Ep 286: Embracing Self-Compassion in Parenting

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Dr. Kristin Neff talking about how to instill a deep sense of unconditional self worth in your children.

As parents, we often focus on self esteem and trying to make sure our kids are confident, that they have things they're good at and excel in. But research shows that what we really need to teach our kids is self compassion.

Kristin Neff is one of the leading researchers and writers on the topic of self compassion.

She's the author of four books.

And she's here to share her personal story of developing self compassion while parenting an autistic teenager. Along with a set of exercises and strategies she has taught to thousands of people around the world.

Kristin, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Kristin Neff: Yeah. Thanks. Happy to be here.

Andy Earle: I am super excited to speak with you about your work, about your book and about the idea of self compassion.

Where did this come from? How did you go on this journey of researching this topic and teaching this to people? And where did the impetus come from for that?

Kristin Neff: It really started because I started practicing self compassion and it made a big difference. It was actually my last year of graduate school a long time ago, and I was stressed about, would I pass my dissertation orals, would I get a job.

And then in my personal life, I had also I'd gotten married young and divorced young and I was feeling like a failure in my relationship life. And so I thought I would learn mindfulness meditation to help me cope with my stress. And fortunately for me, the person leading the mindfulness meditation course talked about the self compassion that we need to turn compassion inward to support ourselves, as well as outward to support others.

And it made an immediate difference in my ability to cope with my stress and my feelings of inadequacy and it really helped me so much personally that when I did get a real job at UT Austin, I decided I wanted to research it. So the rest is history really.

Andy Earle: You talk a lot about how in so many ways how we beat ourselves up, or how we're so hard on ourself. And actually how that's not always helpful. And I think a lot of times as parents, we feel like that's our job. We've got to let our kids know how they can be better and give them criticism on where we see areas for improvement.

We're supposed to discipline them when they're doing the wrong thing and, reward them and praise them when they're doing the right thing. A lot of this book is almost re reframing a lot of things that I think a lot of us as parents take for granted as being self evident.

Kristin Neff: Yeah there's a big difference between harsh criticism and constructive criticism, right? Or pointing out clearly, okay, this could improve and saying you're a piece of crap, so when the self worth gets tied up in that, whether it's how we treat our children or how we treat ourselves, it's actually counterproductive, right?

So when our self worth is contingent on succeeding and not making mistakes. But then all that really does is it makes us afraid of failure, it raises performance anxiety, undermines our self confidence. And so there's a lot of research show that shows whether it's trying to motivate our kids or to motivate ourselves, that constructive criticism, encouragement, this idea of how can I help you?

What do you need? Let's look at what went wrong and how we might, do better next time. Not because you're inadequate as you are, but simply because I care about you, so that type of. That motivation that comes from care and the desire to support and help nurture, it's actually much more effective than just shame and blame.

And, those other things, which just distract us from doing the task at hand.

Andy Earle: And in so many ways, I think we internalize that critical voice from our parents and start to then turn it inwards on ourselves if it's repeated over and over again.

Kristin Neff: Yeah, but you can't just blame your parents.

It is true that if our parents were very critical of us or very self critical, we might have internalized this, but there are actually also some evolutionary reasons. So don't beat yourself up. It's the way we're designed to keep safe.

So when we're personally threatened, the first response is fight, flight, or freeze, right? We want to survive. So we turn the fight, flight, or freeze response inward, especially for the problem. And we fight ourselves, we think either it'll make us change so that we'll be safe, or maybe we'll criticize ourselves before others criticize us and we'll feel safe, or we flee into a sense of shame and isolation, or we freeze and we ruminate and we get stuck.

So these are kind of natural reactions. Now, when you're, when your good friend makes a mistake, you aren't so personally threatened and therefore you're able to draw on other systems like the care and support system, which is also natural, but tends to be more natural for in group members or friends or family than it is for ourselves.

It is a little unnatural. You might say it's not difficult. What we have to do is just get used to doing something that we're used to doing for others and give ourselves permission to be supportive with ourselves.

Andy Earle: That's not funny how sometimes it's easier to do for other people than it is for ourselves.

Sometimes I like to ask myself, Oh, what would I tell my friend if they were going through the same situation? And that's a good idea of what to tell myself.

Kristin Neff: And you can also consider what would be the impact on my friend if I use the same language with them that I'm using toward myself.

