An Interview with Chris Germer and Kristin Neff on Their New Book: Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program
Giving oneself compassion is a challenging process for just about everyone. That’s why the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program was created by Drs. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff in 2010 and, since then, has been carefully refined with the help of hundreds of teachers around the world. But how do we teach teachers of self-compassion? What do professionals need to know in order to bring self-compassion into their professional activities and the workplace? What do teachers of the MSC program need to remember in order to offer MSC in the best possible way? A brand-new resource book from the developers of MSC brilliantly addresses these questions.
Drs. Germer and Neff have spent the past several years writing a comprehensive volume on self-compassion for professionals — therapists, healthcare workers, mindfulness and compassion teachers, coaches, educators, business people, academics, researchers — anyone who wants to bring more compassion into the world, starting with themselves. The authors joined me for an interview to discuss the book and their hopes for the future of self-compassion training.
I. Self-Compassion: Theory, Research, and Training
II. On Teaching Mindful Self-Compassion
III. MSC Session by Session
IV. Integrating Self-Compassion into Psychotherapy
Plus: Ethical Guidelines, Companion Reading, Resources
Writing this book, Chris says, was mostly a process of “harvesting the wisdom gleaned from MSC teacher trainers, teachers, and MSC participants around the world.” In particular, since 2014 when the MSC Teacher Training program was started, the authors found themselves in a “crash course” on how to teach teachers in the best possible way. Kristin and Chris especially credit Michelle Becker and Steve Hickman at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego, for taking a leap of faith and initiating the teacher training pathway.
Lessons learned gave rise to a model for effective teacher training
Kristin and Chris discovered early on that professionals who wish to teach self-compassion in any form should, first and foremost, have their own practice of self-compassion. They need to experience, in their bones, the inner freedom that self-compassion can bring to our lives. Furthermore, teaching has power when it arises from authentic, lived experience.
After practicing self-compassion, if a person wants to teach the MSC program itself, they need to take a formal MSC Teacher Training. This is because how self-compassion is taught is as important as what is taught. The model for teaching self-compassion in the MSC program is based on the domains of competence outlined by the Welsh mindfulness teacher, Rebecca Crane (e.g., understanding the curriculum, relating compassionately to others, facilitating group process, engaging in inquiry), which were further adapted by Chris and Kristin and their colleagues for self-compassion training. “The book was written for professionals in general, but also as a resource for people who are trained MSC teachers,” says Chris.
The first part of the book is a comprehensive review of the theory and research on self-compassion. It is written with remarkable clarity by Kristin who has been immersed in this material since 2003 when she first operationally defined the term “self-compassion” and created the Self-Compassion Scale that is used in most research. After that, Part II unpacks the domains of competence needed to teach MSC, and self-compassion in general. Part III is a detailed, step-by-step description of the entire MSC program along with sample classroom conversations designed to help professionals anticipate and overcome common obstacles.
While they were writing this book, Chris and Kristin occasionally worried that they were “giving away the MSC store,” but their wish to disseminate self-compassion training widely in the safest and most effective manner is the reason for so much helpful detail found in this book. They wanted to err on the side of providing too much information rather than too little, giving professionals an understanding of self-compassion training at a granular level and affording professionals the chance to pick and choose what they need. This book will also serve as an important resource for trained MSC teachers, currently numbering over 2000 around the globe, for years to come.
The authors have collected some golden nuggets of teaching wisdom that they generously share throughout the book. One of their favorites comes from family therapist and teacher trainer, Michelle Becker, who suggests to teachers, “Find your own voice, not your own curriculum,” alluding to the meticulous work that has gone into refining the content and delivery of the course materials. Psychologist Steve Hickman, the Executive Director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, offers the sage counsel to “take a half-step back” when teaching, so as to allow participants the chance to have their own experience and to combat the striving that new teachers often exhibit in their excitement to share the material.
A vigorous emphasis on teaching safely
“Over the years,” explains Chris, “we have learned that there are many different levels of effectiveness, and what we tried to put in this book is what we have discovered to be the most effective way.”
One of the clearest lessons learned over the years was the need to maintain emotional safety in the classroom. Both Kristin and Chris recall that they originally had no idea how emotionally activating self-compassion could be for many people. Therefore, maintaining a safe space in the classroom (and also a brave space) is a theme that is woven throughout this book. For example, the concept of “backdraft” is described – the experience of distress that may arise when we open ourselves to love and compassion. Chris explains that self-compassion drops us into the relational matrix of our lives, especially those times when we may have loved someone so much and they could not love us back. The healing power of self-compassion is experienced when we meet old wounds in a new way—unconditionally, with mindfulness and compassion.
“For many of us,” Kristin says, “the way we have learned to feel safe is by criticizing ourselves, abandoning ourselves, or by pushing ourselves to exhaustion. This means that fear can arise when people consider motivating themselves with kindness. Part of self-compassion training is holding the student’s hand, so to speak, until the student finds another way to feel safe.”
Integrating psychotherapy and self-compassion
Part IV of this book provides a framework for bringing self-compassion into psychotherapy. There are three levels: (1) how therapists relate to themselves, (2) how therapists relate to their clients, and (3) how clients relate to themselves. In their enthusiasm for teaching self-compassion, some therapists want to go straight to level 3—teaching practices to their clients—but their clients are unwilling to practice or they don’t know how to practice effectively. Therefore, as an inner discipline, the authors recommend that clinicians find a way to teach mindfulness and self-compassion in therapy without ever mentioning the words “mindfulness” or “self-compassion”. Part IV may be the most interesting part of the book for psychotherapists who want to bring self-compassion into their work. It also includes sections on working compassionately with wounded parts of ourselves, self-compassion as a process of re-parenting ourselves, how to safely address trauma with self-compassion, and self-compassion as an antidote to shame in psychotherapy. Many of the ideas in Part IV were developed in collaboration with Christine Brähler in Germany.
Diversity, identity, and privilege in teaching MSC
As MSC training has been taken to different communities, it has become increasingly evident that diversity, equity, and inclusion need to be addressed in a significant way. “There is a need to understand the intricacies of identity and privilege and to recognize that people experience significant pain through the narratives of the dominant culture,” Chris notes. “Teachers have to be aware of the cultural context and how our participants may have been impacted by cultural oppression of all sorts, such as bias, discrimination or even physical harm. To do that, teachers need to adopt an attitude of cultural humility.” Kristin adds, “It can be very helpful for self-compassion teachers to explore how their own identities have been shaped by culture and to let this inquiry open the door to curiosity about the experience of others. We also need diverse teachers to reach diverse communities. Our goal is to empower MSC teachers everywhere to bring self-compassion training to their communities in a natural, authentic manner.”
The next stage: MSC adaptations
The program described in this book is designed for the general population, but work is underway to adapt it for specific populations such as couples, for the workplace, for healthcare, for various clinical disorders, utilizing programs of varying length and intensity. Although the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC) only approves MSC programs adapted by Certified MSC Teachers, the highest level of teacher qualification, professionals are welcome—strongly encouraged!—to find ways to integrate the material found in this book into their ongoing professional activities. This book was primarily written for this purpose.
“To be clear,” concludes Chris, “this is a professional book. It’s for teaching self-compassion. “Anyone who wants to learn self-compassion for themselves—and that is indeed the first step—is encouraged to take a MSC course or to pick up the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook which was released a year earlier. But for those who want to teach self-compassion to others, this book is the most comprehensive and authoritative text to date. “Kristin and I are very proud of it, and we hope it will be of benefit to many people around the world.“