“Fierce Self-Compassion”

“Fierce Self-Compassion” August 25, 2021

When I am researching a forthcoming blog post, I typically draw on books that have been published quite recently. Books that are more than a few years old too often have statistics that are out of date, or cite “current events” that no longer feel relevant. But occasionally I make exceptions for books that I just keep hearing about. An example from a few years ago is Dr. Kristen Neff’s book How to Practice Self-Compassion. It was published in 2011, but I didn’t get around to reading it and writing about it until 2018. I just kept hearing—from multiple people in different parts of my life—how great Neff’s work was and how helpful so many people had found it. So I checked it out, and they were right!

When I saw that Dr. Neff was publishing a new book this summer on Fierce Self-Compassion, I scheduled this post in anticipation that her second book would also be of interest. And the good news is: it is an excellent book, and I look forward to sharing some highlights with you.

Before I dive into the details, let me give you a quick overview of how Neff’s pathbreaking work on self-compassion has evolved over the past two decades. Neff earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (with a focus on human development) from the University of California at Berkeley in 1997. During that final year of graduate school, she became interested in Buddhism, and has been a regular meditator since then. 

During her post-doctoral work and into her early years as a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, she became curious about whether it might be possible to apply the rigorous social scientific methodology she had learned in the academy to the personal benefits she was experiencing from her meditation practice. As a result, in 2003, she “published the first theoretical paper defining self-compassion, and created the Self-Compassion Scale that same year to measure it” (Neff 6). 

Part of  the reason I’m bringing up this historical perspective is that it can sometimes be helpful to pause and reflect on how quickly things can change. Although it seems obvious to many of us today that self-compassion is important—psychologically, emotionally, physically, and spirituality—the value of self-compassion was much less clear to most people twenty years ago. (I can definitely think of self-critical messages I witnessed or received in my own life that: “You need to be tough!” or “You are being too easy on him,” etc.) The good news is that times have changed at least in part, and the value of compassion and kindness have much more robust scientific evidence behind them. Back in the early 2000s, Dr. Neff “was the primary person conducting research on self-compassion. Since then, the field has exploded and now includes well over three thousand scientific journal articles, with new studies being published daily” (6). 

 In 2011, she published the first accessible version of her work for a popular audience in a book titled Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Now, a decade later, she has published a new book that takes into account additional insights since that time. This new book is titled Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. And while there is quite a bit in this book that is especially focused on women (all of which is of value to all), there are also lots of practices in the book beneficial to all regardless of gender identity.

To me, the title alone is worth the price of admission: Fierce Self-Compassion. There’s a powerful insight there: that the full spectrum of what compassion encompasses can include not only sensitivity, gentleness, warmth and the like, but also strength, power, forcefulness, and heartfelt intensity.

Along these lines, there’s an important quote from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that outlines the strength and power of love which has important parallels to the way compassion can be both tender and fierce:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

If we substitute the word “compassion” for the word “love” in Dr. King’s quote, we can see the similar dynamic Dr. Neff is pointing to with her ideas around Fierce Compassion

Similarly, Dr. Cornel West has said that, “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” Neff’s work on self-compassion, again traces a similar pattern. She points us toward the fullness of what compassion can do: it can help us tenderly take care of ourselves, and it can create a fierce commitment to do the work of justice, creating more compassionate systems and structures. I want to invite us to briefly explore each of these in turn.

Let’s start with ourselves. When physical distancing restrictions started in March 2020 due to the pandemic, I started leading a weekly meditation class on Tuesday evenings. That class drew frequently from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook co-authored by Kristin Neff and her colleague Christopher Germer. I recommend that workbook highly if you are interested in diving deeper into this work.

For now, I would like to invite us to experience two of the many practices from that book. The first one is called a Tender Self-Compassion Break.

Imagine a difficult situation in your life.

Then try saying to yourself, slowly and calmly, “This is a moment of suffering.” Just acknowledging and being mindfully present to what you are experiencing.

Second, try saying to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” Here the idea is to remind ourselves that we are connected to a common humanity. We all face challenges in our lives.

Third, try saying, “May I be kind to myself.” This phrase calls in the power of love and kindness. If you feel comfortable doing so, place one hand on your heart center and another hand on your gut (your solar plexus) or anywhere else that feels soothing. Say: “May I be kind to myself.” You can even try saying simply, “I love you.”

