Archives for March 2021

When You Need More Than Gentle: Yang Self-Compassion as the Powerful Side of Kindness

I have always loved the feeling of gentle self-compassion. There is a beautiful simplicity in finding kindness toward yourself, practicing affection and softness. 

But gentle is not all there is to self-compassion. 

In the Live Online Mindful Self-Compassion class I recently completed, I was fascinated to learn that there are two sides to self-compassion – the yin side that is soft, gentle, quiet; and also a yang side that is powerful, protective, and even fierce. Self-compassion can be vigorous, can be energetic, bold and courageous. There are times for both, and we have a need for both in our lives.

Some of us may need this intense kind of self-compassion more than we think. The little girl in me who was taught to be quiet, meek, humble, and not to take up too much space felt exhilarated by this idea of claiming power as an act of self-compassion. 

Our world today is fraught with tension and suffering. Pandemic illness, racial trauma, political divides, world hurt and dis-ease . . . so many things that hit at the core of our compassion and empathy that we might be called to use a “yang” compassionate activist voice more often and more loudly. The more compassionate we feel toward ourselves, the more we will feel compelled to act from a compassionate place toward or on behalf of others. Tapping in to our yang self-compassion allows us to advocate for ourselves and others in a way that honors experience, connection, and shared humanity. Acting out of that fierce kind of self-compassion moves us toward powerful change.

Kristin Neff and Chris Germer identify that the three purposes of yang self-compassion are “protecting ourselves, providing ourselves with what we need, and motivating ourselves.” These are the active ways that self-compassion benefits both ourselves and others. Practicing yang self-compassion lets us feel protective toward ourselves, knowing that we are worthy of having our needs met, and it motivates us to act with a warm, caring, and mindful purpose. It may awaken a power within us that we need in order to balance or activate the gentleness.

Here are some ways to practice or embrace your yang self-compassion.

  1. Does yang self-compassion feel uncomfortable? Meet it with curiosity. You may have received messages in your life that it is not okay to feel or express a self-protective, powerful part of yourself. If this is true for you, practice what you’re most comfortable with while also opening toward other ways you might practice self-compassion. Integration of both yin and yang aspects invites mindful awareness and patience. 
  2. Get to know and trust your self-protective instinct: What does it feel like when you feel self-protective? It could feel like a difficult emotion, or like a tension – a desire to protect or keep something safe or to set or hold a boundary. If you can, recognize the strength and power of that feeling. Think about how that feeling also leads you to reach out in solidarity or security when others are wronged. 
  3. Think about how you provide for yourself and those you care about: What resources do you bring, and which of your strengths help you to meet your needs? It might be easier to start with how you provide for others. Maybe you’re generous, empathetic, validating. Think about how you can show those same qualities toward yourself. Give yourself recognition and appreciation for the strengths you have that allow you to bring together what is needed in both internal and external situations.
  4. Reflect on what motivates you toward action/change: When are you most likely to act? What feelings, thoughts, or incentives are the most powerful motivators for you? You might be someone who needs to feel confident that you’re able to do something before you act. If so, think about this as a process – what has to happen first, second, and all the way to when you might take a step or make a change. Consider which parts of that process are within your control and how you can influence yourself by either taking the reins when you can or practicing acceptance (when you can’t). 
  5. Find the balance you need between yin and yang: There might be times when you need more gentleness toward yourself, and other times you need to awaken your power more. Let yourself play with the idea of this balance, and tune in to your own cues about which kind of self-compassion you need and when. Recognize the power that this ability gives you, to tune in to your self and your need, and to respond to it in kind. 

For me, yang self-compassion feels like clarity – taking my warm, caring sense of myself and focusing it, and then turning it outward. Yang self-compassion also connects me more deeply with those around me, reflecting our common humanity in a powerful feeling of respect and solidarity toward others. 

The beauty of yang self-compassion is that it isn’t the opposite of gentleness, it is the power of gentle and yin self-compassion. The power has been there the whole time. Practicing the yang awakens it and reflects it to the world.

If we see kindness and compassion as powerful, they can and will shape the world.


See also: 

Neff, Kristin. Cultivating Kindness and Strength in the Face of Difficulty: Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion: October 15, 2019: https://centerformsc.org/yin-yang-self-compassion-excerpt-neff/

Fierce, Tender, Whole: Taking Action for Ourselves and the World

Below is an excerpt from Kristin Neff’s forthcoming book, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and Thrive. In the book, Kristin expands our notion of self-kindness and its capacity to transform our lives, showing women how to balance tender self-acceptance with fierce action to claim their power and change the world. Publishing on June 15, 2021; now accepting pre-orders at your favorite bookseller.

