The Side of Self-Compassion You Never Hear About

September 17th, 2021

In response to the demands of modern life, we’re constantly being told to be kind to ourselves and to prioritise self love and self care.

The idea is that if we are compassionate to ourselves, we’re more likely to be fulfilled and happy, and then we're able to achieve challenging goals and provide value to others. But will all this time that we spend caring for ourselves actually lead to happiness and fulfilment? Or will it just turn us into complacent, self indulgent human beings, who spend all our time pampering ourselves?

I found the answers to these questions in a new book - Fierce Self-Compassion by Psychologist Dr Kristin Neff. I've summarised some of the big things I learnt from this book, in a journal spread, which you can see me set up and explain on YouTube.

Two Sides of Compassion

When we think of self compassion, we generally think of kind, gentle, loving forces. Kristin argues that this is only half of the story. She believes that compassion has two sides - the nurturing side and the fierce side. She brings this to life by comparing it to yin and yang.

The yin quality of tender self compassion involves being with ourselves and being accepting. It's soothing ourselves, reassuring ourselves and being mindful of our suffering. The yang quality of fierce self compassion is associated with "acting in the world". To protect, provide or motivate, ourselves, or others.

To be able to thrive and make positive change, you can't have one side of compassion without the other.

For example, having the kind tender side alone, can lead to acceptance with no action. Sometimes this is exactly what we need, but at other times, we need action. With fierce compassion, acceptance is the first step, but it shouldn't be the only step. Making a change must follow.

Yin and Yang

The Self-Compassion Model - 3 Key Elements

According to Kristin's model of self compassion, there are 3 fundamental elements, and knowing how to use these in different scenarios, is how you'll be able to use your compassion to make positive changes to your life and the world.

  1. Mindfulness - this is the ability to acknowledge our discomfort. Be fully present with it and see it clearly. Rather than pretending it's not there. "We can't heal, what we can't feel."

  2. Common humanity - this involves connecting with the wider world. Recognising that all humans are imperfect and lead imperfect lives. When we're feeling down, our immediate emotional reaction is to think that everyone else is living a normal problem-free life and it's just us having difficulties. But pain is part of the shared human experience, we all feel it. Being able to tap into this wisdom, helps us see the bigger picture and saves us from falling into self-pity.

  3. Kindness. This is a warm and supportive attitude towards ourselves. It's being genuinely good to yourself, with comfort and acceptance. When you make a mistake, receive bad news or face problems, you're kind to yourself. Self-kindness is saying "this is really hard. how can I care for myself in this moment?" Like how you would ask a good friend. It's a tool that can make hard things, much more bearable, and makes things feel rewarding and fulfilling.

How to Take a Self-Compassion Break

The key question to ask yourself is: what do i need right now? How we then use fierce self-compassion, depends on our circumstances.

Sometimes we need to accept ourselves and our human imperfection, and we just need tender self-compassion.

A way of using the self compassion model, is to take a self compassion break. Essentially, taking a few quiet minutes out of your day, to evoke the 3 aspects of self-compassion. You can practice this morning or night, and use it in difficult situations, when you need it most.

To practice this, think about a problem you're facing, whether at work or at home. You're then going to say a few words to yourself that will slowly make the pain more bearable.

First tap into the mindfulness part of the model - this means being fully present with the pain or discomfort. Make a statement that acknowledges it. One that I use is a simple "this is hard."

For example, if i'm having a really stressful moment with my kids, I find a moment to step away and I'll say in my head (sometimes quietly out loud) "this-is-hard." There's something quite calming about saying it and being present with it, rather than ignoring it and just feeling more and more overwhelmed.

The second phrase is to remind you of how you're connected to the wider world. So you can say things to yourself like "I'm not alone". "This is what suffering or discomfort feels like to everyone". "We all face challenges in our lives". It's not used to dismiss the feeling, the goal is to appreciate that what we're feeling isn't "abnormal" and suffering is part of life, for everyone.

The third and final step is to invite in the kindness. Gentle touch can help, which you can do for yourself by, putting your hand on your heart if it helps you or holding your own hand. And say something like " I will be kind to myself". "I will accept myself as I am". And if you feel comfortable enough talking to yourself, you can say "I'm here for you".

It might sound really strange talking to yourself in this way, but it's worth trying a self compassion break in a stressful situation, and seeing how calming it can be. Or even trying it when you have some quiet time at home, drawing upon your memory of a difficult situation you faced.

Think about how much calmer you feel after phoning a friend when you feel stressed or anxious. This activity gives you the opportunity to be that friend to yourself, anytime you need it.

3 elements of compassion SC break

Fierce Self-Compassion Breaks

If on the other hand, you're feeling angry or upset about something, you might be in a situation where you need to protect, provide or motivate yourself or others. This is when you combine fierce self compassion with tender self compassion, using the same 3 components: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.

Fierce Self Compassion: To Protect

In a protect scenario, you might identify that you need to draw boundaries or stand up to someone. Maybe you feel like you're being taken advantage of by a coworker, a neighbour being disrespectul or even a family member pushing their views on you.

