CMSC Blog

Fierce Self-Compassion

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

Dr. Kristin Neff

CMSC Co-Founder

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, being the first to operationally define and measure the construct over 15 years ago. In addition to her pioneering research into self-compassion, she co-created the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program and co-founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion with her colleague Chris Germer. Kristin wrote the bestselling book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, published by William Morrow in 2011. She co-authored two books on M...Read More

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