Self-compassion is useful for anyone, and most of what I’ve written about in the past has been gender neutral. But I believe that self-compassion is especially necessary for women at this moment in history. Women have had it with mansplaining and being treated as if we were incompetent. It’s time for us to be paid fairly and to have equal power and representation as national leaders in business and government. Fierce self-compassion, especially when balanced with tender self-compassion, can help us fight for our rights and counter the harm done by centuries of being told to keep quiet and look pretty.

I was also inspired to write this book as a consequence of the #MeToo movement. For far too long women swept sexual harassment and abuse under the rug. We feared people wouldn’t believe us if we revealed the truth. It would bring shame upon us, or it would only cause more harm. But this changed in 2017 as hundreds of thousands of women used the hashtag #MeToo to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Suddenly, the men were the ones leaving their jobs with their reputations in ruin.

As I will discuss in detail later, my story resonates with those of countless other women around the globe. Despite being a well-known mindfulness and compassion teacher, I was fooled and manipulated by someone who turned out to be a sex predator. A man I trusted and supported was actually harassing and abusing countless women without my knowledge. My self-compassion practice is what allowed me to cope with the horror of revelation after revelation. Tender self-compassion helped me to heal, and fierce self-compassion spurred me to speak up and commit to not letting the harm continue.

The women’s movement gave us access to the professional realm, but to succeed in it we’ve needed to act like men, suppressing tender qualities that are devalued in a man’s world. At the same time, we’re disliked for being too aggressive or assertive. This leaves us with a false choice: to succeed and be scorned or to be liked and remain disempowered. Women have more pressure to prove ourselves at work, but are also subject to sexual harassment and lower pay. The bottom line is this: the current setup isn’t working for us anymore. I believe that by developing and integrating fierce and tender self-compassion, women will be better equipped to realize our true selves and make needed changes to the world around us. Patriarchy is still alive and causing great harm. We’re being called by the pressing issues of the day—sexual harassment, pay inequality, rampant prejudice, health disparities, political division, our dying planet—to claim our power and take action.

Pre-order your copy today

 

“In this brilliant new book, Kristin Neff empowers women to combat patriarchy by shining a light on the true nature of compassion-both nurturing and fierce. She gives us potent tools for healing our own wounds and creating a more just, equitable and loving world.”

Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion

The Body as Friend, Companion, and Guide: Restoring Connection Through Self-Compassion

When your body does not behave, look, or feel the way you want it to, you may feel that wish to pull away, blame, and shame it. It is exactly in these challenging moments that self-compassion is there to remind you that your precious body never meant to cause you any harm or distress. Rather, it is, and always has been, just trying to guide you along this journey of life. 

A client of mine recently shared these beautiful words about the impact self-compassion had on her ability to relate with her body in a new, more friendly way. 

“I went for a run. When I was done, for some reason, I stopped and I placed a hand on my heart. I just stood there and stayed for a while feeling my heart beating. I know it sounds odd but I actually started to cry and I found myself thanking my heart and body for giving me the gift and ability to run.”

This client and I have worked together for a few years now. She initially came to therapy aware there was something missing within. She felt disconnected from her body and often critical of it. She found herself wishing and wanting it to be a different shape and size, and she often manipulated her body through diets and excessive exercise in attempts to have it fit in with the socio-cultural messages around her. 

But within the last year, she noticed something shifting. She was no longer withholding food. She was allowing her body to rest or move when it wanted to. And there was a softening of the critical thoughts she once held toward her body. All of these shifts culminated in that very special, intimate moment at the end of her run. I actually started to cry and I found myself thanking my heart and body for giving me the gift and ability to run.

When she stopped fighting against her body as it was, she noticed that she was present to the moment and felt with her body, rather than separate from it. She noticed that she was sensing from within her body rather than focusing on how it looked from the outside. She noticed she was gentle and kind towards her body. She truly noticed her body for the first time! She asked me, “What do you think that was all about?”

I enthusiastically responded, “That is embodiment. Welcome home.” I saw the smile on her face and the tears start to well up in her eyes. They were tears of joy and excitement as she knew exactly what I meant by the words, “Welcome home.” 

As a Somatic Psychotherapist, moments like this bring me joy and excitement, as it is in these moments of embodied awareness that the felt sense of being in one’s body comes alive. There is a shift from the usual focus on the external, or objective view of one’s body, to the internal, or subjective experience of what it feels like to live in and with this body. When my client was able to regard her body with open, compassionate curiosity, new questions arose for her: “What is my body experiencing and sensing in this moment?” And, “How does my body receive this moment?” Instead of her former, more objective view, which asks, “How does my body look in this moment?” and “What do I think about it in this moment?” 

