads to anxiety, etc. Self-esteem, he argues, is part of the social hierarchy ranking system - which dog is at the top of the pack - which is separate, and that's related to I think dopamine activation and various things like that.

Self-compassion is part of the mammalian care-giving system. As mammals - I mean and we all have this; you don't have to earn this - as mammals, we have the physiological ability both to give and receive care, and that's why, as children, we don't wander off into the jungle or whatever, that mothers want to give care and babies want to receive that care. And so that's associated with opiates and oxytocin, which are the hormones that make us feel safe, soothed, calm, the kind of feel-good hormones. And so there's a lot of research now. Dr. Keltner at UC Berkeley at the forefront of this, showing -

David: Yes. I interviewed him, actually.

Kristin Neff: Oh, right. So he probably talked about this. So the compassionate touch, compassionate gaze even, and this is - and we're starting to find out - most of that's been done on compassion for others, but there's a lot of research showing the brain experiences it the same whether it's giving it to others or - I mean receiving it from others or receiving it from ourselves. So it releases these oxytocins and these opiates and it makes you feel calmed down and safe, and it also reduces cortisol levels.

And there is some research now looking at training in self-compassion, showing that different parts of the brain light up with self-criticism, self-compassion, different hormones are released. So because of that, I actually tell people a very easy and quick way to soothe yourself, to calm yourself, to allow yourself to feel safe, to get out of that mode of self-criticism, is compassionate touch. Stroke your arm, put your hand over your heart, give yourself a little hug if no one's looking.

David: Yes.

Kristin Neff: It's amazing how powerful that very simple act can be because your body responds even if your mind can't go there right away. So don't belittle touchy-feely. It's real. Touchy-feely is real. It changes your physiology. Yes, it's quite interesting.

David: I have to confess that, as I was reading that portion of your book just this morning, I gave myself a hug, and it did feel good. I felt something.

Kristin Neff: You know? It feels good. It feels good.

David: Yeah.

Kristin Neff: I have this - I don't know if I can do this for your listeners. This is a really nice exercise to kind of help people understand what self-compassion feels like.

David: Sure, go for it.

Kristin Neff: All right. So you put both arms straight out, like in a T, and you cross your fists really hard. So hold that for like three seconds, really cross, cross your fists.

David: Okay. I'm doing it.

Kristin Neff: And that's what self-judgment feels like: tight, unpleasant, painful. And then you let go of your hands so that they're open. And that's what releasing self-judgment feels like: free, peaceful, and you might say that's more like what mindfulness feels like, just letting things be as they are. Then you take both hands and gently and tenderly place them over your heart, and that's what self-compassion feels like. So it's more than just letting go of self-judgment. It involves actively soothing yourself. And, again, that's part of that care-giving system and changing the physiology of your body.

David: Yeah. Now, that care-giving system that you've referred to, I think the vagal system is involved in that. Do I have that right?

Kristin Neff: Yeah, I think that's right, yeah. Now, I have to admit. I'm trained in developmental psychology, not - I don't know what it means with in physiology. I'm getting this from people smarter than me.

David: Same here. Same here. I was trained as a clinical psychologist and it was a long time ago.

Kristin Neff: Right, yeah. Exactly.

David: But I've got an interview coming up with Stephen Porges, and if you don't know his work, he's got a new book that just came out called The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. And he talks about autism and relating it to this whole neurological complex, so I think you'd get something out of looking at that book.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. No, I should. And also I should mention the attachment system. We definitely have research showing that, as you might expect, people who are securely attached tend to have a lot more self-compassion than those who are insecurely attached. And similarly, those who grow up with a lot of criticism in the home, a lot of conflict in the home, have less self-compassion. So one of the ways we develop it, or develop a lack thereof, is our early experiences that we internalize, so I would expect that all the neurophysiology associated with attachment would also be involved in self-compassion, definitely.

