Dr. Kristin Neff is a pioneer in the study of self-compassion and has been recognized as one of the world’s most influential research psychologists. She is the first to operationally define and measure the construct of self-compassion almost twenty years ago. As an undergraduate student at UCLA, Dr. Neff was a communications major but near the end of her undergraduate career she studied cultural anthropology and became fascinated with the issue of cultural relativism versus universalism. She took many different courses and fell in love with psychological anthropology. She continued her education by earning her master’s and doctorate in educational psychology (human development) from UC-Berkeley.
During the last year of graduate school, Dr. Neff became interested in Buddhism and has been practicing meditation in the Insight Meditation tradition ever since. While doing her post-doctoral work, she decided to conduct research on self-compassion – a central construct in Buddhist psychology – as it had not yet been examined empirically. In this podcast, Dr. Neff shares her academic and professional journey highlighting when she became interested in self-compassion and discusses how she turned her passion into a career helping people improve their mental and physical well-being. She also discusses how she and her colleague, Dr. Chris Germer, co-founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC) and developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, an eight-week program which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide.
Dr. Neff is an accomplished author and she briefly discusses her enormously popular first book, Self-Compassion, which offers expert advice on how to limit self-criticism and offset its negative effects. This extraordinary book provides exercises and action plans for dealing with many different types of emotional struggles each and every one of us faces on a daily basis. Dr. Neff also discusses her most recent book Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive which expands on her previous work and research by exploring new ideas that further develop and broaden our notion of self-kindness and its capacity to transform our lives. Fierce Self-Compassion shows women how to balance tender self-acceptance with fierce action to claim their power and change the world.
As a pioneer in the study of self-compassion, Dr. Neff does a lot of media interviews and has a TED talk where she talks about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. She states, “I have a TED talk where I joke that I’m a self-compassion evangelist, you know, kind of my goal is to spread the good word that there is a different way to relate to yourself that actually makes a dramatic difference in your ability to cope with difficulty and your happiness and well-being.” She further explains “self-compassion works. It transforms lives. It’s not like an abstract, theoretical idea. It’s something you can actually do. It’s a practice…anyone can just try it out and see immediately for themselves how it changes the way you relate to difficulty.”
Dr. Neff offers advice to those interested in the field of psychology and one of the pieces of advice she offers is “the thing I love about psychology and the thing I love about what I do is the ability to help people. The ability to change lives. Ironically, you’re not going to change as many lives if you’re a researcher. I mean, I was kind of fortunate in that my research happened to be in a niche that you know, and sometimes you do find applied applications of the research that makes a big difference, but realistically, you’re more likely to be able to change lives if you are a counselor or if you are a social worker, or if you’re a teacher.”
One of the unique things Dr. Neff shared with me is that she was in a documentary called “The Horse Boy” which is a film about her autistic son, Rowan, and how his condition appears to be improved when he was around horses. The film follows their journey when they took him to Mongolia and rode horses to Shaman to get healing for his autism.
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Kristin Neff focuses on self-compassion and has co-founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. She has multiple books and workbooks and has developed training programs and courses that teach self-compassion and help others to become certified in teaching self-compassion courses. One of the main courses is an eight-week program called Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) which she and her colleague, Dr. Chris Germer, created to teach self-compassion skills in daily life.
Bachelor of Art (BA), Communications (1988); University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Master of Arts (MA), Educational Psychology (Human Development)(1992); University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Educational Psychology (Human Development)(1997); University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast, where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host, Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Dr. Kristin Neff to the show. Dr. Neff holds a doctorate in educational psychology and is a pioneer in the study of self-compassion. In fact, she created scales to measure the construct almost 20 years ago. Dr. Neff has been recognized as one of the world’s most influential research psychologist. She is a co-founder of the Nonprofit Center for Mindful Self Compassion. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey, The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and her book Fierce Self-Compassion as well as hear her advice to those interested in the field of psychology. Dr. Neff, welcome to our podcast.
Hi. Hi, Bradley. Thank you so much for having me.
Well, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us. I’m actually very excited to talk about your journey. I know a little bit about it, but I’m excited to learn a little bit more. First, though, let’s start off. Tell me a little bit more about your undergraduate studies and what made you gravitate towards psychology.
So I went to UCLA as an undergraduate and I was actually a communications major, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up, which is why it was kind of a very general major. And then my last year, my senior year, I took a, uhm, actually I guess was started in junior a 3-semester series on cultural anthropology. And I became really fascinated by the issue of cultural relativism versus universalism. And is there anything about the human experience that we can say is shared about culture? Or is it all relative to culture? And I just fell in love with this whole idea and this concept. And I realized as I ended my undergraduate degree that I wanted to head into, maybe this is your next question, but to continue in that field of study, so that’s why. But, so basically, I started in as a general major which, which allowed me to take a lot of courses in different areas and I fell in love with psychological anthropology.
Well, that’s a good summary and I should let everybody know you received your BA in Communications, University of California, Los Angeles. And then you stayed in California and you actually attended UC Berkeley and focused on educational psychology and human development actually for your masters and your doctorate. How and why did you decide on UC Berkeley? There are many different schools in California that you could have chosen so why did you, you know, choose Berkeley, UC Berkeley?
