Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion

August 9, 2019

Medicine for Difficult Times

By Ravi Chandra

“Violence strips naked the body of a society, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin.”

Leslie Manigat, former president of Haiti


There has been tremendous change in America and the world over the last several decades: economically, demographically, technologically and politically. Change heightens uncertainty and allows latent vulnerabilities to rise. We are all vulnerable as human beings. This is part of our common humanity. But we don’t always know what to do with our vulnerability, uncertainty and insecurity. Our survival brains hijack our better angels. We freeze: we might become numb, shut down and withdraw. We flee: we might narrow our concerns, and avoid, push away, and wall off what we feel we can’t deal with emotionally, cognitively and relationally. Or we fight.

Despair is anger and hostility turned inwards. Anger and hostility are sorrow and frustration turned outwards.

For some – the small fringe group of White Nationalists around the globe, for example – existential fears have become fears of annihilation. Underneath their rage and fear are unmet needs: for safety and belonging at best, perhaps, but also, pathologically, a need for power and dominance. Instead of recognizing common humanity in their own vulnerability, and seeing people of different ethnicities as essentially similar to them, they have chosen a dark path of tribalism, separateness, isolation, and toxic, sociopathic “power.”

I imagine these individuals have had a deeply frustrated relational world to begin with. If they were more connected and related to real people in the real world, they might be able to generate self-compassion and compassion for others.

Instead, they have become further removed from relatedness by cultivating hateful, narcissistic and nihilistic ideologies in dark corners of the internet, where they “gamify” the idea of killing others. Tragically, this small fringe is now amplified by seemingly uncaring political leaders and philosophers who stoke their fears. They represent the most toxic ideas that civilizations have carried for millennia. That might makes right, and that it’s better to be feared than loved. That society evolves through reward and punishment, rather than nurturance and caregiving. That love, kindness and compassion are soft and weak emotions, unable to deal with the hard realities of life.

What life do we hear now beneath the skin of our society, and what medicines can we offer for what ails us?

Facing isolation and despair with mindfulness, yin and yang compassion, and relationship

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Society, through abuse of power and lack of compassion for its citizens, has left many feeling downtrodden and in despair. Those who may have felt powerful in the past are now faced with the challenge of change.

There is a vast network of trauma under the surface of society. This network of trauma is perpetuated by the avoidance, reactivity and blame that keeps us apart and is retraumatizing.

Sadly, all too many of us are not skilled in the remedies for constructively coping with change, trauma and difficult emotions.

Mindfulness, compassion, and connection are those remedies.

Mindful Self-Compassion workshops teach that there are gentle and fierce components of compassion, the yin and yang of compassion for self and other. With mindful self-compassion, we can learn to understand and not judge our emotions. Social Psychologist Dacher Keltner writes, in his essential book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, “emotions are signs of our commitment to others; emotions are encoded into our bodies and brains; emotions are our moral gut, the source of our most important moral intuitions.” We can see how anger is an attempt to protect ourselves and those we love, and also an attempt to defend our deeply held principles. MSC helps us deepen awareness beyond reactivity to the active responses of fierce compassion, and also helps us avoid burnout and hostility. We can learn to nurture ourselves and others with gentle compassion, even as we work together on the issues facing us. In doing so, we can cultivate jen, the subtle Confucian feeling of kindness, reverence and humanity that transpires between people, and improve what Keltner calls the jen ratio, and with it, our personal and societal well-being.

Fierce compassion takes an active stance towards suffering and injustice. It might lie in supporting policies to minimize mass shootings, homicide and suicide in society, and supporting leaders and organizations who have sensible plans. This is also the path of relatedness and civic engagement. There is widespread support for sensible gun regulation. For example, 80% of both Democrats and Republicans support universal background checks. And while Congress has, for political reasons, limited scientific investigation into gun issues, there is significant research correlating lower suicide and homicide rates with stricter gun regulations, and other research supporting common-sense public health measures. (See my long-form essay for details on these and what I call the “gun identity” in America, as well as historian Roxane Dunbar Ortiz’s excellent book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.)

Fierce compassion might also lie in cultivating verbal, emotional and cognitive responses in the face of the coarse dialogue and injustice we often encounter in our communities.

Gaining wisdom through reading, reflection and relatedness is vital in combating ideologically based opinion wars that neglect or dismiss the human cost of those ideologies.

