The Wonders of Self-Compassion
An interview with an expert on the practice of self-compassion.
Posted Apr 29, 2020
Self-compassion is a powerful yet underused and underappreciated tool. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take the time to care for our emotional well-being. Doing this can even enable us to help others better: Self-compassion can motivate us internally and allow us to show compassion to others externally.
Christopher Germer is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a lecturer on psychiatry (part-time) at Harvard Medical School. He is on the faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, both based in Cambridge, MA. He is a co-developer of the empirically-supported Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program which has been taught to over 100,000 people around the world, author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, and co-editor of two professional books, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy.
Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?
Christopher Germer: Self-compassion means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding as we might treat a good friend who is struggling. Burgeoning research shows that self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional well-being, coping with life challenges, lower levels of anxiety and depression, healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and more satisfying, compassionate relationships.
Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program is a comprehensive resource for our eight-session, empirically-supported training that helps people cultivate self-compassion. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the scientific study of self-compassion, and I started developing the program in 2010 and have steadily refined it since then with the advice and encouragement from MSC teachers around the world. Currently, about 100,000 people have taken MSC.
This book is written for professionals—psychotherapists, meditation teachers, healthcare professionals, educators, business leaders—who want to teach self-compassion to others. It includes a nice summary of the research, outlines the skills required to teach self-compassion, and contains the full MSC curriculum. We are hoping that professionals will use the book to integrate self-compassion into their work, but if they want to teach the eight-week MSC program itself, formal teacher training is still required. Readers primarily interested in learning self-compassion for their own personal growth might benefit more from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook which also contains most of the MSC curriculum.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
CG: Kristin and I hope readers will discover that self-compassion is a good thing. There are a number of misunderstandings about self-compassion, such as that self-compassion will make a person selfish, weak, or lazy, but the science shows precisely the opposite. Learning self-compassion makes us more compassionate toward others, it is an inner resource that helps us bounce back from adversity, and it motivates us to achieve our goals.
We also hope people realize that learning self-compassion is not a lot of work. A moment of self-compassion is actually a relief—giving up the self-criticism and self-doubt that normally accompanies us throughout the day. What would it be like to have a dear friend by your side all day long providing warm, yet honest, guidance, and encouragement? That’s self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a simple U-turn. We are all pretty good at feeling compassion for others, which means we already have the capacity for compassion. We just need to include ourselves in the circle of our compassion. Doing that is the art of self-compassion.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
CG: Actually, if the 3000-plus academic studies on self-compassion were summarized by just one word, it would be “resilience”: Self-compassion enhances emotional resilience. The MSC program is carefully designed to unfold self-compassion in our lives in a natural manner. Students of self-compassion are encouraged to ask themselves, “What works for me?” and to only practice what they find enjoyable or meaningful.
One of the most popular practices in the MSC program is the Self-Compassion Break. The Self-Compassion Break has three parts that correspond to the three components of self-compassion as defined by Kristin Neff: (1) mindfulness, (2) common humanity, and (3) self-kindness. Self-compassion helps us disentangle from our difficulties (mindfulness), feel less alone (common humanity), and support ourselves (self-kindness). Together, these skills are a powerful combination for coping with stress. You can follow recorded instructions at this link.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
CG: The quintessential compassion question is, “What do you need?” This is a good question to keep in mind when we want to support a loved one. How often does anyone ask us this question? Asking that question of ourselves opens the door to self-compassion and to sustaining compassion for others.
Usually, our friends need to feel understood before they have can get perspective on their problems and come up with a good plan of action. Therefore, being emotionally “present” is the foundation of compassionate relating. However, when we talk with a friend who’s in pain, it isn’t always easy to resonate with their pain. We want it to stop, so we’re likely to go up into our heads, perhaps provide some premature advice, or start talking about our own problems rather than truly listening to what our friend has to say.
If we can hold our own hearts in a tender embrace, then we’re more likely to keep a caring attitude toward others. There’s also an exercise for this. We just need to be aware of our breath in the background of our awareness, flowing in and out, while we’re in a conversation. Then we imagine that each in-breath is for us and each out-breath for the other person. “In for me, out for you.” Self-compassion means “Caring for others without losing ourselves.”
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
CG: I am currently writing a book on self-compassion for shame. Shame is probably the most difficult human emotion—so difficult that it’s even hard to talk about. In my view, self-compassion is uniquely effective for working with shame. This is because, through the eyes of compassion, shame is an innocent emotion—it comes from the wish to be loved. Shame is the fear that something is wrong with us that will render us unlovable. When we see shame in this light, it becomes workable again. Luckily, when we give ourselves a lot of love, we also become less shame-prone—less reliant on others to meet all our emotional needs. In my opinion, it’s a perfect fit—self-compassion as an antidote to shame.
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
CG: As a clinical psychologist, I got into compassion, especially self-compassion, as a resource to help people manage intense and disturbing emotions. I first realized the power of self-compassion in my own life when it ended 20 years of public speaking anxiety. However, I think the potential of self-compassion is far broader. We’re living in difficult times in which we all need to expand the circle of our compassion in order for humanity, and our planet, to survive. We certainly need systemic change, but the easiest way to increase compassion for others, especially for those who look and think differently than we do, is to practice self-compassion.
Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2019). Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program. New York: Guilford Press.