David: Yes, definitely. Your chapter on self-compassion in relationships with others triggered some things for me. I loved your quote of Einstein saying, "We suffer from an optical delusion of consciousness, in which we see ourselves as separate." And I'm wondering - have you had a chance to see this new film called I Am by Tom Shadyac?

Kristin Neff: No, I haven't. Is that an independent film, I take it?

David: Yeah, it's an independent film. It's in release, but it may be limited release. If you have an art theater in your area, that's probably where it would show up.

Kristin Neff: Okay.

David: Keep your eye for it. The director is a Hollywood director who had - I'm going to block on the guy's names - Jim Carey. He made the Jim Carey films.

Kristin Neff: Interesting.

David: And made a lot of money on those, and then had a personal crisis. He had a mountain bike accident, he got a concussion, and this led, I guess, to some life questioning, and he wanted to make a more meaningful film. So he set about to go around the world interviewing some of the great thinkers and philosophers and researchers on the question of "What is the problem?" What is the fundamental problem with humanity, and what's the solution? And interestingly, what the problem turned out to be was something that you alluded to earlier in this conversation, is our delusion of separateness.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, absolutely.

David: And that the solution is somehow coming to realize our interconnectedness.

Kristin Neff: Right. As they say in many spiritual traditions, certainly Buddhism and Hinduism, "No self, no problem." But it really all comes down to this illusion of separateness. I think it's hard for people to kind of hold together the conventional self - the fact that we have a name, and a body, and a job, and do all those things - in some sort of larger underlying interconnectedness of consciousness and all that. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about it beautifully - interbeing - that think of all the genes and history and culture and even just the food we eat. Everything goes into us and makes us up and there's no part of ourselves we can point to as totally separate from anything else, including in our minds and our consciousness and what we think. And if you start going down that path, it's really - it can be very peaceful.

David: Yes.

Kristin Neff: It's just - you aren't alone.

David: And one of the more startling things that I've heard about that, is that the atoms that are in the air that we breathe are the same atoms that have been around forever. And so that we're breathing the atoms that people in past times breathed. That we're breathing, in some ways, the same air molecules and atoms that have been in Shakespeare or whatever - Socrates, whatever - other -

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Those are ones I'm breathing. I'm breathing Socrates' atoms. Not like Joe Blow who tended the toll gate. No, it's very funny. Some people who study Buddhism, not many - most people really like the words - but a few are uncomfortable with the fact that I call it self-compassion. Isn't Buddhism supposed to be about letting go of the self? And my response to that is compassion necessarily is the response to suffering. No self, no suffering. So in suffering, there has to be a self. Maybe, ultimately, some day the lucky few will transcend that, but when there's suffering, the self is always involved, and that's why compassion has to be directed toward that self. And it's quite an interesting argument.

David: Yes. Well, I was interested in the self-compassion breaks that you and your husband take during arguments.

Kristin Neff: Ah, yeah.

David: Not that I've ever had an argument with my wife.

Kristin Neff: Of course not.

David: And this is something that you recommend for other couples. Tell us about one of your classic arguments and how that helped.

Kristin Neff: Well, I actually go into the patterns both he and I have; that my patterns, because my father left when I was very early, I call "hurt little girl." I can feel hurt pretty easily. It's a very easily pushed button in me. And his pattern is "unfairly treated little boy." He was treated quite unfairly by his school masters and stuff when he was young, so that button gets pushed pretty easily.

So something will be happening and I feel, "Oh, that hurts me," and he thinks that's unfair because it wasn't intentional and actually I'm over-reacting. So our buttons push against each other and then we're off. And when we're off, of course, I'm reacting in a way that's totally out of balance in proportion to what he's doing, and he's doing the same to me.