Gentle self-compassion begins with being able to name the emotions one feels in difficult situations, such as the hard emotions of anger, rage or hatred, or underneath them, the soft feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, or fear. These often relate to relational experiences such as being devalued, dismissed, subjugated or oppressed. The Soften-Soothe-Allow practice (available on Christopher Germer’s website) is enormously helpful at cultivating the space of mindfulness around a difficult emotion, and also warmth to help us find ease in the midst of distress.

After naming and soothing our difficult emotions, we can go deeper, and look for the unmet need that is pressing our buttons. Is it to be seen or heard? Is it to be validated? Be more safe, secure or connected? Or is it our deepest need, as social beings: to be loved and cared about?

Once we understand our inner lives, we can turn towards ourselves with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, shame, judgment, and hate. We can turn towards others with compassion and kindness, instead of defensiveness, frustration, blame and scapegoating.

Being related, mindful and compassionate is not an easy path, especially at first. Frequently, as we touch our wounds, they erupt in pain. But when we increase our caring capacity, we find ourselves in tune with our best selves, and indeed, in tune with the patience, acceptance, and life-giving sustenance of Mother Earth herself.

These are deeply disturbing times, especially for Americans.

There has been more than one mass shooting per day in the United States so far in 2019. But almost 40,000 people in the U.S. died from gun violence in 2017, 1,000 more than 2016. While the murder rate has fallen overall, the percentage of homicides by gun has increased. 60% of gun deaths in 2017 were victims of suicide. Suicide has increased 30% since 1999, and an increasingly larger percentage of suicides are committed by guns; in 2017, almost half. 70% of suicide victims are white men, and the highest rate of suicide occurs in middle aged white men. Men commit suicide at over 3.5 times the rate of women, because more of them attempt suicide with lethal means, such as guns.

American society is suffering deeply. Many more people are feeling desperate and wounded. The life expectancy of middle aged white Americans without a college degree has fallen, even as life expectancy of whites in other developed countries has risen. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton called these “deaths of despair: suicide, overdoses from alcohol and drugs, and alcohol-related liver disease.” America has become increasingly individualistic and narcissistic over the last 50 years. Individualism has a proud history in America, but a dark downside when out of balance with relatedness. Civic engagement has fallen overall (though this trend may be shifting). We have smaller discussion networks than in past decades. Some researchers say loneliness is an epidemic, and loneliness and social isolation have clear health impacts.

You may also be interested in:

  1. Svoboda E. (August 7, 2019) How to Renew Your Compassion in the Face of Suffering. Greater Good Science Center.
  2. Chandra R. (August 4, 2019) The El Paso Massacre: Nihilism, Narcissism and White Nationalism. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.
  3. Chandra R. (July 30, 2019) Narcissism, Needs for Certainty and Closure, and Relatedness. The Pacific Heart Blog, Psychology Today.

About Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and author in San Francisco, and a Mindful Self-Compassion teacher. Find out more about his work at www.ravichandramd.com, where you can sign up for an occasional newsletter.

June 17, 2019

Fierce Self-Compassion

By Dr. Kristin Neff
CMSC Co-Founder

As a woman in a society in which unequal pay, sexual harassment and abuse are still rampant, I have become more and more interested in how all people — but women in particular — can cultivate inner strength and make needed changes in this world. It’s not enough to work toward personal growth and healing; we also need to try to change the systems of oppression that are causing so much pain. I believe that the skill of fierce self-compassion is needed to become empowered, whole, and work toward social justice.

Compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering — that of others or ourselves — and can be ferocious as well as tender. These two poles are represented by the dialectic of yin and yang. In traditional Chinese philosophy, these two seemingly opposite qualities– soft and hard, passive and active, feminine and masculine – are integrated in a non-dual manner, with the understanding that all people contain both essential energies. A metaphor for yin self-compassion is a mother tenderly comforting her crying child. We hold ourselves with love so we can be with our pain without being consumed by it. The converse metaphor for yang self-compassion is that of a momma bear defending her cubs. When we tap into this fierce energy it gives us the strength and power needed to stand up and speak our truth.

When most people think of self-compassion, they imagine its tender yin form. Yin self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in a compassionate way. We comfort and soothe ourselves when in pain just we might do for a friend who is struggling. We give ourselves our own kind attention and care rather than cutting ourselves down with self-criticism. And we validate our pain, acknowledging that our suffering is worthy of attention. Most of us are experts at doing this for others, and research shows we can also learn to do it for ourselves, greatly enhancing our mental and emotional wellbeing as a result.