Yeah, so it’s because I wanted to study with a particular advisor, which is I always tell people, especially at the doctoral level, if you want to, uhm, if you want to choose a school, you really should choose your advisor, because especially in a doctoral program, that’s where you’re going to be spending most of your time. And that’s who’s research is going to most influence your career. And there’s an amazing man who’s still actually teaching named Elliot Turiel, and he was one of the world’s foremost researchers in moral development and, in particular, he was studying issues of relativism and universalism. There was a big debate in the time and in the field of moral development, is morality completely relative or are there some universal principles like justice or not causing harm. And he had a really sophisticated model called domain theory which he could, which in which he could say well in some areas it’s universal and some areas it’s cultural and in some areas it’s personal. And I was just really drawn to the model. And so, I applied. I think that was actually the only program I applied to because I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to get my graduate degree, but I thought well, if I could work with him and, you know, stay in California, then maybe it would work out. And if he could offer me a a position, a a research assistantship so I could fund my graduate studies. And he did. He accepted me as a student, and he, he just happened to be in the human development program in the Educational Psychology department. A lot of human development programs are actually housed in regular psychology, so human development is actually a sub area which you sometimes find in educational psychology, sometimes in just general psychology departments. So that’s really why I ended up in that, in that area because I wanted to study with him in particular.
Well, you already mentioned something. I know that you were a TA or a teaching assistant for a little while at the very beginning there, and then you were a research assistant at UC Berkeley for about six or seven years and then became lecturer after you received your doctorate. And so, we’ll get to that. And so, one other question follow-up question, were you considering other schools, or you narrowed it down right away and you found that advisor?
Yeah, pretty much. I just, I just wanted to work with him. I, I suppose it wasn’t. I mean I, I’m trying to. I don’t think I applied with anyone else. I don’t recall applying for everyone else. It was a long time ago, so I suppose, it was 30 years ago, right? So, theoretically, perhaps I did apply with someone else and I don’t remember, but certainly he’s the only one I remember applying to UC Berkeley.
Did you, did you apply directly to the master’s program or directly to the doctoral program?
Right. So, to the doctoral program. So different schools do it differently. So many schools like where I am now at UT Austin or UC Berkeley, you apply for the doctoral program, and you get your masters along the way. So, it’s really about how they admit graduate students, because if you admit, if you admit someone who just wants to get their masters, you probably aren’t going to have such a close one-on-one working relationship with an advisor. But in this case, I applied really specifically to work with Elliot Turiel and the doctoral program, and then the master’s is just kind of almost get it as a matter of course.
And the reason that I was asking that, Dr. Neff, was some students think, oh, I’m not quite sure if I’m interested in this and the downside. And that’s great. You can, you know, tip your toe in the water, so to speak, and, and go that route and then go on for that doctoral degree. The advantage of applying directly to the doctoral degree, though, is it shows that you are more committed and you tend to receive more funding. And so, let’s talk about that for a second. And so, if you just go for your master’s, typically, you won’t find as much funding in just a master’s terminal degree as you would in a doctoral degree. So, did they offer you any funding when you applied for the doctoral program?
Right. And so, that’s how again in most many universities, I don’t know about all it works for. So, he had a large grant, right. So, when I applied to work with him, the idea was that and, and again, if he was to invest in me in terms of giving some of his grant money to fund me, I think I did maybe start as a teaching assistant but then I moved to a research assistant. He wants to make sure I’m committed to going all the way through so I could help him on his project. Which is how it works. So, I actually arrived at UC Berkeley with funding in place. So basically, usually that type of position, teaching or research assistant, that covers your tuition, and it covers your healthcare. And there’s a small stipend that typically if you live like a graduate student that covers your housing. So that’s the way, that’s the way it worked.
Well, good, good. What were some of your fondest memories? I mean, you spent some time there and you learned quite a bit and based on your vita and based on your experience, you had a wide variety of experiences. So, what were some of the fondest memories attending graduate school?
Right. So, one of the greatest things was that just a sense of community there. So, Elliot, he had, he had something called a domain theory and we called ourselves a domain gang. There was a whole series of ex-students and current students who were kind of friends. We had this little circle of people who were doing research in that model. So that was nice going to conferences, the other graduate students. Elliot himself was just such a pleasure to work with and just to really amazing so much of the personality of your advisor, I have to say. And he was just such a good man and fun. And we all had fun, but probably maybe the biggest memorable experience is, so, there was kind of one of these academic wars that go on between Elliot Turiel and a man named Richard Schrader who is, you know, they, they always have these academic epic battles. So, Elliot Turiel argued that some aspects of morality were universal. Richard Schrader argued that, you know, it’s all completely culturally relative. And Richard Schrader actually did most of his research in India showing trying to show that in India, the morality is totally different than you would find in a place like the United States. And I disagreed. I thought that some aspects of morality in India, like whether or not you could actually harm someone, or whether or not you could totally ignore someone’s human rights, would not be considered to be moral. So, I, I did my dissertation research in India. I spent a year in Mysore, India, and there was also, actually luckily, a way to get funding for that there was an exchange situation between Mysore, India and UC Berkeley that allowed me to do that again, paid for, which is amazing. And so that was just remarkable to spend a year abroad collecting my research data. And then, I then, I came back to write it up.