Yeah, probably not very positive. And yet the impact is the same on you. So most of us are not helping. Again when it's harsh, when it's cold, when it cuts at our own self worth, nothing wrong with honest assessment of, Hey, this isn't working out. We need to do something differently. But that doesn't mean that, I'm a failure, I'm horrible, I'm worthless, I'm no good. That really doesn't help anyone.

Andy Earle: What I love is you have exercises throughout the book, different role plays, different ways that people can start breaking down understanding what our internal voice is doing, and how to start shifting that and holding space for that.

Where did you develop these exercises from or where do they come from?

Kristin Neff: In about 2008, I met a colleague named Chris Germer. He was someone who had brought mindfulness into the psychotherapy world. And at that point I did a lot of research on self compassion. And he said, hey, Kristen, the research is not enough. You got to figure out how to teach people to be more self compassionate. And I had no experience in this. He, on the other hand, had some experience teaching people mindfulness. So we decided to team up and we created something called the mindful self compassion program, which is a whole series of exercises and practices to teach the skill.

And then later we adapted it. So there's a teen version of the program, for instance. There's a version for parents, there's a version for couples. There's a version for athletes. So it's a set of basic practices designed to develop the different skills of self compassion. And then you can tailor it depending on who you are or what your particular form of suffering is.

And by the way, if you're wondering why I'm talking about suffering, the word compassion in Latin... passion means to suffer, com is with. So it's really all about how we are with the tough stuff. The stuff that's Overwhelming or distressing. Are we with ourselves in a kind, supportive way or in a cold, harsh way? And the research is really overwhelming that if we're supportive, we're going to do better.

Andy Earle: So what does it actually look like to be self compassionate?

Kristin Neff: There's many ways we can do it. One way to be self compassionate actually, one of the most effective ways is to touch. And that's because the human body evolved to interpret touch as a signal of care. Parents with their newborn infants, before they learn to talk, the primary way we communicate care is through a certain type of touch.

And we know what it feels like, we know what it looks like. And putting your hand on your heart, giving yourself a hug, maybe holding your stomach or cradling your face, those types of gestures. It's interesting. We often do these naturally, unconsciously, when we're upset about something. We might go, Oh, put your hands on your face or something like that.

But when you do it intentionally with the intention to support and to demonstrate warmth and I'm here for myself. That could be very effective. It can also be tone of voice. Our internal tone of voice conveys so much. If we're like, harsh, cold, even if what we don't say is that bad, if our tone's really cold, we feel it.

Whereas if we use a warm, caring tone of voice, that can be one way self compassion is expressed. Language, of course, saying things that are supportive, the type of thing you would say to a friend. But there's also behavioral self compassion. Just saying, what do I need right now? For instance, deciding that what I really need is a nap may be a really powerful form of self compassion. That's often called self care, but those self care behaviors are part of self compassion as well.

There's really anything we can do to help support ourselves and to alleviate our own suffering and to not make things worse for ourselves, which is what happens when we blame and shame and criticize ourselves.

Andy Earle: You write a lot about your own life and your own family in the book, and also about your own son. And I wonder what you what you learned about self compassion through your own parenting journey.

Kristin Neff: I tell a lot of personal stories in the book. A, just to make it a more interesting read, but also so that people didn't think I had all my stuff together and I was perfect.

And I'm going to tell you how to be perfect. So I reveal a lot of my weaknesses and mistakes in the book, just so that people could understand that it really is about being human, right? We all make mistakes, we all do things we regret. And so parenting my son was really probably where my self-compassion practice really got tested.

I needed to be self-compassionate. My son Rowan, he's autistic and he got diagnosed when he was about three. And so at that point. I had about seven years of self compassion practice, that I've been working on and thank goodness. It made such a big difference.

So for instance, I knew something was up with him because I actually was a developmental psychologist and he was language delayed and his behaviors were odd. And so I knew something was up, but I wasn't sure. I didn't think it was autism because he made very good eye contact. He was very affectionate and I had the stereotype that he couldn't be autistic then, but then I got him evaluated and he was.

So a lot of the things. The thoughts and emotions that come up when you're a parent. And for instance, your child just gets diagnosed with special needs. It's there's feelings and thoughts you think you aren't supposed to have as a parent. Admitted, I was disappointed, that's not the plan I had signed up for.

I was really frightened. What does this mean for him? What does this mean for me? What's our life going to be like? All these feelings, also irrational. I was 35 when I had him. Did I wait too long? All these thoughts that come up. And so I knew because of my self compassion practice that I needed to first of all, just allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling. That's the mindfulness, to be aware of what I was feeling instead of just pretending I didn't feel that way. To give myself a lot of warmth and care, honoring that it was hard for me that of course I was scared.