Think about the situation and let the fierce or angry feelings arise. Anger, frustration whatever it is. Be mindful of them and how they feel.

You can say something like "it's ok to be angry, this is the natural desire to protect myself"

Stay with the anger without getting caught up in what actually happened. focus on the harm that was caused rather than the people causing it. This is really important because anger can take an unhealthy form, and become aggressive, if you focus on attacking the person rather than focussing on preventing harm.

Let the fierce energy flow through your body,.

Listen to it and thank its efforts to protect you.

The aim of the mindfulness phase here, is to bring clarity to the situation. Use some phrases that help you do that like: "I can see what's happening" or "this is not okay" or "this is unfair".

Then remember common humanity, to draw strength and empowerment from others. So you can say things like "I'm not alone, other people have experienced this as well" or "by standing up for myself i'm standing up for others" or even just "me too"

Use the third component, kindness, to give yourself the support to take action.

For protection, this means creating feelings of bravery, and committing to being kind to yourself to keep yourself safe. Some phrases you can use are "I will protect myself" or "I am strong" or "I can do this".

The goal is to use this fierce energy that is created to protect you, and combine it with the tender self compassion to be able to take action.

Fierce Self Compassion: To Provide

Think of a situation you're facing, that is related to your needs not being met. For example, you're not taking enough time for yourself, or you're spending lots of your free time doing things that don't make you happy. The self-compassion break here, is focussed on providing for yourself and encouraging authenticity, balance and fulfilment.

The phrases you'll use in the exercise, are a bit different in this case.

Mindfulness is used to encourage authenticity. To make yourself aware of your deepest needs, so phrases you can use are "this is what's really important to me" or "my needs matter" or "this is for my true self".

The purpose of common humanity here, is to remind yourself to balance your needs with others. Saying things like "I will honour the needs of myself and others" or "life involves giving as well as receiving".

To call upon self-kindness, use words that reflect your commitment to taking steps toward giving yourself what you need - this is fulfilment. So you can try saying "I will commit to fulfilling my needs" or "I will do everything I can to be healthy and well".

Here we're combining the fierce and tender energies to take action to be more fulfilled, while appreciating that you're already whole exactly as you are. Your desire to fulfill your needs, then comes from a stronger, more balanced position. And you're using your self-compassion to give you power to be there for others too, again creating balance.

Fierce Self Compassion: To Motivate

Finally when you're using your fierce self compassion to motivate, this will be situations you would like to change. Like wanting to exercise more, or being trapped in a job you don't like and want to change. You want to summon energy and willpower.

Start by picturing an alternative reality that would be better for you. Maybe you want to do yoga every morning or spend your days freelance writing. Allow the feelings to arise: fear, disappointment, excitement, whatever they may be.

Then bring in the 3 components of self-compassion to motivate yourself to make a change.

Again, find language that work for you.

The goal of mindfulness, is to invite in a clear vision of what you want things to look like. You can say things like "this is the vision i want for myself" or "this is possible for me".

Common humanity connects you to the wider world, and is now used to bring out wisdom. To remind yourself that everyone finds this hard, and gets things wrong. Say things like "this is a learning opportunity" or "I'm not the only one who has faced a challenge like this."

Then use kindness to support yourself, you can say to yourself "I want to help myself reach my goals" or "I will support you" or "just try your best and see what happens."

If you find it hard to think of what to say, imagine what you would say to a friend struggling with this situation.

Overall the purpose of this is to give you the supportive energy you need to make a change while also knowing that you're okay as you are. It's caring about ourselves enough to make a change, while letting go of the need, for it to be perfect. A balance I've struggled with from the moment I decided to leave my job and work for myself.

Getting better at working with anger in this way, combining the fierce and the tender, can help reduce the intensity and frequency of angry outbursts and instead you can use the fierce energy to tackle big issues and injustice. This fierce energy was used for big movements like BLM and #me too.

According to Kristin, "we have to get angry" "If we aren't angry we're asleep". We have to use that anger and fierceness. Be grateful for the strength and determination it gives us and use it to make positive changes and combat injustice.

Fierce compassion break

Embracing Anger

Kristen explains that this book is written for women, because we're at a pivotal moment in history to make a change. We can do it with fierce compassion.

Women often feel ashamed of their angry side because we're taught that we need to be gentle, and tender caregivers. Instead Kristin says that we should THANK our anger and use it constructively, to motivate action in our own lives or in the wider world.

It's an important book for women to read, because women are often discouraged from being fierce. Kristin includes a ton of interesting research in the book on gender role socialisation, and how it discourages us from being fierce.

This was a great read. The book really teaches you the value of self-compassion, when you balance the fierce and the tender sides. And if practiced properly, self compassion isn't selfish, it isn't naive acceptance, and it isn't self pity or indulgence.

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Buy the book Fierce Self Compassion here.

compassion spread

The full setup video and explanation:

With love,