So when we got married, we actually ended our marriage vows with the vow to help each other be more self-compassionate because we were both so moved and touched by the concept. And so we've tried to - when we can remember; we aren't perfect - but when we can remember, it's really helpful. One of just says, "Self-compassion break." It's like a pre-agreed-upon term. And we just take a break, and we go to separate rooms, or maybe if it's not too bad we might just lay down next to each other on the bed or something, and we each send ourselves compassion. Because when he's pushed my button, I can't send him compassion. Same with him. But we can send ourselves compassion because each of us is having this very valid emotional reaction that's very painful.

And what we find every time we do that is, once we feel safe - because, remember, when you're fighting, you don't feel safe, and you're trying to blame the other person to protect your self-esteem. All this nasty stuff is going on. But when you give yourself compassion, you feel safe. Again, you're calming down your body, your physiology. And then, inevitably, when we come back from the break, we're able to talk about it much more productively. It may still be a problem, but we aren't shouting at each other. We aren't shouting to be heard because we've heard ourselves.

David: Well, it's kind of a radical and -

Kristin Neff: [Phone beeps] Sorry about that.

David: Okay. Kind of a radical and counterintuitive idea in a way.

Kristin Neff: It is.

David: But you do present it in a way that that makes sense, and the rest of us should see what we can do maybe about taking it to heart.

Kristin Neff: We all need to feel validated, don't we? But who can really validate us more effectively than ourselves?

David: Yes. Well, moving along here, the final chapter of your book is titled "The Joy of Self-Compassion." What are you getting at there?

Kristin Neff: Well, there's two levels to that. So, I think it's Chapter 12. One of the really beautiful things about self-compassion is that you're taking your suffering - you aren't changing it, you aren't ignoring it, you aren't pushing it away - but you're wrapping it, embracing it, in feelings of care, love, compassion, understanding, support. And those are very positive emotions, so at some level if you really practice this, every time you suffer and feel pain it's also an opportunity to feel these positive emotions of love, caring, connectedness.

And there's a whole theory of - Barbara Frederickson has this theory, broaden-and-build, that what negative emotions do is they narrow our attention; it's fight-or-flight. Positive emotions broaden our attention, allows us to take advantage of opportunities because we feel safe. So with self-compassion, by wrapping our negativity in these positive emotions, it helps us not be so narrow in focus, allows us to kind of breathe, take a step back, and start seeing the positive things in our environment, and that can lead to a positive cycle. And this all happens without getting rid of the negative, which is great because, again, if you suppress a negative, it gets stronger and it persists. So that's one of the joys of it.

And I talk a little bit about that when I talk about dealing with my son's autism. At first there was a lot of grief, a lot of pain, but because my first instinct at that point was to hold it with compassion, to hold him with compassion, to really accept how hard it was but also comfort myself for that, it really allowed me to start seeing even his autism as this beautiful, positive gift, and to really appreciate him for who he was.

And so there is a gift in self-compassion like that. I use the metaphor of dark chocolate, you know? If it's milk chocolate it's too sweet; if everything was too good and be too sweet, it'd be perfect. It'd be boring. If it was too bitter, ouch. Who likes really bitter experiences? But dark chocolate's perfect. It balances the sweet and bitter, and that's what self-compassion does, is it balances the sweet and the bitter. And, like I said, there's something very beautiful about that, I find.

David: That's a great metaphor for us to close on.

Kristin Neff: Okay. Go eat some dark chocolate.

David: Yeah. Well, this conversation has been dark chocolate for me, and Dr. Kristin Neff, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Kristin Neff: Well, thank you. I really appreciate and also having the time to go into such interesting questions. It's just great, so thank you.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Kristin Neff. I'm pleased to recommend her book on self-compassion to you. Yes, it is a self-help book, but it's more than that. Dr. Neff has pioneered the field of self-compassion, as you heard. She's a serious researcher and the book has plenty of references and chapter endnotes. At the same time, she's very open about her own experiences. I find she strikes an excellent balance between self-disclosure, self-help, and providing the scientific underpinnings. You can find out more about Dr. Neff and her work at And I'm really looking forward to interviewing her husband as well, Rupert Isaacson, in the future, about their family's Mongolian adventure as portrayed in the book and movie The Horse Boy. Until then, you might want to explore

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About Kristen Neff, PhD.