Anyone would be scared in this situation. That I'm doing the best I can. I assured myself that I'd be there for myself that I would do whatever I needed to get the help I needed.

So the three components to self compassion, there's mindfulness, which I mentioned, there's kindness, but also a sense of common humanity.

And this is so key, and this is the difference between self compassion and self pity. So if I'd gone down the route of self pity, I admit I might have had moments of that, it's poor me, why me? Why can't I have a normal, unproblematic relationship with my child like everyone else?

But then of course, in my practice, you start realizing wait a second, Kristin, who ever said that parenting was like having an unproblematic, perfect relationship with your child? That's not what being a parent's about. Yeah. Not everyone has an autistic child. A lot of people do, but there may be other special needs or there may be personality conflicts or depression.

Raising a child involves difficulty and distress. That's just par for the course. Different ways, we experience it different amounts. We experience it, but no one has a totally unproblematic time with their child. Normal doesn't exist. So the moment I made that reframe and I remembered, okay. It's not just me. There's nothing wrong with me. Nothing wrong with Roland. He's just, different, but everyone's different. Everyone's unique. And so the more I could accept myself, actually, the more I can accept Rowan and his uniqueness. And I was able just to take a much more accepting constructive, supportive attitude toward the whole thing.

And that really helped so much. I can't even tell you how much it helped my ability to rely on myself. Like the more I opened up my heart to myself, I found the more I can open up my heart to Rowan and I'd really be there for him and accept him for who he was. And he's 22 now and he's turned out to be a great kid.

I think self compassion may have had something to do with it. He practices self compassion. He understands it. He's doing really well, he's autistic. So he has some struggles, social interactions, but he has this unconditional and really unshakable sense of self worth.

I think that came from this type of acceptance that he was raised with. He's kind to himself, he does criticize himself sometimes. And this is not because I told him to, this is just the fight or freeze reaction. It's interesting. I can see it in him sometimes criticizes himself and it's just like this instinctual reaction because he's scared and he's hoping he'll force himself not to be in a situation that's threatening if he's really hard on himself.

But then I can usually talk to him about it and say, remember self compassion, Rowan, you're doing the best you can. And then I'm like, Oh yeah, that's right. But then he can move to self compassion. Sometimes it takes a little reminder occasionally. But he's he's really a beautiful kid. Going to community college. He's doing really well.

Andy Earle: No matter what is happening in our family, in our relationship with our child, I think we look towards other families and say, oh, wow, they have it so easy. How come they got the kid that just doesn't do this or doesn't do that, is good at this. We can blame it on the circumstances of the situation, but I think what you're talking about is also what's powerful about starting to just understand the adolescent brain and realizing as parenting a teenager, it's, there's universal things that parents just deal with. And I think that was 1 of the powerful things for me about your book is just really thinking about how, yeah, every parent goes through some version of this.

And no matter how perfect other people's families seem from the outside or look on social media or something they just have a different set of situations that they're dealing with.

Kristin Neff: Exactly. And all parents need self compassion because it's hard to be a parent, right?

So giving ourselves support, forgiving ourselves for maybe the mistakes we make, learning from our mistakes as opposed to just shaming ourselves for them, which doesn't really help anyone. Opening our hearts to ourselves and the heartbreak that can come with being a parent. I think all parents should go to self compassion class because it makes such a big difference.

It's so helpful.

Andy Earle: You have an equation in the book, which is that suffering equals pain times resistance. Where does that come from?

Kristin Neff: Yes. So that's actually, I didn't come up with that. A Buddhist teacher named Shinzen Young likes to use that equation. But the basic idea is when we resist the reality of what is, like, when we fight and rail against reality, we don't want it to be this way.

It shouldn't be this way. What's wrong with me, what's wrong with other people that it's this way, it typically makes our suffering worse. When we fully accept this hurts it still hurts, the pain is still there, but we aren't making it worse by judging ourselves or railing against reality.

It's like when you're caught in a traffic jam. Yes. Unpleasant. Absolutely. But railing against it and getting super frustrated because you're caught in a traffic jam doesn't really help. It just makes it worse. And by the way, this is called resistance. And when we let go of resistance, we aren't saying we're letting go of the desire to change things in the future.

