A class assignment from my first semester at Langara in the Expressive Arts Therapy program. We drew names from a hat, and my book to review was “Self-Compassion” by Kristin Neff, Ph.D, a brilliant and moving account of how to love yourself more and be less cruel to ourselves when we open up to our hearts and take a more gentle approach towards ourselves and others.
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This book report serves to review my assigned book “Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind” by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. I wish to address its central themes, the book’s relevance to therapy, its target market, accompanied successes and author’s insight while additionally touching on my personal experience with self-compassion. “Self-Compassion” is a gentle mix of the theory underlying self-understanding and love, interwoven with elements of Buddhist psychology and step-by-step practical exercises that allow the reader to directly experience the beauty of introducing greater compassion into one’s life. By integrating Dr. Neff’s personal stories and anecdotal narrative, she brings to life the concept of tenderness, open-heartedness and generosity towards self.
It was during her doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley that she found herself inspired to delve deeper into this topic. Her work in this avenue was motivated by the breakup of her first marriage and the feelings of shame and self-loathing associated with this experience. In response to, and in an attempt to deal with her emotions, she signed up for a Buddhist meditation course, which introduced her to the concept of compassion for self and others. Neff herself was inspired to write this book in an effort to relieve herself and others from the chains of self-criticism. She realized that we each have the power to provide nurturing feelings for ourselves without having to rely upon others for our needs of “love, acceptance and security” (Neff, 2011. p8).
Self-compassion is defined as “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org). Neff elaborates on this definition, adding a dimension of common humanity. She notes, “Although self-acceptance and self-love are important, they are incomplete by themselves. They leave out an essential factor – other people. Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’, which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering” (Neff, 60). We do not exist in a bubble. Self-compassion starts with opening the heart and finding shared experiences with other human beings, recognizing our imperfect and difficult world that we live in.
A central theme of “Self-Compassion” is the three main components of self-compassion. These include kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Kindness involves being gentle with ourselves instead of paying attention to the critical voice inside. In one instance, Neff proposes the exercise of thinking of “an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate” (Neff, 16). This provides the perfect opportunity to extend our awareness by reflecting upon how close relationships would perceive us with love and acceptance. A personal favorite from the book, in addition to elaborating on kindness, is a self-soothing mantra from Buddhist psychology, which assists in dealing with negative emotions as we journey towards wholeness. Known as the “loving-kindness meditation”, it is as follows: “May I be safe, May I be peaceful, May I be healthy, May I live with ease” (Neff, 2011. p201). The power of this meditation to soothe the soul is evident in one’s practice. I have found that, in repeating this mantra in times of duress, I allow myself to sink into the comfort and placating nature of these words. In making peace with myself, this benefits my surrounding environment and the people in it that I share my life with.
This leads me to the second aspect of self-compassion; that of our common humanity. As individuals, we judge and evaluate ourselves according to high standards, comparing ourselves to other people and their accomplishments in a society that “stresses independence and individual achievement” through competition (Neff, 2011. p11). It is natural to feel insufficient or “not good enough” but through self-compassion, we learn to turn our attention inward, allowing for the acceptance of our faults and weaknesses, and the realization of our common humanity. Through kindness and understanding, we temper our inner critic and strive for personal learning opportunities and growth.
Thirdly, mindfulness comes into play when we learn to see clearly what is occurring in the present moment, recognizing our suffering and being present with our feelings. One of the most purposeful and useful exercises was the ‘compassion body scan,’ which is based upon a technique taught in mindfulness courses by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an expert in the field of mindfulness psychology. The difference is the addition of extending care and consideration to various parts of the body, along with “internal words said in a soothing, comforting voice like “poor darling, there’s a lot of tightness there, it’s okay, just relax” (Neff, 2011. p133). This added dimension of self-kindness and loving words is what made a discernable difference in my meditations – through talking gently to myself, I found my body entering a state of deeper relaxation and softness, countering any negative self-talk or stress. Mindfulness is a nice companion to self-compassion, helping individuals to notice when they are in pain, provide self- care and hold thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness.
Another common theme in this book is the important distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion; self-esteem depends upon our self judgement based on performance (success or failure) or other’s opinions of ourselves. Self-compassion comes from the heart instead of the mind. It does not attempt to define our self-worth, but rather comes from loving ourselves exactly as we are. Self-esteem is reliant upon our exterior world, upon our view of ourselves, and as such, it is at times out of our control – eventually we will be found lacking (at some point in our lives) in some capacity, and impact our view of ourselves in a negative way. Self-compassion, in comparison, comes from a perspective of our inner world. It centers us in the ability to find our value and worthiness in our inherent goodness of our being, recognizing that we all have strengths and weaknesses.
In terms of applications for this therapy, “Self-compassion” is well suited to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-compassion helps soften our attitude towards ourselves, in terms of finding alternate ways to relate to and love ourselves regardless of what we are going through. Feelings of inadequacy or inferiority can be quite damaging to our mental constitution, and learning to talk to ourselves in a kinder tone can aid in relieving negative psychological patterns. I would argue that this book is ideal for virtually anyone – for someone who wants to cultivate more positive emotions, a more joyful existence, or greater happiness in their lives. It is human nature to be judgmental and self-critical in our ego based society, and so Dr. Neff paves the way to seeing ourselves in a more positive light, well suited for a wide-ranging audience.
Kristin Neff’s focus on self-compassion is an influential and vital part of any therapist’s library. The importance of this approach for therapy is the benefit of emotional resilience – the development of a society that is less anxious and depressed. Self-compassion enables one to deal with difficult emotions, and to rebound from life’s challenges or obstacles. As a result, people with higher levels of self-compassion will be able to substitute negative emotions with positive ones, being able to make informed decisions and choices. Self-compassion also leads to higher levels of emotional intelligence, leading to better and more appropriate coping skills and the “courage needed to face our unwanted emotions head-on” (Neff, 2011. p124).
This book serves as Neff’s sole contribution as a published author; however, her companion website www.self-compassion.org is a valuable resource as it expands upon her principles and outlines practical solutions through guided meditations and self-directed exercises that are directly downloadable in mp3 format. Additionally, she includes an extensive list of recommended readings and alternative websites for expansion and deeper consideration.
Neff covers a variety of bases, providing such chapters as Self-Compassionate Parenting, Love and Sex and Compassion for Others, widening the scope of this form of psychological treatment and including our relationship not only to the self, but that of others. I particularly enjoyed the segments on self-compassion and integration with our bodies ie. Self-compassion body scan (Neff, 2011. P133).
In conclusion, my assessment of Neff’s book is favorable and positive. Personally, I found the assignment of this book to be perfectly timed. Having dealt with a very loud inner critic for much of my life, “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” has guided me to talk to myself with more love and acceptance. Having personally transformed my own experience through the practices and exercises in this book, I feel that this resource is most helpful and would recommend it both friends and family. I would heartily recommend this book to any counselling or therapeutic practitioner, especially for practitioners looking for a practical based therapy with multiple exercises that will provide them with content to work with their own clients.
Self-compassion is a gift we can give to ourselves and others. I am very appreciative of Neff’s worthy contribution and its beneficial impact upon my life. In my opinion, a follow up to this book would be “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions” by Christopher K. Germer, PhD. I look forward to reading it next in the evolution of my personal development and interest in nurturing greater self-compassion.
Neff, Kristin, PH.D. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity
behind. New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers.