This course describes the work of four pioneers who have brought the study and practice of self-compassion to the field of psychology.
The current psychological interest in self-compassion can be traced to the work of three pioneers in the field, two Americans and one from England. In the United States, Kristin Neff, PhD, has been instrumental in creating and researching the new clinical niche of self-compassion. She has been aided in this endeavor, especially in the cultivation of therapeutic interventions by Christopher Germer, PhD. In Europe,the lead has been taken by Paul Gilbert, PhD, both in research and clinical applications.
Kristin Neff, PhD
The field of the psychology of self-compassion in America is largely the brainchild of Kristin Neff.
Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department, University of Texas. Neff graduated with her PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997. She then traveled to the Far East where she spent time in India studying the ethical thought process of children. Upon returning to the US, her initial professional interests were the experience of authenticity and issues of self-concept. She spent several post-doc years at the University of Denver with self-esteem expert, Dr. Susan Harter. In 1999, she moved to her current post in Austin.
Neff first encountered the notion of self-compassion during the early years of her interest in Buddhism and mindfulness practice. She describes how, during her last year of work on her dissertation, one night at a Buddhist mindfulness class the teacher talked about the possibility of being compassionate towards oneself. Neff, who was going through a painful divorce at the time, had an epiphany of sorts. It had never occurred to her that she could apply the way she had been taught to be compassionate towards the suffering of others also to herself.
It was in her early years at the University of Texas that Neff decided to focus her professional efforts on the study of the psychological construct of self-compassion. In 2003 Neff published a seminal article on self-compassion, describing it in psychological terms. (Neff, K. (2003) Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself) In this article Neff offered her three-part definition of self-compassion (see Self-Compassion Lesson I) which has become the standard in the research literature. In addition, she compared and contrasted self-compassion to the self-empathy work of Judith Jordan, the efforts of earlier proponents of Humanistic Psychology, and dynamics of emotional regulation. ( see Self-Compassion Lesson I) But perhaps most importantly, she gives a thorough analysis of the differences between self-compassion and self-esteem, a psychological construct first described by American psychologist William James in the late 1800s. Self-esteem emerged as a popular psychological theme during the late 60s through the early 90s, when research began to question it as a construct. Neff offers self-compassion as a viable new direction that addresses many of the same goals as self-esteem but, she would suggest, without the pitfalls. In the following video, Neff discusses the advantages of the construct of self-compassion over self-esteem.
Neff emphasizes that research is needed to determine the validity and efficacy of self-compassion. In order to further that cause, Neff developed and validated the Self-Compassion Scale, which has become the standard in self-compassion research. Her own subsequent research has included studies of self-compassion as it relates to academic goals and academic failure, psychological functioning, personality traits, and resiliency among teens and young adults. See Self-Compassion Lesson III for details.
Neff considers herself first and foremost a person who has benefited tremendously in her own life from self-compassion. She sees her research as a way to document what she knows to be true from personal experience for the benefit of the larger community. In the following video, Neff tells the story of her own discovery of the possibility of self-compassion and how it has served her personally, particularly in her role of being the mother of an autistic child.
In 2011, Neff published a book for the general public, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Neff also writes a blog for Huffington Post.
Christopher Germer, PhD
More recently, Neff has teamed with another psychologist, Christopher Germer, a clinical instructor at the Department of Psychology, Harvard Medical School, and faculty member of the Boston-based Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Together the two have been developing a group-based intervention, “Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC),” and are field-testing it both on the East Coast and in Texas. (See their websites for particulars.)
Germer began his career in Psychology with a bachelor’s degree from Colby College. Like many of his generation, he then set off to travel the world, especially Asia. It was while living in India, studying indigenous mental health practices that he first became interested in meditation. He eventually returned to the US and enrolled in Psychology graduate school at Temple University where, in 1984, he received his doctorate. From there he moved north to the Boston area. In addition to his teaching and supervision activities, he began a private practice.
Living in New England, he soon found his way to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, where he learned Buddhist mindfulness practices (vipassana) and has been a committed practitioner ever since. He became a member of a monthly Buddhist psychology study group which later gave birth to the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Adding writing to his other professional activities, he is the co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (2005) and author of the recently published The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Dr. Germer is also the co-director of Harvard Medical School’s annual “Meditation and Psychotherapy Conference.” He brings a passion for the use of mindfulness in psychotherapy to his work with Neff on self-compassion interventions.
In the following brief interview of Dr. Germer by Dr. Ruth Buczynski, psychologist and a co-founder and president of the National Institute for Clinical Applications of Behavioral Medicine, Germer discusses the relationship between mindfulness, self-compassion, suffering and healing.
