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/

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