Well, I’m glad to hear that you did. You participated and took advantage of that research exchange program. When I went to school, I did the same thing and I went over to Scotland and England and studied and then was able to travel. But it’s, it’s interesting because we take for granted, unless you travel, we take for granted some of our cultural norms and expectations, and then to your point, when you go someplace else, they may be different.
And I also did that as an undergraduate. There was an exchange program with, uh, in Paris, so I spent a year in Paris and a lot of times these are fully funded. So, I, I really recommend to students if they want that experience because you aren’t just a traveler, you aren’t going on vacation. You’re usually staying with the host family. Or if not, you’re, you’re embedded with an institution. So, you really get to know the culture more deeply. You actually have a purpose while there, and you spend a longer period of time, which allows you to, you know, learn the language. I learned French. I didn’t learn Hindi, I must admit, when I was in India. That was a bit challenging for me, but yeah.
Well, the other question that a lot of our guests ask is, well, how did your guest decide on which branch or area of psychology they wanted to start to study? And I’ve heard multiple answers and I’ll ask you in a second. But one answer is I picked it out, I knew right away or it kind of, my path led me to that area. And so, in your case, did you kind of know ahead of time that, hey, educational psychology, human development was my area? Or did it kind of evolve after you took so many classes?
So again, I was for me, I was more interested in the issue of in that, at that time moral development. But I knew I was also interested in, in development, right, how people develop the way they think about the world. And so, it just so happened that Elliot Turiel was in a, by the way, Elliot Turiel was Lawrence Kohlberg’s student so that’s like kind of the connection, I saw his name flash up there and then, so moral development is either taught you can find it in a classic developmental psychology program, which is usually housed within general psychology. But sometimes there’ll be a human development separate area or developmental psychology, separate area or human development. So, it’s one of those areas. It just, it’s not really housed in a particular place. But I did like educational psychology because it also focused on learning. And again, I was really interested in. Versus I wasn’t interested so much in social psychology and like implicit biases or all those things that’s really interested in how people become who they are, how they how they learn their values, their morals or their understanding of the world. And then so I knew developmental was a good area for me and human development, in particular, it seemed to fit because again, it was more broad. But, but, you know, ask the difference between a human development program and a developmental psychology program, and often it’s just kind of happenstance of how the programs came to be at a particular university.
So, with that in mind, everybody finds their, their area, their own way. Any advice that you’d have to people or students who are interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology?
Yeah, well, so much depends on what you want to do with it, right. So, you know, if you want to go on to counseling, that’s going to be much different than if you imagine yourself as a researcher, which is different than if you envision yourself going into teaching, right. So, I think the most important thing is what, what do you imagine doing with the degree after you spend all that time and potentially money to get that degree. And then really so important who you work with, especially if you go for a doctoral program. You know, I really believe in this model of choose your mentor first. The other is kind of you, you might be in a, a great program, but if you have no mentor you’ll, you’ll flounder. Or if you have a great mentor and the program’s not so great, it’s actually probably not going to hinder you very much, especially if you’re going to go into research. You’ll, you’re known by who your mentor was. Typically, your dissertation will be using their theory, and it’s kind of what launches you into the field.
Well, one of the one of the follow up questions is many of our guests ask well, what’s the difference between a PsyD and a PhD and you know some of my guests were going through school when the PsyD wasn’t even available and, and others were and the general consensus, and I’ll get your opinion in a second, is if you’re going to stay within the academic field and focus more on research then the PhD is probably a better route. But I’m finding more and more of my guests that are staying in the academic field and they have a PsyD and more and more research institutions depending on if you’re research 1, 2, or 3 almost expect you to do more outside of the academic world as well. So, you’re, you’re doing both. So, what are your thoughts on whether I should get a PhD or a PsyD?
Well, if you just want to be a counselor and you aren’t interested in research, don’t bother getting a PhD. It’s not necessarily going to help you. You have to do a dissertation, with a PsyD, you don’t, and it’s a lot of work and a lot of time. You know, it doesn’t hurt you to have that PhD, but it doesn’t necessarily help you, and it is a lot of extra effort. If you want to go to a research one university where I am now, a PsyD won’t cut it so, uhm, if you’re, if you mainly want to teach and you aren’t so interested in, in being a researcher, then the PsyD may be OK. But you can’t. You can’t council, you can’t advise people on how to do a dissertation if you haven’t done dissertation yourself. So really, if you want to stay in academia and you get the PsyD, you won’t be doing research or you won’t be mentoring students in research typically. But if you just want to teach, let’s say in a master’s program, it may be completely fine. And you’re right, especially, uhm, in some counseling programs you might teach, and you may have a say, some practice on the side and integrate both. But I actually, it’s funny, I’m a researcher and I love, I actually, well, I will get to that. I recently took early retirement, so now I’m mainly doing my applied work, although I’m still doing research, I’ve, I’ve modified status at the university, which basically means I don’t get paid. But I still do research and I, but I don’t mentor students or I don’t teach at the university anymore. But I love research. But it’s so hard to get a job as a researcher in academia, and the pay is really low. So, I tell people, you know, unless you absolutely love it. You know, I don’t highly recommend going into the, the research side of academia because it’s competitive. It’s really hard to get a job. It’s very low paid. The rewards often aren’t, you know that great, whereas having, see, I’m lucky because we’ll get to this, but I managed to, even though I’m a classic researcher I wasn’t trained as a counseling psychologist. I actually went into a field where what I do is very similar to counseling and psychology, and I’ve found that so much more satisfying. If I just had my research, I don’t think I would have been happy with my career.
