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Have mercy

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Mucking around the internet in my constant quest for cool stuff about resiliency, I came upon the work of Dr. Kristin Neff.  I am adding her work on an important component of acceptance, self-compassion, to my list of research to follow along with Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positivity and Brene Brown’s shame resilience research.

Dr. Neff not only studies self-compassion in a scholarly setting, but has life experience to weave in as well. Her son, Rowan, has autism and her and her husband’s ability to accept, rather than resist, his diagnosis led to them discovering the healing powers of horses in his life. Their story is the subject of the book, The Horse Boy.

Neff believes that self-compassion is made up of three things:

1. Mindfulness

Rather than being tossed about by your own thoughts and feelings, holding a stance of merely being aware of them without passing judgment is a key component of mindfulness. How often do you find yourself frustrated or angry but unsure why? It’s because you are doing what most of us do: going through the day quite unaware of what we are really thinking or feeling.

Taking a moment several times during your day to stop and check in with yourself is a great first step toward mindfulness. How are you feeling? What are you thinking about? Breathe!

2. Common humanity

Ever feel like you’re the only one who is going through something? Maybe it’s a small thing like a bad habit or a more impactful experience such as having a special needs kid or losing your job. For some reason, it’s human nature to think we’re the only ones who have these problems. Realizing that we share everything from bad habits to special needs kids to job loss with other people puts us in the same boat and encourages mutual support rather than isolation.

3. Kindness

I vividly remember sitting in a grief support group listening to a man berate himself about what he “should” have done to prevent his wife from dying. “I should have known she wasn’t acting herself . . . I should have taken her to the hospital sooner . . . I should have . . .” he sobbed. Finally, one of the facilitators put her hand on his. He took a breath and looked at her. With the utmost kindness in her eyes, she said softly, “Have mercy.”

Self-kindness and sympthy toward oneself is a necessary ingredient to healing and self-compassion.

While the pursuit of high self-esteem is tenuous and has actually been shown to cause problems with competition and aggression, Neff says that, with self-compassion, “whether we’re on top of the world or at the bottom of the heap, we can embrace ourselves with a sense of kindness, connectedness and emotional balance.”

Takeaway points: Self-compassion is a part of accepting what is going on in your life and being kind to yourself about it. Mindfulness, the idea of common humanity, and kindness are components we can practice to treat ourselves more gently, a needed tool in our resiliency toolkit.

Is it easy or hard for you to practice self-compassion?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.