Sensing and feeling your body in this new way invites you to form a deeper, and richer relationship with your body. However, we all know it is not always easy to come close to our bodies in this way.

For years, my client lived feeling separate and apart from her body as many of us do. Self-compassion is what allowed her to come closer toward it, be curious about it in a different way, and eventually to embrace, care, and be grateful for it. Self-compassion allowed her to stop pushing and forcing her body to do and become what she wanted it to be and instead to begin to live in it just as it is. Self-compassion allowed her to gently release long-held patterns of perfectionism and striving. It was through this gentle acceptance that she found a deeper relationship. She was now able to see her body as her companion and friend, rather than enemy. 

As we know, self-kindness takes practice, and developing kindness toward your body takes even more practice! Your body has been waiting to bring you back home to experience this alive, lived-in, richer connection to yourself, others, nature, and the wholeness of life.
 

I wish you all the best on your journey toward inner and outer acceptance.

If you see yourself in this story and you long to restore your relationship with your body, I encourage you to join me, Fresh “Lev” White, Richa Gawande, and Marissa C. Knox, PhD, for Embodying Self-Compassion on May 1, 2021 at 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Pacific. There, we’ll explore what it means to have compassion in and for the body. Through this spacious and nurturing 6-hour retreat, we will experience somatic practices, guided meditations, and reflective writing to reveal deeper layers of self-compassion within us. Come home to the sacred ground of your being and embody the truth of all that you are.

Learn more or register

 

Transformations Through Mindful Self-Compassion in Eldoret

In the coming months, CMSC will be featuring service initiatives and social-justice efforts within the CMSC community. Today, we offer a beautiful, first-person essay about a committed team of MSC teachers and their service work in Eldoret, Kenya, as part of Project Huruma. May such stories remind us of the strength of our own resilience, even during this time of global pandemic.

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.

-Dalai Lama


Sometimes, there are atrocities that are so horrific that we can’t help but be moved to compassionate action. Such was the case in 2018 when over 300 women and children were caught in the political crossfire between warring factions in the secluded mountainous region of Chepkurkur on Mount Elgon in Kenya. 

Knowing the potential of self-compassion to mitigate the deep and far-reaching symptoms of PTSD, my colleagues and I from the Project Huruma humanitarian effort helped in the way that we knew best. With the encouragement of Lilian Muthui, a Kenya-based psychologist and counselor, we set out to provide carefully adapted Mindful Self-Compassion training for the women, teens, and children of the war-torn community. 

After months of fund-raising and organizational work by Lorraine Hobbs, Lilian Muthui, and Autumn Totton and days of discussion and preparation by our team of 11 women, we were ready. At last, a school bus carrying our participants from the mountain villages pulled up on the dusty driveway in Chepkurkur at Saint John the Baptist Pastoral Centre where we would spend the next five days together. I ran to join the teacher processional, where we got in line to greet each of the 60+ participants personally. We were asked to do a traditional greeting of handshakes, followed by hugs to the left then the right. My heart was racing, and I was thrilled to meet our participants.

Led by Madame Chief, we all sang a Swahili welcoming song while wholeheartedly greeting each participant personally. A few of the women and children were able to put smiles on their faces as a lot of them greeted us mazunga or mgeni (non-Africans, guests), for the very first time. My heart sank and tears quickly filled my eyes as I saw the vacant looks and mechanical greetings by most of the teens and children. Many wore facial expressions of grief and trauma, some moved stiffly, all making their best efforts to cope with various forms of complex trauma. My heart broke and my stomach twisted every time I thought about what had happened to these precious souls, both recently and in the past.

In that moment, something sweet and familiar lit inside of me as I heard myself say “May I be free from suffering, may you be free from suffering. May I be held in peace and compassion, may you be held in peace and compassion.” That’s it! With every step moving forward, rhythmically I felt the words flow out of me and a warm gentle sense of calm spread throughout my being. My awareness in the moment sharpened with curiosity and an even deeper understanding of common humanity then I had ever imagined. I felt our hosts’ cracked hands in mine, looked deep into their eyes, and hugged them, heart to heart. 

The Story of Lucy

There was one particular teen dressed in a soiled, torn T-shirt and blue skirt that caught my eye. She quickly turned her gaze away and sank her face into her left shoulder. The act of eye contact seemed utterly impossible. Respecting her boundary, I simply put my hand on my heart, smiled, and bowed my head down to give her permission to walk away if she wanted to. There were others who preferred no contact which was absolutely understandable in light of the horrific atrocities they had experienced. However, this particular teen caught my attention in a unique way, and I made a mental note of it.