And you brought up something that I was going to bring up a little bit later on, but the timing is perfect. Right now, I’m sharing the screen. I went to Google Scholar and you’re still doing research, so here’s one that just came out in this year Self- compassion: Theory, method, research, and intervention. And then you can see the other ones as well. And you’re still, you have that affiliate. With the, the university or UT Austin as well.
Yeah, I’m still officially an associate professor. Again, modified status. I’m not paid, but I have the title so I can I, I have two more publications coming out this year, so. I still do research, but it’s more wrapping up other data sets that I already collected before I left, as opposed to necessarily embarking on new research projects.
Right, right. The other thing that I wanted to highlight is I wanted to give you a moment to tell us a little bit about your story and you know I, I read more about your story and how you got interested in, you know, your field. You created a niche for yourself is, is what I’m kind of summarizing for you, is that hey you. You uncovered this idea and this construct of self-compassion that really hadn’t been studied. And so, during your doctoral graduate career, you focused on that and, and created, like I said, one construct right away and then I think you developed a shortened version or a larger a longer version. There are two versions out there that I was able to uncover, but tell us a little bit of, of how you came to finding out, hey, I should really research self-compassion, empirically.
Yeah, so it didn’t actually happen in my, in my graduate studies. I was studying moral development and then while I was studying moral development at, at UC Berkeley, I actually started learning mindfulness meditation. And it was when I was taking a mindfulness meditation course that was taught in the tradition of a teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh who’s a a Buddhist, a Zen teacher who talked a lot about self-compassion. So, I was practicing self-compassion in my personal life, which really had nothing to do with what I was studying, right, the moral development, but because of that interest in Buddhism and, and self-compassion and how we relate to ourselves, then I decided I, I wanted to switch from moral development to self-concept development. So that’s why I did actually two years of postdoctoral study with a woman named Susan Harter, who was at, who was one of the leaders in the field of self-concept development. She just happened to have a postdoctoral position open, which I got was amazing. And I started learning about self-esteem and some of the problems with self-esteem and psychology. People were discovering that, you know, often it’s contingent on success or the way we look or people liking us. And you know, it’s comparative. It’s not OK to be average. We have to be above average to have self-esteem. Bullying, for instance, starts as, as little kids try to get their sense of self-esteem. So, there was a real kind of backlash in the field of the psychology against self-esteem. Not having it, but how you get it. And so, it was what when I was studying with Susan Harter, actually, and I was practicing in my personal life, self-compassion that I kind of got the idea. Well, self-compassion is a perfect alternative to self-esteem because it’s a way of relating to yourself with kind of and a sense of unconditional worth. I’m flawed. I’m imperfect. I may be average. I may make mistakes. But it’s OK because I can have compassion for myself as a human being doing the best I can. And it was I, I realized that the sense of self-worth was much more stable. So then after doing my postdoc, this position opened up at University of Texas at Austin and their human development program which I was qualified for because I had studied in developmental psychology. Well, human development, and it was also in the in the, in the field of education, it was in the Department of Educational Psychology. So anyway, I was qualified for the position with my developmental psychology training. And I got to UT Austin and, and at first I was kind of continuing the work I had done with Susan Harter about, you know, self-concept and we, we, we looked at relationship interactions, other things like that, and I had the idea that I wanted to study self-compassion, but no one had done it before. And so, I actually a mentor at UT Austin, a man named Guy Manaster I said listen, I want to study this, no one’s looked at it. It’s a little woo woo because it comes from Buddhist psychology. Or in other words, it may be perceived as woo woo and the why is compassion woo woo, but nonetheless it was, you know, it wasn’t like a hard thing. And I said, well, should I wait till I get tenure to study this, you know, because it’s a little a little risky and he said Kristen, if this is your passion, study it. I guarantee you you’ll probably do better research. You’ll be more likely to get tenure if you follow your passion. And he was right. So, I so I just decided, but Susan Harter had done a lot of work creating scales. She’s got like 10 different scales, self-concept development scales and I thought. Well, Susan can create a scale. I can create a scale. So, I decided to. I had two papers in 2003. One defining what self-compassion is, which I kind of came up with my own theoretical definition of it and then how to and I created a measure that followed my theoretical model of what self-compassion was.
And you mentioned.
And that’s how it all started.
Thank you for the summary. I love that summary. And while you were talking, I believe Susan Harter was the opportunity that you had for your post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Developmental Psychology at the University of Denver.
That’s right. Exactly, yeah.
Right. And then and then after that you, you ended up as you just mentioned, UT Austin in the Department of Educational Psychology first as an Assistant Professor and then eventually as an Associate Professor and…
I got 10 years as an Associate, yeah.
And I, I love the advice that he gave you. If it’s your passion, you’ll probably do better and you’ll actually get tenure, probably because you are putting a lot into it and, and instead of just going through the motions. Oh, I gotta get some more research done. And for the audience they may not recognize the difference between a research one, two, and three institutions and the expectations of those programs.
Very high expectations at a research one that you publish, on average, 2 publications a year in peer reviewed journals. So, it’s stressful, yeah.