Kristen Neff, PhD.

Kristin Neff earned her Ph.D. at University of California at Berkeley in 1997 studying moral development with Dr. Elliot Turiel. Her dissertation research was conducted in Mysore, India, where she examined children's moral reasoning. She then spent two years of post-doctoral study with Dr. Susan Harter at Denver University, studying issues of authenticity and self- concept development. Her current position at the University of Texas at Austin started in 1999, and she was promoted to Associate Professor in 2006.

During Kristin's last year of graduate school in 1997 she became interested in Buddhism, and has been practicing meditation in the Insight Meditation tradition ever since. While doing her post-doctoral work she decided to conduct research on self-compassion - a central construct in Buddhist psychology and one that had not yet been examined empirically. In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she has developed an 8-week program to teach self-compassion skills. The program, co-created with her colleague Chris Germer at Harvard University, is called Mindful Self-Compassion. Her recently released 2011 book is titled "Self-Compassion."

Kristin lives in the countryside in Elgin, Texas with her husband Rupert Isaacson - an author and human rights activist - and with her young son Rowan. She and her family were recently featured in the documentary and book called The Horse Boy

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Love the reasearch but perhaps enmeshed in Buddhist Psychology - Tracy - Jul 18th 2011

I related so much to the the interview with Kristin and as usual, you asked all the right questions.  I keep wondering if I was born in the wrong epoch.  I am a Ph.D. psych prof type who has been heavy into Buddhist meditation and teachings for the past 15 years.  My tradition (vipassana/insight, Thervadan/mindfulness, or whatever term you want to use) has been the focus of your last two podcasts.  They have been excellent and I have recommended them to my meditation group (I also lead a group unrelated to work).  I did a sabbatical research project on people career paths change as a result of getting into the practice.  Found they move more to professions that involve helping other people.  If that is not possilbe, they tend to engage in volunteer activity.  Such research was not considered worthy at the time.  Such an exciting time, just as I retire.  I must admit to some sadness.

I do have one qualm and this comes from my Buddhist side vs my psych side.  I see some of the guests as co-opting Buddhist concepts and giving them a new label and treating them as a new construct.  For example, what Kristin called self-compassion is really a practice that his been around for a couple of thousands of years---metta (Pali for lovingkindness practice).  I admire her work and she has gone well beyond simply repackaging a major Buddhist practice.  She has conducted compelling research.  I just feel that credit should be given where credit is due.  Those of us in the practice long enough are well familiar with the analogy of the bird needing the two wings of wisdom and compassion set forth by the Tibetans.  When such credit is not given, one is led to beleive that the interviewee has come up with the concepts on her own.  I know she does not want her book to be a Buddhist book.  But that does not mean not referencing those responsible for metaphors, analogies, teachings, etc.  All in all, though, I am greatly impressed by her work and would reccomend it.  Thanks both of you for a good listen.

blend of bitter and sweet - Josh Peter - Jul 15th 2011

So, I'm thoroughly enjoying this interview, reading the transcript rather than listening to the podcast and, all the while popping dark chocolate chips into my mouth, I read this comment from Kristen Neff:

And so there is a gift in self-compassion like that. I use the metaphor of dark chocolate, you know? If it's milk chocolate it's too sweet; if everything was too good and be too sweet, it'd be perfect. It'd be boring. If it was too bitter, ouch. Who likes really bitter experiences? But dark chocolate's perfect. It balances the sweet and bitter, and that's what self-compassion does, is it balances the sweet and the bitter.

Which leads to this question: Can these self-compassion exercises by done while eating dark chocolate chips? :-)

Great interview. Thank you, Dr. Dave and Dr. Neff!


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