If these phrases we’ve been using don’t feel quite right, imagine that a dear friend is having the same problem as you. What would you say to that person, heart to heart, to soothe and comfort them? Now, can you offer the same message to yourself? (Neff 121-122, freely adapted in a few places)

I also invite you to pause, and try a five-minute guided meditation on “Tender Self-Compassion” led by Dr. Neff herself, available for free at https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations.

That Tender Self-Compassion practice may have seemed simple:

  • acknowledging when suffering is arising (“This is a moment of suffering”), 
  • reminding ourselves that all humans suffer (“Suffering is a part of life”), and 
  • setting an intention to be compassionate to ourselves (“May I be kind to myself.” “May I be peaceful and at ease”).

Yet, this simple self-compassion practice can create a significant shift to both health and healing in our experience of ourselves, others, and the world (24).

Now, what we’ve been exploring so far is the tender side of the self-compassion spectrum, the side that directs  our caring, kindness, and friendliness toward ourselves. So—holding that tender self-compassion as a point of reference, let’s begin to shift from tender self-compassion toward fierce self-compassion. One of the most common examples of what the shift from tender to fierce looks like might be the drawing up of some personal boundaries to help protect yourself from burnout:

  • “I really appreciate your asking me, but I can’t take on any more commitments at this time,” or

  • “I’m going to say no for now. I’ll let you know if something changes” or

  • “I would really like to help, but I need to take care of myself by saying no.” 

One advantage of the open-hearted transparency in that last example is that being compassionate toward yourself can give others permission to be kind to themselves about the reality of their own needs and limits (151). 

In that light, let’s take a Fierce Self-Compassion Break:

Think of a situation in your life where you feel your needs aren’t being met…. Once you’ve named your unmet need, let go of that difficult situation and just focus on your unmet need.

Then say to yourself, “This is what I need.” Give yourself permission to really own that this is really important to you, and that your needs matter. “This is what I need.”

Second, try saying, “I will honor my needs as well as the needs of others.” Both are important. “All humans have important needs,” and life includes receiving as well as giving.  

If you feel comfortable doing so, please place one hand on your heart center and another hand on your gut (your solar plexus) or anywhere else that feels soothing. Then try saying to yourself, “I will commit to fulfilling my needs as best I can.” Everyone, including me, deserves kindness, care, and compassion. 

If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that someone you really cared about was feeling unfulfilled. What would you say to this person to help them put in the time and effort to meet unmet needs? Now, can you offer the same message to yourself?

As we prepare to end this meditation, bring your attention again to the feeling of your hands resting on your heart and your solar plexus. Can you feel, at the deepest level, that your desire to balance both your own needs and the needs of others comes not from a place of deficiency, but from an abundant heart? (Neff 177, 257-258, freely adapted in a few places)

You may also want to pause, and try an eight-minute guided meditation titled “Protective Self-Compassion Break” led by Dr. Neff herself, available for free at https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations.

I am grateful that Dr. Neff has continued to explore the full spectrum of compassion. If we had more time, we could explore the many other practices in her book designed for motivating our work for social justice—and more. If you are curious to learn more, everything we’ve explored and much more are in her book Fierce Self-Compassion. There are also many free guided meditations online at her website, self-compassion.org.

For now, as I move toward my conclusion, let me address the most frequent criticism of self-compassion: that it is self-indulgent, narcissistic, or liable to undercut one’s edge, thus creating complacency. Of course, anything can be abused or taken to an extreme, but the good news is that this question is not theoretical. We have two decades of scientific research demonstrating that, for the vast majority of people, practicing self-compassion is much more likely to incline you toward health and healing than practicing the opposite (189). Or to phrase it in a fiercer way, Audre Lorde wrote that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (247). Self-compassion is one among many practices that can help us resist being exploited by systems of oppression.

Compassion and care for our self is part of what gives us the capacity to care for others. Compassion and care for others can get us out of our limited sense of self. And acting together with others can help us create systems, structures, and institutions that are more compassionate, and that can give us all the time and space to meet our needs. May we each live into the fullness of compassion for ourselves and others.


The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles

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