During dinner and room assignment, I observed how she was always on the side, by choice and by what seemed to be exclusion by the other teens and women from the village. I tried to carefully engage her in dialogue and even asked our skillful translator, Zakia Rashid, to assist, but Lucy offered no words or eye contact. Compassionately respecting her boundaries, we simply made sure she had her basic needs of food, housing, hygiene, and safety met.

Next day, as our course started, Lucy sat a little outside our circle of chairs with her face often covered with a shawl donated to her by Yaffa Maritz, a teacher from the women’s MSC group. We honored her need to create privacy and further safety as my co-teachers Natacha Boulton, Natalie Logan, Peter Serete, and I taught our trauma-sensitive Making Friends with Yourself (MSC for Teens) course. Over the next few days, slowly the shawl started going down where we saw her eyes then nose. We continued to hold her in compassion, sensing that this may be what she needed. We were careful not to push her to verbally respond. In fact, we used two inanimate co-teachers, puppets, to facilitate teaching by easing the heaviness of the trauma the participants may have been experiencing. We named them “Huruma” and “Adui,” which translate in Swahili to “Compassion” and “Suffering.” Every sentence was translated into Swahili. 

Huruma and Adui assisted us in aiding the teens understand concepts of mindfulness, compassion, common humanity, inner critic, judgment, and self-care. Name tags were made for all the participants and teachers, including the puppets. After every module, we went outside for “Light and Lively” which included ways of processing emotions from our body through mindful and compassionate movement.

 

Building trust, moving forward

As the lessons built on one another through trauma-sensitive instruction, I noticed Lucy’s shawl sat folded under her chair one day. She transitioned to using her hand to cover her mouth as she spoke a couple of words, eyes still cast down. Partway through the intensive, during one of our outdoor mindfulness exercises, she started to join our circle. She even made eye contact. I purposefully incorporated elements of nature, which is culturally relevant to their farming way of life, into self-compassion and mindfulness exercises. In between these exercises, more and more of the teens started independently engaging with me, touching my long hair as they giggled, asking me to expand further on the elements they were learning. The now-courageous teens even asked for a selfie. My heart melted as I saw the teens embody what we taught and gave themselves permission to smile and even laugh.

Stories of their daily lives and questions about my life in the U.S. started to pour out freely. However, Lucy kept turning away, breaking eye contact again. When she thought I wasn’t looking, she would stare longingly in my direction.

Saint John the Baptist Pastoral Centre had several acres of farmland, animals, rows of maize, and other vegetables. This gave us a great opportunity to practice outside in open fields, mindfully listening to cows, sheep, chicken, dogs, and even kittens. On one of our last days, we went outside for a compassion exercise using our newly sewn eye pillows with the soothing scents of lavender and bergamot. The group quickly got into a circle and comfortably lay down. I made a mental note of the level of ease Lucy found a spot beside me. She looked up at the sky, took a deep belly breath, smiled, and put the pillow above her eyes.

As I led the group through the guided meditation, I noticed the serenity of the moment and ease of the teens as they let go of their burdens and sank into mother earth with feet bare and arms resting. I noticed my own shoulders relax, chest open, breath deepen, and a sense of “this is exactly where I belong in this moment” arise.

After the meditation was over and before afternoon tea was served, we had a few minutes, so we transitioned into an impromptu mindful movement exercise which started being teacher-led but quickly moved to participant-led. This gradually moved into teens asking for a selfie as they showed me their skill at doing head stands and flips. There was laughter all around. 
Then I heard a sweet gentle voice say, “Laila, selfie … Laila, selfie.” I turned around and saw Lucy, smiling. As I got my phone ready to snap a picture, Lucy went into a beautiful and strong head stand. She smiled wide then giggled as she said, “Laila, I am love.”

Lucy doing a headstand
Lucy practices a headstand after a compassion exercise

I want to offer my deepest gratitude to Lorraine Hobbs, co-developer of Making Friends With Yourself (MSC for teens), for this opportunity to make such heartfelt connections of compassion and common humanity in Eldoret, Kenya. Lorraine also co-taught the Women’s MSC group along with Lillian Mithui (co-organizer of this program and our hard-working and always motivating go-to person in Kenya), Yaffa Maritz, and Shelagh MacFarlane. To Galia Tyano Ronen, who skillfully and creatively led the Children’s MSC group along with her assistants Zakia Rashid and Shani Levkovitz.