So for instance, if there's a situation that's harmful or not good, part of compassion, part of caring is saying, yeah, I'm going to do everything I can to make this better. If you can get off that freeway and take the streets home and not be stuck in that freeway traffic jam by all means, do it.

But if we don't accept the reality of what's happening right now, how are we going to change it in the future? So we have to accept this is what's happening now in order to have any shot at having the, not only the ability to change, but also to be in the good mindset for change.

If we're super frustrated and we're losing it, or we're really activated, it's going to be hard to make wise decisions about, first of all, what is possible to change and how, what's the best way to go about it. Self compassion gives us the warmth needed to accept our difficult emotions. If we just accept them without saying, I'm here for you, I'm going to support you, I'm with you every step of the way type of thing, then it might be too scary to accept the present moment.

But when we care for ourselves and we say, Hey, I care about you. I'm going to do my best to protect you, to help you, to encourage you, I'm so sorry this is difficult. That type of caring response, just like a friend would give us. actually makes it a lot easier to accept the reality of what's happening.

Andy Earle: I found that really impactful, especially since they're multiplied together. Yeah, you have some pain, but then you just go ahead and multiply it and make it way more suffering than it needed to be by the degree of your resistance to it. We just keep getting into those cycles of, Oh, of course this had to happen to me.

And why does it have to always be like this? And this is the worst day. And all of that, like resistance is compounding the pain, but also it's stopping us from just being present. And it's keeping us in a state of of disconnect with reality or with the people around us.

There's great exercises in the book, role plays you can do with yourself. And powerful stories and examples.

I highly encourage people to pick up a copy. The book is self compassion, the proven power of being kind to yourself. Thank you so much.

Kristin Neff: Can I mention one more opportunity as well? I've started something called the self compassion community. If you Google self compassion, my website, go to selfcompassion. org

It's a community. And it really helps when other people are saying they struggle as well and how other people help remind you and learn how to be self compassionate. I've got a lot of new practices and we can mentor sessions if you want some sessions with people that have learned how to be self compassionate.

We have book clubs, we have just a lot of information. We do have some talk about parenting in there as well. So if people really want to, the book's great place to start, but this is another way to learn self compassion if you just go to my website. Self compassion. org.

And I'm going to have Karen Bluth. I do these guest conversations with self compassion experts and Karen Bluth has done the most research on self compassion for teens. So she's going to be on there. And I'm going to have her record some videos. So it's a fun new thing I've just started.

It's a whole world of self compassion resources.

Andy Earle: I love that. I highly encourage people to check it out. Self compassion. org. Anywhere else people should go to follow what you're up to get updates from you? Or check out what you're working on next?

Kristin Neff: I have three other books and I've got a fourth coming out this fall called Self Compassion for Burnout.

My website talks about all those. The other thing people may want to know about is the Center for Mindful Self Compassion. This is a nonprofit I started with my colleague, Chris Grimmer. They teach the mindful self compassion program for teens.

I do workshops with them. So that's another really great website. It's centerforMSC. org. If you go to my website, it'll link to their website as well. So that's probably the easiest place to start. If you just Google self compassion, you'll find me.

Andy Earle: Wow. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. It's been really a great conversation. So enlightening. And I'm really grateful for you taking the time and sharing your wisdom.

Kristin Neff: Sure. It's been a pleasure.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Kristin Neff talking about the problems with self esteem and why, what we really need to teach our kids is self compassion.

Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Kristin Neff: If you're dieting because you want to be a worthy person and then you blow your diet, then it's, I'm a totally unworthy person. Why don't I just give up?

If your sense of self worth doesn't depend on people liking you or looking a certain way or getting certain grades, but it just comes from within, then that allows you to be your authentic self. Which is so important, especially for teens.

You can even say it explicitly. This has nothing to do with how much I love you or how valuable and worthy you are is unconditional. This skill can use a little work.

How can I help you?

With Rowan, when he was younger, he would have some real doozies of tantrums.

And I would just flood myself with compassion. This is so hard. I'm here for myself. I'm not alone. Parenting is hard for almost everyone. I'd be really present. And even in the midst of a really difficult experience, like a tantrum.

There was some peace to be found. The peace wasn't in what was happening. The peace was in my own mind and heart and how I was relating to what's happening.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts.

Thanks for listening. And we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr Kristin Neff
Dr Kristin Neff
Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin. Self-compassion researcher, author & co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion program.
Ep 286: Embracing Self-Compassion in Parenting
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