It is, it is, but, but now you’re focusing more on self-compassion and you actually have, as I mentioned in the introduction, you co-founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC) you have and I’m going to go ahead and share my screen, give me a second. You have a wonderful website out here that has its self-compassion.org I should say self-compassion.org and what’s nice about the website is you have a lot of information on here, but you have a lot of events and workshops that people can actually go to and and here is Chris Germer, who co-founded CMSC with you. But I love the fact that you have all of this information here. And people can…
And I have research as well if any, if any, graduate students or students are looking, if you go, if you, if you click at the, the, the research tab I have like probably over 1000 PDFs, research publications organized by category for research go, go down one. Well, there’s my instruments.
If you go down one to research publications, yeah. See sorted by area of study. So, I have so actually here’s the thing, because I basically founded the field of self-compassion research, there are now over 5000 dissertations and public studies on self-compassion. So, I kind of felt that it was up to me to try to shepherd the field. So, what I did you can see is I created a database on my website where people could actually find out what has been done. They can click on it and get the actual PDF of the article, and I think that really helped research because people you know were able to see what’s been done. And, and I, I made it really easy for people to do research on self-compassion. And I think.
I love. I was just going to say I love the fact that you have different ways for searching for it, you know, the author.
Yeah, and I can tell you it’s a big deal. I update it twice a year, but now about 5 new studies come out every day, three to five. So, I, I may have to give it up at some point because it’s just getting beyond I have a graduate student, do it but it’s a huge project. But yeah, so that’s and then also really I make really freely available all my research instruments, including the, the translations of it, so that people can again to facilitate research. So that’s been my goal is to facilitate other people doing research on self-compassion as well as I’m. So, what happened in terms of. Why? Why? Why? Right now, I’m actually mainly focused on teaching self-compassion. In 2008, I met Chris Germer and he said, Kristen, I love your research on self-compassion, but it’s not enough because self-compassion is a practice. It’s a way of relating to yourself in a healthy, supportive manner. You need to figure out how to teach people to be more self-compassionate and I said I’ve never, I’ve never taught a workshop. What are you talking about? And Chris Grimmer, on the other hand, had been teaching mindfulness to psychotherapist for years, and we decided to team up, team up and figure out a training protocol to train people in self-compassion. And that’s, uhm, that’s really what I’m mainly focused on now and so we started the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion to train teachers to train our protocol, and now we do a lot of direct training. So, it’s really exploded and now this is primarily what I do, which is also partly why I took early retirement. And once I turned 55, I could still get health care. So, I took early retirement from UT Austin so I could focus really full time on teaching and writing. I’ve written like 4 books now. Yeah, four books, so yeah.
That’s a good summary and I should let the audience know that CMSC, I believe you and Chris Germer started this back in 2012, actually. So, it’s been around for a while, but I love the fact that there are so many resources out here and being able to find a teacher or a course you can search and actually go in and, and find all of these different courses that you could enroll in and take. So the resources tab I loved as well because depending on if you’re learning, training, practicing or teaching, you can go into here and find all of the resources that you’d like as well. So, tell us.
And interestingly, all of my graduate students, I gave them one of the benefits I gave them was training as a mindful self-compassion teacher and they all found it was actually led to careers. None of them actually have ended up in a research university, but they’re all doing things with self-compassion. So I mean actually, so a few of them are teaching, but either like teaching self-compassion, one’s doing it for a hospital, one has developed a the her whole kind of niche of teaching self-compassion to athletes. One is teaching mindfulness and self-compassion at, at the University level, actually took over my courses. One of my students, but is also teaching self-compassion in other areas. So, it’s really, it’s really, I’ve been very fortunate. The ability to integrate and combine research with applied work of really helping people, which is actually what I enjoy the most, you know, after a while the research gets a little old. I mean, there’s 5000 studies we don’t really. We know it works. It’s, I mean, at this point, it’s kind of the research is it’s marginally interesting, but it’s we aren’t really going to find out anything new as one of one of my friends, Mark Leary, said now the research is just getting boring at this point. It all shows it works. Let’s move on. Let’s move on to something else, which is basically, how do we help people learn to be more self-compassionate?
Well, speaking of moving on, I wanted to highlight your book. You have multiple books out there, but the screen should be loading here in a second and the book that I’m referring to is Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. So, I, I kind of ruined that. Let me do that again. Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. There you go. That’s a little better for you. So, tell us a little bit about the, the story behind developing the concept for this book and, and who obviously who the target audience is are, are the women out there but could I read it and take something out of it as well?
