The Self-Compassionate Mother - Happy as a Mother

The Self-Compassionate Mother

with Associate Professor and Author Dr. Kristin Neff


  • Defining Self-Compassion
  • Core Components of Self-Compassion
  • Self-Compassion and Gender
  • Self-Esteem Vs. Self-Compassion
  • Being Compassionate Vs. Letting Ourselves Off the Hook
  • The Necessity of Self-Compassion
  • Teaching Self-Compassion

If your best friend called you upset because her baby has a horrible diaper rash that she blamed herself for, would you hop on the bandwagon and agree that it was her fault? Or would you offer suggestions to get rid of the rash and remind her that it happens? If she lost her cool on her toddler, would you scold her? Or would you respond with care? 

Now imagine your own child has a bumpy red bottom or you are  the one who lost their cool, would you respond the same way? Probably not. Most of us can comfort and support our friends when they make a mistake but not ourselves. Dr. Kristin Neff is here today to talk to us about the importance of self-compassion and how we can learn it.

Defining Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is basically a mindset we can adopt especially in times of struggle,” Dr. Kristin Neff. 

Self-compassion is a set of skills we have to learn over time. Part of it is childhood. 

“If your parents were critical during childhood, it may be a little harder to learn. If your parents made you feel you were worthy and your needs were worthy, it may come easier,” Dr. Kristin Neff.

Most people find self-criticism easier than self-compassion, because when we’ve made a mistake, we usually think we’ve done something wrong. But if a friend told us they made the same mistake, we would naturally respond with compassion because our defenses haven’t been triggered. 

There is some learning here, but we know the “care” system for other people, so it’s not rocket science either.

Core Components Of Self-Compassion

Mindfulness is the first component of self-compassion. Mindfulness is our ability to pay attention to and acknowledge what’s happening. 

When bad things happen, we tend to deal with it in one of two ways. The first is the stiff upper lip. “I’m just ignoring this.” Maybe if we pretend it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen?

That’s actually not a helpful way to deal with things.

Our second tendency is to get lost in it. “I’m so horrible. This is so horrible. There is no way out of this.” That isn’t productive either.

“If you ignore your pain, you can’t give yourself compassion for it, but if you get lost in it, you also can’t give yourself-compassion for it,” Dr. Neff said. If we’re mindful of our pain, we can just be aware of it.

Since we’re aware of the pain, we can give ourselves kindness and support. This is the second component of self-compassion. 

“I call this Mama Bear compassion,” Dr. Neff said. “We’re really reparenting ourselves.” 

But there are two sides to parenting. There is the accepting mom who gives unconditional love during fits, tantrums, and watching Frozen seventeen times. 

And then there is the tough mom who has to enforce the rules. “Yes, I love you, and I don’t want you to cry, but no it’s not a good idea to put that toy in the light socket.”

We have to do this with ourselves too. One side of it is being kind and supportive of ourselves, but the other side is action based. It may mean putting boundaries in place, or doing other things we don’t want to to take care of ourselves.” 

The third component is community.

“We’re turning inward, but we’re remembering that everyone is imperfect, and everyone leads an imperfect life,” Dr. Neff explained. We know this but when something goes wrong, we tend to think that something is wrong, and it isn’t supposed to be this way. It’s like we assume perfection is the norm when we know it’s not.

Self-pity can seem like self-compassion, but it’s not. One day, Dr. Neff was at the park on a beautiful day with her autistic son. 

He sat on the slide not interacting with her or the other kids, and she started to go down the road of self-pity thinking she wanted a normal relationship with her son.  But because of self-compassion practice, she was able to cut it off.

She realized she was assuming that all of the other kids were not autistic, had no mental health problems, had no physical health problems, and no conflict in their relationship with their parents. 

And it just isn’t possible that on a playground full of moms and kids, she was the only mom with a challenging relationship with her child or that her child was the only one on the playground with any problems. 

“Being a parent is not about not having problems. It’s about having challenges and trying our best,” Dr. Neff said. It’s the same with being human. We won’t have a perfect existence. 

Self-Compassion And Gender

Compassion is part of the female gender role. “Women score higher on compassion for others than men partly because we’re raised from birth to be nurturers,” Dr. Neff said. “We actually have less self-compassion than men do, because we feel less entitled to meet our own needs.

Part of self-compassion is just learning to meet our own needs, and part of it is not basing our worth on other people’s opinions. “Am I a good mother? Am I thin enough? Am I pretty enough?” 

“No, my worth just comes from being human. When your baby is born you don’t say, ‘“Okay, after you graduate from Harvad, you’ll be worthy.’” They’re already worthy.

“Who does it serve that women get their self worth from being attractive for men and good mothers?” Dr. Neff asked.

That doesn’t mean you quit washing your face or feeding your kids. It just means you do it, because you deserve a clean face and your kid has to eat.