Compassion also requires action: protecting, providing, and motivating change to alleviate suffering. It’s easy to see when we think of how we compassionately act to help others: courageously stopping a bully from picking on someone vulnerable, working three jobs to put food on the table for our kids, or inspiring the students we teach in the wrong part of town to go to college and pull themselves out of poverty.

Fierce self-compassion similarly requires action to alleviate our own suffering. It means saying “no” to others who are hurting us — drawing our boundaries firmly. Or saying no to our own harmful behaviors so that we can be safe and healthy. It means giving ourselves what we genuinely need mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually without subordinating our needs to those of others so we can be authentic and fulfilled. Sometimes it means working hard to reach our goals or make a change, whether it’s leaving a job or relationship, exercising more, going back to school, or having the grit to persist in the face of challenge.

According to my theoretical model, the three essential components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. We first need to be mindfully aware that we’re suffering, then we need to respond to our pain with the same kindness we would show to a good friend we cared about, and finally we need to remember that suffering is part of the shared human condition — that no one is perfect or leads a perfect life. These elements feel different depending on how they are being used to alleviate suffering. With yin self-compassion they are felt as loving, connected presence. Self-kindness means we tenderly care for ourselves when in pain. Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open, accepting manner. When we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal.

When self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, however, its yang form feels quite different; it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. Self-kindness means we get angry and protect ourselves. We stand up and say, “NO! You cannot harm me in this way. It’s not okay to harass me, abuse me, treat me unfairly.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone. We don’t need to hang our heads in shame. We can stand together with our brothers and sisters in the experience of being harmed and be empowered as a result. And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth. We no longer choose to avoid acknowledging the harm being done to us because we’re afraid of rocking the boat. When we hold our pain in fierce, empowered clarity, we speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed. In many ways the #MeToo movement can be seen as the collective arising of the female yang.

In order to be truly self-compassionate, however, in order to be whole, we need to integrate both yin and yang. If we are yin without yang, we may be silenced, disregarded and disempowered. If we are yang without yin, however, we are at risk of becoming hostile and self-righteous, of forgetting the humanity of others, of perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Like a tree with a solid trunk and flexible branches, we need to stand strong while still embracing others as part of an interdependent whole. We need love in our hearts so we don’t become hateful, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path. It is challenging to hold loving, connected presence together with fierce, empowered truth because their energies feel so different, but we have to do so if we are going to effectively stand up to patriarchy, racism, and the people in power who are destroying our planet. As advocated by great leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we need both simultaneously.

Learn more at an upcoming
Fierce Self-Compassion Workshop with Kristin Neff:

Greater Good Science Center – November 22, 2019 | ▸ Register

October 9, 2018

Privilege, Power and a Pair of Plastic Earrings: The Inner Capacity of Self-Compassion

By Dr. Steve Hickman
CMSC Executive Director


I rode into the Casabranca Favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro knowing full well that, in an hour or so, I could ride right back out and slip into the tidy stream of life outside of poverty and danger. I felt a little apprehension at getting my hands dirty like this, but I could humor my hosts and find out how people live here and what the healthcare providers who work here face on a regular basis. I was literally “slumming” for the first time in my privileged life.

And of course, it was messy, stark, meandering and daunting as the living spaces, piled on top of each other, extended as far up the hillside as I could see. But there was a kind of spirit here that I saw in the eyes of the people. The children playing in the street, the women toiling in their living spaces and the hard-working healthcare workers in their bright white uniforms and their playful smiles and cheerful attitudes. My physician colleagues back home in the US struggle to help their privileged (by contrast) patients stay healthy and alive. I could just imagine what it’s like to do the same for people who may not always have fresh water, enough healthy food or even vaccinations for infectious diseases that we get routinely at home.

And then we sat. I joined a tiny weekly mindfulness group led by Berenice, a psychologist who is part of the “collaborative care” team in this small primary care clinic in Casabranca. Three young women and the 10-year-old son of one of those women gathered in a small consultation office, closed their eyes and dropped their awareness onto their breath. After a few minutes, we moved on to the quintessential mindfulness exercise: the raisin. One woman, who had not done the exercise before was dismayed that she was only given a few raisins in the bottom of a cup. “This isn’t enough to eat!” she said laughing. The others nodded knowingly and smiled.fullsizeoutput_2051

We explored the raisins together and then we explored the experience. The group went on to share how they are noticing mindfulness unfolding in their lives (all have been coming for some time to this weekly group with Berenice).