Below is from a description of the Mindful Self-Compassion course that Neff and Germer taught at Esalen Institute in February of 2011:
“This workshop provides simple tools for responding in a kind, compassionate way whenever you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. These tools are essential steps toward living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’ll be taught how to:
• Stop being so hard on yourself
• Handle difficult emotions with greater ease
• Motivate yourself with kindness rather than criticism
• Transform your relationships, both old and new
• Practice mindfulness and self-compassion exercises for everyday life
• Be your own best teacher
On the other side of the Atlantic, another self-compassion pioneer has been working in parallel with Neff and Germer. Paul Gilbert, head of the Mental Health Research Unit as well as Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby in England. He is a past president of both the International Society for Evolutionary Approaches to Psychopathology (1992) and of the British Association for Cognitive and Behavioural Psychotherapy (2003). Gilbert is a prolific author with over 20 published books and more than 100 academic articles. His books include:
The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life's Challenges (2009),
Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features (2010), and
The Compassionate Mind-Guide to End Overeating: Using Compassion Focused Therapy to Overcome Bingeing and Disordered Eating (2011),
Gilbert’s early career focus led him to become an expert on depression and the treatment of shame. A convergence of two interests, evolutionary neurophysiology, on the one hand, and Buddhist philosophy and practice, on the other, carried him further to his current professional concentration, exploring the neurophysiology and therapeutic effectiveness of what he calls Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).
Gilbert defines compassion as “the sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a motivation to alleviate it.” According to Gilbert, one underlying cause of human suffering is the different functionality of the reptilian and mammalian aspects of our brain. This inherited neurophysiology often results in inner conflicts between our emotions and our intellect. Gilbert emphasizes that an important point for clients to understand is that while it may be our individual responsibility to do what we can to regulate this conflict, the conflict itself isn’t our fault. We simply were born with it. For Gilbert, the good news is that there is help for this self-regulation challenge. Gilbert has found that when clients can really take in this truth, it significantly undermines their tendency towards shame and increases their openness to self-compassion. He further notes that according to Buddhism “training the mind … can liberate us from this brain that we inherit.” From Gilbert’s perspective, one that he says is increasingly supported by empirical science, training in self-compassion is especially important towards this end. With this in mind, he has developed what he calls Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) In his training manual, Gilbert describes CFT and CMT as follows:
“(CFT is an) approach (which) guides therapeutic interventions especially for the development of self-soothing and self-compassion. The interventions themselves are derived from many other therapies and include the importance of: the therapeutic relationship, guided discovery, Socratic dialogues, inference chains, function analysis, chain analysis, maturation awareness, behavioural experiments, exposure and toleration, mindfulness, guided imagery, expressive writing, and independent practice. CMT refers to the specific training and use of guided exercises to develop compassionate attributes of compassionate motivation, sensitivity, sympathy, distress tolerance, empathy, non-judging and non-condemning. CMT utilizes a range of exercises that focus on developing compassionate attention and imagery, reasoning and thinking, behaviour, and feeling. CMT refers to the specific ways/techniques we can use to help us experience compassion, and to develop the various aspects of compassion for self and others.” (p. 7)
Gilbert has been involved in several research projects exploring the efficacy of self-compassion interventions, including working with people with chronic mental health issues and those with eating disorders. See Self-Compassion Lesson III for examples of his research.
In July of 2011, Claudia Hammond, host of BBC’s radio talk show, “All in the Mind,” interviewed Gilbert and “Joe,” also a professional psychologist, who is a compassion focused therapy client of Dr. Gilbert’s, about self-compassion. To listen to the interview, especially, the first 11 minutes, click on this link.
It seems important to mention one additional pioneer in the self-compassion movement. Though her work does not take place in an academic setting, nonetheless Tara Brach, PhD, has had a strong influence on the field of self-compassion. Neff and Germer list her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha (2003), along with their own volumes, as one of a few recommended readings for those who take their “Mindful Self-Compassion” courses. Brach is a practicing psychotherapist but is perhaps best known as the founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C.
After completing a double undergraduate major in psychology and political science, Brach felt drawn in a spiritual direction. She began practicing yoga and moved into an ashram where she lived for 10 years. But it wasn’t until leaving the ashram and attending an Insight Meditation retreat that she felt she’d found her true spiritual home. Brach eventually entered a 5-year teacher training program with Jack Kornfield,PhD, leading to her starting the D.C. sangha in 1998.
Along the way, Brach also went back to school for her doctorate in psychology at the Fielding Institute. Her dissertation research explored the use of meditation in the treatment of addiction. Brach’s dual interests in mindfulness and psychotherapy have led to her remarkable ability to synthesize the two and to communicate about their integration to Dharma students, therapy clients, and clinicians alike. She defines her trademark of that synthesis, “radical acceptance,” as “recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.” Brach’s article “The Power of Radical Acceptance: Healing Trauma Through the Integration of Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy” (2012) describes her use of radical acceptance to treat trauma. Click on this link to listen to a Sounds True interview with Tara Brach on Radical Acceptance. To read an interview of Tara Brach by mindfulness expert Elisha Goldstein, including the theme of Brach’s latest book, True Refuge: Three Gateways to a Fearless Heart (scheduled for publication February of 2013) click on this link. Also see Self-Compassion Lesson I for links to two talks by Tara Brach on self-compassion.
Resources for Clinicians
Neff, Germer, and Gilbert, have all generously made available a wealth of resources for clinicians for free on their websites.
Kristin Neff’s website.
Christopher Germer’s website.
The website for Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind Foundation.
Tara Brach’s website also includes many free resources.
Website for Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.