And my warmest appreciation to my three co-teachers (my sisters and brother of the soul) for the MSC for Teens group, Natacha Boulton, Natalie Logan, and Peter Serete. These teachers, along with the beautiful and resilient people of Kenya, will be in my heart forever. 

Read more about Project Huruma

Being Your Own Cheerleader

I work in a highly academic and competitive high school, similar to many in Silicon Valley. Academic metrics such as the number of Advanced Placement classes a high school student is taking, grade point average, and standardized test scores are major sources of social comparison. For these students, scoring 90% is actually not good enough. One needs to score 95%. I have heard of students who score above the 90th percentile on their college entrance exam, and they keep studying until they get the perfect score. Of course, their view is that “good” scores are just average and that “average” is not enough.

Malavika’s story

Last summer, I was very fortunate to meet a student from a neighboring high school who discovered for herself a powerful way to help manage the ongoing intensity of her daily life. Scrolling through social media, Malavika came across a post that she says most people would think is cliché or corny, and just scroll past. However, a phrase stuck with her: “Treat yourself as you would treat a close friend.” The post continued to point out how we would never never say out loud to another person that they are inadequate, stupid, or ugly, but we would say these same words to ourselves. Learning to treat herself as a close friend became a critical stress management strategy for her. 

The start of high school wasn’t easy for Malavika, and it got rougher. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed, she was burnt out by her sophomore year. Nothing in her life was going the way she wanted it to go. She was taking classes she didn’t enjoy, and several of her supposed friends talked about her behind her back. She had always thought happiness is something that would come as long as you got good grades and did well in school. And yet her lived experience caused her to question this old belief.

Re-defining “happiness”

At the beginning of 2020, Malavika started to ask the question, “What do I actually want my life to look like?” She soon began to take specific actions by using to-do lists and daily agendas to make time for self-care activities like family time, journaling, and watching TV. Because she was consciously choosing to do things that made her happy, Malavika began asking “Why am I not surrounding myself with people who make me happy?” Soon enough, she left this group and became more intentional about who she spent time with. Malavika realized happiness does not come because you are doing the “right” things. Happiness is experienced when we are intentional about how we spend our time and who we choose to spend our time with.

“Friendships, school life, and work were all unstable, everything was changing and I was thrown off by these changes. Things were going fine, and then something disappointing or hurtful happened, and it would totally turn me upside down. I’d freak out and say everything is going wrong; everything is going bad.” 

She then realized, “I have to be my own rock; I have to keep myself grounded; and my life should not be revolving around these random changes that are bound to happen.” 

Becoming Your Own Cheerleader

We all recognize that teenagers go through a lot of changes during this time in their lives. They are trying to individuate, so relationships with their parents can be rocky. If one isn’t grounded, a lot of insecurities can come, especially with the presence of social media; insecurities can arise around body image, comparing your life to the lives of your social media friends, and figuring out how to be in healthy relationships, whether they are romantic ones or not. 

For these reasons, Malavika said, “Self compassion is especially important [during the teenage years] because if you don’t have yourself to count on and you’re not your own cheerleader, it can feel like everything is closing in on you and it’s really overwhelming if you don’t have your own support.”

Malavika has learned to turn her harsh inner dialogue to one that is kind and supportive. Being your own support system and your own cheerleader makes life so much easier. Malavika had to learn this without an external guide. Committed as she was to sharing her insights with other young people, Malavika wrote a book, The Gift that Keeps on Giving, which was published in October 2020. In it, she shares what she’s discovered about the importance of self-care, positive self-talk, purpose, and belonging. 

“Learning to like myself in a fragile, struggling state helps me gain the strength to work through things to succeed in the way I define success; and when I am successful, it is so easy to like myself.” And when one likes themselves, it then becomes so much easier to be successful. This is the gift that keeps on giving.


To hear more from Malavika, visit: 

Episode 5 of Taarika’s Foundation “Mindful, Beautiful, and Thriving” podcast series gives you a quick introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion. And Episode 6 introduces listeners to self-compassion meditation. 

•••

If you or a teen you care about would like to learn the tools to become their own cheerleader, we invite you to further explore Making Friends with Yourself (MFY), A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens. In this empirically supported program, teens learn to replace their harsh inner dialogue with a gentler and kinder approach. Through activities, exercises, discussions, self reflection, teens learn the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion, the cost of social comparison, effective ways to self-motivate, and more.

Upcoming MFY courses include options for high school and middle school students offered live and online. 

Teen Self-Compassion: Learn More