You absolutely could read it and take something out of it. So, my first book, Self-Compassion, is actually still my best seller and I’ve got a workbook. So that one. And then she look below, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, those two are the biggest sellers because they’re basically how to how to be self-compassionate to yourself. But really, about, about four years ago I, I started getting really interested in how gender role socialization impacted the expression of self-compassion. Right. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about biological sex and I’m not, I’m not talking about gender identity, whether you’re trans, I’m binary, cisgender, but gender role socialization. How people are raised to be boys and girls to turn into men and women. And there’s a few things that I saw. First of all, in the research, even though compassion is part of the traditional female gender role, women have slightly less self-compassion than men because they feel less entitled to get their needs met and the gender role socialization is so much to meet, have compassion for others, give to others people like you if you self-sacrifice but, you know, don’t get too uppity or meet your own needs, right? So, there’s that difference. And then I started being interested in these two different sides of self-compassion. So, what I’ll I like to call the tender and the fierce the tender side of self-compassion is about acceptance, acceptance of ourselves as flawed individuals doing the best we can. Acceptance of our emotions. It’s here, it’s painful, can we turn toward it and be with it. The compassion which is defined also as you alleviate concern with the alleviation of suffering, also requires action, right? We need to take action to fight against unjust injustice or to change behaviors, our own or those of others, that are harmful in some way. And so, if you think of these two sides of self-compassion, the fierce and the tender, what you also see is gender role socialization allows women or girls to be tender, but we can’t be too fierce. I mean, think Hillary Clinton or she’s too ambitious or, you know, an angry woman. People are less likely to believe an angry woman, they think an angry woman is crazy. But they’re more likely to believe an angry man, they think an angry man is passionate because men, on the other hand, are socialized to be fierce not tender. And and by the way, everyone’s harmed by this because we need to be both fierce and tender to be complete. It’s like Yin and Yang. Men are harmed because they aren’t allowed to be so in touch with their emotions. They aren’t allowed to be sensitive, and that actually reduces their emotional intelligence. It reduces their ability to cope with a lot of stress they feel because they aren’t given the tools of emotional sensitivity and acceptance. It’s, it’s not manly, right. Women on the other hand. And I think, and this is also linked to power because the patriarchy wanted, wanted women to kind of just comply and to go along the program and not be too uppity not to rock the boat. They weren’t allowed to speak up or to get angry or to really advocate for their own needs. And so, the the only reason I wrote the book for women it’s not because both need it, but it was just too much to talk about how socialization differs from people raised as men versus women, because they’re totally different. You know, for for men, it’s all the problems of not being able to be tender. With women, it’s all the problems with not being able to be fierce. So having said that, I have had a lot of male friends and also including some like nonbinary friends. It’s really interesting if you aren’t cisgender, then you really see how the gender role socialization impacts who you think you know, who people think you’re supposed to be so everyone can get something out of it. But it’s, it’s really written for women. And just also another thing is it rose out of the me, Me Too movement. I actually had my own brush with someone who was who’s kind of the mini Harvey Weinstein and seeing a lot of the women struggle with getting angry and just not, you know, kind of letting it go. And it was partly to, to talk about how women. If we claim our fierceness, our Mama Bear energy, we can speak up. You know, yeah, people may not like us as much. So what? I have self-compassion. I like myself, you know, so that’s probably what it was inspired by, you might say, it’s feminism meets self-help.
Well, there you go. A nice summary. Are you considering or has the thought crossed your mind to come out with another book called Tender Self-Compassion: How Men Can Embrace Their Tenderness and Not Be Ashamed?
Well, so I think Chris Gerber would be the right person to write that book or someone else, because I haven’t, you know, I wasn’t raised as a man, so I don’t have that. You know, I tell a lot of personal stories in all my books. So, I think I would, wouldn’t be authentic to me, but I hope someone does write that book because it needs to be done.
Yes, I agree. I was looking at some of your YouTube videos and I love some of the videos out there and you have quite a quite a few out there even recently you know some people do YouTube for a while and then they kind of shy away from it, not you. You’re consistently putting up new videos. In fact, you have one that’s actually scheduled to come out today called Discover the Power of Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff & Chris Germer, scheduled for today at 12:00 PM. And then you had some other ones here that are recent as well. Yeah, well, I. So, tell us how. Yeah, go ahead.
Well, so I do a newsletter every month and often I put out a little short video with that and I do a lot of media interviews. So, I have an assistant who’s my social media guru who posts all this stuff. So yeah, stuff is always coming out. Videos, interviews, podcasts and it all ends up on YouTube. I’m pretty active in the media because what happened is self-compassion really has become a movement. It’s kind of followed in the footsteps of the mindfulness movement. Most people are interested in mindfulness, realize that we also need self-compassion, you know, we need both the heart and the awareness. Both the two wings of a bird, so to speak. And so, it, this movement evolved that I kind of became the spokesperson, you might say, for the movement. I, I have a TED talk where I joke that I’m a self-compassion evangelist, you know, kind of my goal is to spread the good word that there is a different way to relate to yourself that actually make a dramatic difference in your ability to cope with difficulty and your happiness and well-being. And so, because of that, I do a lot of media interviews and I really see that at this point, you know, again, I’m still doing a some research right now I’m actually, my last thing I’m going to publish is I, I just published a review article which is huge in the Annual Review of Psychology, which you probably know is the highest impact psychology journal. But I’m going to revise the self-compassion scale. I’ve got all the data set, so I’m going to write that up, but then I’m pretty much just going to focus on the teaching and the writing books because other people can do the research at this point. It’s, you know, my, and by the way, it’s just kind of happenstance people say I love your work and I take it as a compliment, but what they really love is self-compassion. I’m the messenger. That lot of messengers. But it’s the message that sells itself. Self-compassion works. It transforms lives. It’s not like an abstract, theoretical idea. It’s something you can actually do. It’s a practice. Uhm, and I think that’s why it’s, it’s so popular because you can try it out. Anyone can just try it out and see immediately for themselves how it changes the way you relate to difficulty.