Self-Esteem Vs. Self-Compassion

Self-esteem is how we value ourselves based on how we measure up against set standards.

The three main sources of self-esteem for women are attractiveness, acceptance, and performance. “Self-esteem is like a fair weather friend,” Dr. Neff said. “It shows up for you when things are good but disappears the moment things go wrong.”

Self-compassion is about being human. You’re a valuable human. It doesn’t matter how early or late your kid started reading, that your house hasn’t been cleaned in three months, and you gained 20 pounds last year. 

You’re worthy anyhow. “Your goal is to be a compassionate mess,” Dr. Neff said.

Being Compassionate Vs. Letting Ourselves Off The Hook

“It’s again like parenting,” Dr. Neff explained. “There’s the saying, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ People used to believe a child needed harsh corporal punishment.” But research showed that corporal punishment yielded short terrm compliance, but screwed the kid up in a million other ways. They might feel unloved, unwanted, or have other mental health challenges.

It’s the same with self-criticism. It might yield brief compliance. People get through law school or med school, but it creates fear of failure, performance anxiety, it actually diminishes your ability to take responsibility. 

The research shows very clearly that accepting yourself creates less anxiety, they have less fear of failure and are able to learn from failure, and they’re more likely to apologize if they’ve done something they regret. 

Shame isn’t the best mindset. “It’s definitely not a get up and go mindset,” Dr. Neff said. And “Acceptance fosters change.” Because it isn’t compassionate to continue in harmful behaviour. You wouldn’t allow your kids to do it, so if you’re self-compassionate, you won’t allow yourself to do it either.

We have to build the secure attachment with ourselves we work so hard to build with our children. There is the rupture and repair theory of attachment with our children.

“You can do something wrong, but I’ll still love you.” We need to foster that in ourselves as well. There are types of therapy that are really based on self-compassion. 

The Necessity of Self-Compassion

When we practice self-compassion it actually relieves our stress, but when we replay our mistakes and criticize ourselves it keeps us in distress longer. 

Think about a small child. When the baby cries, you hold it. We can do the same thing for ourselves. Maybe put your hand on your heart until your body starts to calm down.

We’ve said that if we’re not practicing self-compassion we tend to respond to adversity either by ignoring it or getting lost by it. But if you’re someone who has ignored your stressors until now you may be afraid that if you acknowledge them, they will consume you.

Remember, this is where mindfulness comes in. Be mindful enough to acknowledge the problem, but also to know everyone has problems. It’s hard right now, but you’ll work through it.

Labeling your feelings can help. “I’m really angry, or fearful, or whatever.” Because if you think about it, if your friend was distressed, you’d say, “What can I do to help?” “Perspective taking is built into self-compassion which is one of the reasons it’s so helpful,” Dr Neff said. 

“Backdraft” is the fear of self-compassion. If we’re not used to letting our feelings out, self-compassion can feel like letting love and kindness rush in while the pain rushes out. “It can feel explosive,” Dr. Neff said.

If you’re one of those people who have kept your feelings closed off either because your needs haven’t been met or just for cultural reasons it can be the easiest way to deal with things, therapy might make it easier to start practicing self-compassion. “Because you want to go at a pace that is healing,” Dr. Neff explained.

Teaching Self-Compassion

One of the ways we learn is through modeling. If you model your needs don’t matter, and you should just say or do whatever to make those around you happy, that’s what your kid is going to learn. 

However, if you model that everyone’s needs are important, and we should look for a solution that makes everyone happy, your kid sees that.

Dr. Neff gave the example of dropping and breaking a glass. If you drop a glass, it shatters, and you start calling yourself stupid and lamenting the broken glass, your child learns making big mistakes—even one as small as breaking something—is a big deal. 

But if you break the glass and say, “Man, I really liked that glass,” then move on to cleaning it up, your child is learning that it’s okay to make mistakes and you need to take care of them when you do.

The easiest way to get started is that when you notice you’re criticizing in some situation, stop and ask yourself, “Would I say this to my best friend if they were in the same situation?” And if it’s not, change the way you’re talking to yourself. Tell yourself what you would tell your friend.

And physical touch can be really helpful too. Put your hand on your heart, your face, or your shoulder. Because this goes back to early childhood. This is how we communicated before we could talk, so it’s comforting.

Touch activates parasympathetic activity and starts to bring your heart rate down. It can also help to bypass the brain, because the brain is full of stories.

If this is something you struggle with and you need more support, you can resister for our Surviving Mom Guilt Workshop to learn how to manage the spiral of shame and guilt we offers experience as mothers including ways to kick mom guilt to the curb.

Kristin Neff is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion almost twenty years ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which is taught by thousands of teachers worldwide. They co-authored the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. Her newest work focuses on how to balance self-acceptance with the courage to make needed change.





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