They shared brief stories of noticing their old patterns and being able to shift course and choose options that work better for them.

One woman with the tendency to get angry at her husband reported that she could begin to see the anger arising and take a breath to shift her old pattern of expressing the anger impulsively and hurtfully. She was clearly excited at this new development, and there was a softness to her realization that warmed the very obvious deep inner strength that she possesses naturally. It was a winning combination and unexpected in a place where I expected not to encounter hope, joy or resolve for something better.The little boy said he used to get bullied more but now he is able to not react as much when he is upset and walk away from situations.

His face lit up when he reported quite proudly that, because he is staying out of trouble more, he gets to actually speak at church on Sundays. His beaming face filled me with love and compassion and made me think of my own son at that age and how tender and full of love our hearts can be, even in the lap of poverty and in the shadow of privilege.

And then there was the woman with the plastic earrings. I didn’t catch her name, but her earrings caught my eye. Neon bright green lacy discs about three inches in diameter dangled from each ear. My first thought was that you could probably buy a pair for a dollar at home. My privileged mind wanted to scoff at the gaudy, cheesy, cheap decorations, but it couldn’t. She told a story of a problem with “nerves” (a syndrome in some Latin cultures that roughly equates to anxiety).

She showed numerous scars on the inside of her forearms where she had scratched or cut herself over the years. She didn’t say a lot. She didn’t have to. None of the marks were fresh and there was a kind of solid self-confidence to her that intrigued me.

I kept looking at those earrings and realizing she wore them with pride and a kind of commitment to her own worth as a human being. She had made an effort to make herself attractive, not for the world around her, but for her and who she sees inside. I saw her smile warmly at the little boy telling his story and I could see her love for humanity in that look.

And those earrings looked perfect on her. The radiance, the lack of self-consciousness, the spirit of a Carioca (a resident of Rio) all shone through because she could embrace her true nature as a glorious, lively, perfectly imperfect human being who simply wants to be happy and free from suffering.

Mindfulness is a powerful and transformative practice. I have known that for as long as I have been practicing and teaching it, but even more than that, I could see quite clearly that what emerged from each of these people, including Berenice herself, was a clear and growing inner strength that came from loving themselves just a little bit more, and by extension, standing strong and resilient in the face of conditions that have crushed many others. It is the little triumphs, in the moments of awareness, that foster our sense of friendliness toward who we are that allows us to shake the bonds of shame and self-criticism, commit to doing right by ourselves and our fellow human beings, and put on our own version of those dayglo earrings as an act of kindness and a manifestation of our deep connection to the good of ourselves and humanity as a whole.This is what Kristin Neff and Chris Germer refer to as the “yang” of self-compassion. It is the active, motivating, protecting, providing aspect of self-compassion that says “no!” to injustice and opens us to move through the world with purpose and intention. It allows us care for ourselves as we would for our loved ones, and to proudly don those plastic earrings.
The comforting, soothing and nurturing “yan” side of self-compassion is there too, to support us through our suffering and to soften our touch, but the active side often is overlooked.

This is the unique and ultimate human privilege that every one of us possesses. The capacity to simply include ourselves in the circle of compassion and to see that our struggles, our challenges and our deepest fears about ourselves actually bind us together with every human being on the planet. When we feel bad, flawed, irreparably broken and unlovable, it hurts, but it stems from this deep desire within us to BE loved.

I want to be loved as much as those people in the group and as much as you do, and we all want to be free from suffering. We share the privilege of being able to honor that in ourselves no matter what we own, where we live, or what our history held.

In this short venture into the favela, my privilege, as a white, middle-aged, financially comfortable man actually afforded me the opportunity to see how those with the least privilege can teach us all a lesson about the most important privilege: to be able to give ourselves compassion whenever we suffer, to love who we are as individuals and as human beings, and to proudly wear our own version of those plastic earrings. I am grateful to all my teachers for this realization, especially those four people in that little room.

I am inspired by my new friends here in Rio who provide healthcare to the residents of all the favelas in Rio and they are hungry for self-compassion training to help them weather the overwhelming challenges of their work and how it can benefit their beloved patients. With economic conditions the way they are in Brazil, this is quite a challenge. My dream is to find funding from around the world to underwrite more self-compassion training here and ultimately to bring MSC teacher training to Brazil to support this amazing work. If you know of people or organizations who might fund this work, I would be thrilled to be connected to them. Please simply email me directly at steve@centerformsc and I will happily follow up. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if YOU would like to donate to the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, go here to do so.