Well, especially in today’s world, you know, I always talk to, you know, the older generation usually thinks ohh, it’s changed so much for you young folk and, you know, all that stuff and it, it does generationally. That’s why we have these categories that kind of summarize or, or describe what people are going through today versus ten, twenty, thirty years ago. And there is a lot of pressure, especially with the, you know, while you were talking, I was sharing some of your social media, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and and we’ll put that up when we go live as well. But there are more and more people when I was growing up, we didn’t really focus on social media. We, we actually focused on interpersonal, you know, in person interactions, and now that you’re changing that, I’m probably rehashing the same old record, but it’s still true today that there it creates more self-doubt. And it and it impacts your self-esteem, whether or not you’re male, female, whatever gender role you, you follow it, it impacts you in today’s society.
Yeah, yeah, I know, for sure. And our adolescents are really, really hurting as a result. So, we do have a self-compassion program for teens that is a really good program, a lot of empirical support for it hasn’t, we haven’t found the way. We’re still working on it to get it out there to as many teens as possible. But umm, adolescence really needs self-compassion, because it’s just the pressures of having to live up and all the objective measures now you can’t have to really judge yourself whether or not you’re good or bad, or popular or not popular. They’re just it’s. It’s really painful, yeah.
I wanted to share the screen for the CMSC one more time because I I’d like to just hovering your mouse over the offerings and hear all the offerings that you can search for and, and kind of look at to find out what really piques your interest, and you just mentioned some other ones that you’re gonna be developing and adding to the offerings as well. So, I, I applaud you for for doing this. It’s, it’s the application of your passion that you actually following right now so.
Yeah, exactly. And by the way, it’s not just me. I mean, it’s not just me and Chris Germer. There’s a whole community of teachers, there’s thousands of mindful self-compassion teachers around the world and some of them have created these really great adaptations. By the way, I just created an 8-week fierce self-compassion course that’s being taught at the center so people who want to go more deeply into how to develop that skill. Now, mainly I teach short workshops. I don’t have the time to teach in-depth 8-week course, but there’s a lot of people who are and we teach a lot of those directly through the center.
While you were actually reading my mind, because I that was one of the things I was going to bring up next is that you do have that eight-week course and for those of you who want to visit the website, it’s actually a Fierce Self-Compassion Live Online Eight Week course and it is starting actually pretty soon March 6th to April 27th 2023, 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM Pacific Time.
But we we just just say you do need, you need to have some self-compassion training for taking that course. Either there’s some requirements just because it’s slightly advanced. You kind of need to know self-compassion before you dive into the fierce side of things like drawing boundaries or dealing with anger. But if you want self-compassion training that’s I’m also doing a, a core skills program which is like the basic skills with inside LA in April you can find everything I’m doing on I’ve, I’ve, I’ve there’s a lot of ways to find out what’s up with me. Just, just the nice thing is if you just Google self-compassion, you’ll find me. And that’s because I got in early so all the algorithms lead to me.
No, that’s good. So, you know, Dr. Neff, when you reflect on your academic and professional journey thus far and what you’re doing outside of academics and, and especially following your compassion in the application process here, what really stands out the most or surprises you the most? Kind of think back when you were in grad school, did you ever think that you’d lead down this road to this end result?
I had no idea. I couldn’t, couldn’t have possibly imagined that this would happen, that, you know, being in the position. I mean, it’s such a, it’s such a privilege. I’m so blessed to have had, I happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right experience to launch this field of study and it really you know self again, it’s not me, it’s self-compassion. Self-compassion transforms lives. So, it’s been such a privilege to be able to, you know and the, the empirical research was important. You know theoretically, I maybe, maybe I wasn’t a researcher. I could have just started teaching it but it wouldn’t have been taken so seriously. It’s like mindfulness. Mindfulness wouldn’t have been taken so seriously if there wasn’t the research to back it up. And the same with self-compassion. It wouldn’t have been taken so seriously if there wasn’t those 5000 studies backing up its efficacy. So yeah, it’s just, it’s mind blowing really. I’m just so blessed. Really, I am.
So, what do you love most about your job?
Well, so what I still love most. It’s funny. I’ve given gosh. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of talks on self-compassion. I never get bored of it. I love, again, I am kind of like an evangelist. I love spreading the word. I love telling people that they have this resource available to them, that’s actually not very difficult to just treat themselves with the compassion they already know how to show to their good friends or their loved ones. I just love being able to share this idea with others, you know, and, and the books and the courses, that’s all really fun. And the research is fun. The main thing I love is, yeah, spreading the word about self-compassion and seeing how sometimes even just hearing it, can make a shift, and that’s amazing. That’s amazing.
So, looking toward the future, what other things do you have planned for yourself? Any other goals that you have for the future?
Well, probably, I probably have at least one more book in me. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like. I think one thing that’s going to happen as I, since I’m not, you know, teaching at the university anymore and still doing some research, but as, as I move kind of farther away from academia, I think that will free me in a way to be able to say things that maybe aren’t directly empirically supported, right? So, maybe bringing in some more spiritual aspects of self-compassion because it’s a psychological mindset but there is also a way in which it’s a spiritual mindset. It’s about love and, and connection and realizing that maybe we aren’t as separate as we think we are, as our egos think we are. And I suspect they’ll start moving more into that direction as I move on in my career. To be determined.
Yes, definitely. We’ll definitely continue following you as well. One other thing crossed my mind, and one other thought crossed my mind, I should say, is for those students who are interested in psychology, but they’re not necessarily, you know, gung ho about staying in the academic world or academia, what kind of advice do you have for them? You know, sure, follow your passion is, is one thing. Anything else that you could offer?
Yeah, well, so. The, the thing I love about psychology and the thing I love about what I do is the ability to help people. The ability to change lives. Ironically, you’re not going to change as many lives if you’re a researcher. I mean, I was kind of fortunate in that my research happened to be in a niche that you know, and sometimes you do find applied applications of the research that makes a big difference, but realistically you’re more likely to be able to change lives if you are a counselor or if you are a social worker, or if you’re a teacher. You know, and so, I think, you know, if that really is your passion, helping people, changing lives, exploring how the mind works, the other big great thing about psychology is you always have to start with yourself before you can teach others about it or teach others about it, you have to explore your own mind. So, there’s a way in which what you do is also directly helping yourself. And there’s that interconnection between what’s going on internally and what’s going on externally in your work. It’s, it’s really a beautiful field of, field of work for that reason, right? Because you never stop learning about yourself at the same time that you’re teaching and helping others.
And it’s such a broad…
So, remember I tell, I tell most of my graduate students, I don’t highly recommend going into the field of research. For most people, it’s hard. It doesn’t pay well. It’s stressful, and most people aren’t doing work that directly touches others. There are exceptions. I don’t want to dissuade you if that’s your passion. It worked out great for me. But really having as PsyD or a master’s and going into social work or helping becoming a counselor, it’s really such an amazing way to, to change lives for the better, including your own.
And it’s such rewarding and it’s so, so broad. The field of psychology and, and outside of the academic word, people don’t even consider what you could do out there. And just like you, you found your niche. A lot of people, others, that I’ve had on the show found their niche as well. You know sports psychology, you could, you know, that’s another one that is relatively new in the field. And so, I, I encourage people just to do their research. And then follow your passion as well. At the end of most of our podcasts, we usually ask some fun questions, Dr. Neff, so I’m gonna ask you a few of them. One of them is. The first one is most challenging. And think about this for a second. Tell us something unique about yourself.
OK, so I was in a documentary called The Horse Boy. It’s kind of unusual for academic where we actually made a film about our son who is autistic, where we took him to Mongolia and rode from Shaman to Shaman. To get healing for his autism. You can find that on, you can buy it on I think, I think it’s on Apple TV right now. It’s called The Horse Boy. So that’s. Kind of different.
That is unique. That is unique. Tell us your favorite term, principle, or theory and why?
OK, so lately I’m very interested in non-duality. And it’s a, it’s a really abstract term which basically means the understanding that although normally we think in terms of subject and object as separate, there’s me and then there’s a world, it’s really an understanding of, uhm, at some level it’s all interconnected. So it’s, you can use, it’s not really one and it’s not really two, which is why they call it nondual. It’s not like everything’s the same. Things are different and changing. There’s a multiplicity of events, but at some level, if you go to the core of being, that beingness is one. And so, I’ve been very interested in the teachings of a teacher called Rupert Spira who’s a non-dual teacher. I suspect that this understanding is going to at some point start informing my self-compassion work not quite there yet, but. Yeah, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on lately.
That’s interesting. That’s interesting. Any other advice that you have for those who are the least bit interested in the field of psychology?
Actually, I think anyone who’s interested in psychology would probably do well by exploring self-compassion, because what self-compassion does is it allows you to turn inward in a safe way in a supportive way. And if you’re interested in how the mind works, you’re gonna, you’re going to bump into suffering, right. Because there’s, you know, it’s not all suffering but there’s a lot of difficulties in terms of how we relate to the world and so I would probably think my, my website may actually be a good place to start. Do a couple of the practices and just see, are you interested in this inward journey? I mean, there’s a lot of places you can start, but maybe another way of putting it, instead of doing self-compassion, start with yourself. Don’t, don’t go into psychology as like, it’s like, it’s not like math or physics. It’s not outside of yourself. It’s inside of yourself, so start exploring your own mind. Make it a personal journey and that will actually lead you to where you want to go in your field of study.
I like it, I like it. A final question. Fun question. If you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
Uhm, time and the money to complete one project? Well, I would love to have self-compassion taught in all high schools. In all professional training programs, I would if I had the time and the money and the, the willingness of the environment, I would love to really have this be everywhere as part of when you learn, when you know, when you learn, psychology, when you learn how to be a doctor, when you learn how to do whatever that you understand how to deal with the difficulties of whatever endeavor you’re going to undertake. And self-compassion is the way we deal with difficulty and struggle. So that would be my ideal dream goal, but.
Get it in the get it in the hands of everyone so they can learn more about themselves and and start that journey so.
You know. So, they can. And they can. They can help. They can. It really helps you cope with difficult emotions, difficult circumstances. It helps you deal is how you are with your suffering and suffering is what derails us. And so, when we know how to deal with it in a healthy way, then so much more becomes possible. So much more.
I like it. Kristen, is there anything else that you’d like to discuss or bring up on this podcast?
No, I think that was pretty thorough, so.
Well, I appreciate you taking the time. I really enjoyed learning more about your journey. I’m going to look at the website a little bit more. We’ll put everything on when we go live as well. Thanks again for being on our podcast.
Thank you. It’s been a lot of fun.