Expert Insights

Why Self-Compassion Is Key for Your Relationships: Expert

Kristin Neff is a leading self-compassion researcher and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. I spoke to her about how self-compassion affects how couples, families, and friends relate to one another, and why it’s so beneficial in relationships.

Self-compassion is the practice of soothing yourself in a kind, loving, non-judgemental way during difficult or stressful moments. Neff proposes it has three essential components — mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.

You can strengthen your own self-compassion with practice — Neff offers many self-compassion exercises to try in her books, including Self-Compassion and The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, and through training programs you can find on her website.

Why is having self-compassion important in relationships?

There are so many reasons.

One: relationships are one of our primary sources of suffering. So, so much comes up in relationships. It might be feelings — “Am I loveable?” — stress about conflict, feelings of insecurity.

So just at that level, because relationships are like this boiling pot where stuff comes up, being able to be compassionate to whatever comes up is a general way of relating to the stress of relationships. From that angle, self-compassion is really key.

But there’s another way in which it’s really important. I did some research on self-compassion in romantic relationships. What we did is we looked at couples and we measured the self-compassion level of each person in the couple, and we asked each person questions about their partner, like, “How intimate are they in a relationship? How controlling are they? How giving are they? How happy are you in your relationship?”

And what we found is that people who were more self-compassionate were described by their partners as being more giving, less controlling. People are happier with self-compassionate partners.

You might say that the more self-compassion flows inward, the more we have available to flow outward. 

Some people think it’s like a zero-sum game: “If I give myself compassion, I can’t give my partner compassion.” It doesn’t work that way. 

Let’s say if I’m in a conflict or something’s a bit challenging, if I’m judging myself, “It was my fault,” and I’m feeling inadequate, I’m going to be consumed by that and I’m also going to be kind of drained by that.

I’m going to have fewer resources to focus on you and what you need, because I’m not meeting my own needs. 

And also, I’m going to want you to meet my needs: “Why aren’t you being more compassionate to me? Why aren’t you giving me what I need because I’m putting it all on you to meet my needs. I’m not meeting my own needs.” 

So what happens in our own relationships [when we practice self-compassion] is that we start to meet our own needs.

It’s like, “OK, I’m upset. What do I need to calm down?” “I’m feeling badly about myself. What do I need to realize that I’m a human being trying the best I can in this moment?”

That’s the self-kindness thing. Asking yourself, “What do you need?”

Exactly, so what do you need?

And so the more I’m resourced — OK, I’m a flawed human being like everyone else, but I’m still worthy. My worth is independent. I’m worthy. I care for myself. I’m meeting my needs. If I’m stressed, for instance, I’m actually there for myself. — I’m going to have more resources to be there for my partner. 

And there’s another key thing that self-compassion does in relationships. One of the big findings of the research in a lot of different areas is that self-compassion fosters authenticity.

When our sense of who we are is dependent on whether other people like us, including our significant other, then what happens is we start changing the way we portray ourselves to the world. “Is this good?” Or, “Are they going to like me for this? Should I say yes so that they like me?” We aren’t really our true selves.

One of the things self-compassion gives is an unconditional sense of self-worth — again, that’s also in the research.

“I’m worthy just because I’m a flawed human being. I don’t need to go to graduate school to be worthy. I might want to go to graduate school, but I don’t need to do it in order to be worthy. I’m worthy now and if I do it, it’s because I care about myself.

This unconditional sense of self-worth — it’s not dependent on a partner’s approval or society’s approval — means that I can be authentically me.

And what we found in the research is that increased authenticity was one of the reasons people had better relationships.

Because when you connect with someone from your authentic self, not from the self you think they want you to be, you can have intimacy and authenticity — you probably know this — are really connected.

So that’s another way that it works.

And you feel loved for who you are. Even though you’re flawed.

Yeah! And maybe your partner doesn’t love something about you. And you might need to work that through, but your worth isn’t dependent on it.

So that gives you more strength and more ability to come into the relationship as a strong equal as opposed to like, “Ah you don’t like the way I dress. Well how should I dress?” 

Also drawing boundaries. That’s another thing it gives you. 

You can see self-compassion is limitless the benefits it gives you!

A lot of people aren’t able to draw boundaries because they’re afraid other people won’t like them if they say no. But when you like yourself, you’re safer, so it’s like, “OK, they might not like it, but this is really important to me.” 

The ability to draw healthy boundaries is also very good for relationships.

For instance another study we do with couples, we look at what happens if there’s a conflict in your relationship. Your partner wants to do one thing. You want to do another.

Do you tend to just give up your own needs? Do you tend to just say, “I want my way or else”? Or do you try to come up with compromise solutions?

What we found is that self-compassionate people were more likely to compromise. Because it’s like, “My needs are important and your needs are important. We’re both human beings. It’s not like mine are more important than yours, but they aren’t less important either.”

That ability to meet your own needs and care about your partner meant you were more likely to have healthy compromise.

People would talk about it like, “I always try to find a win-win solution if possible.” And so that’s really good for relationships.

Someone who doesn’t have as much self-compassion might not show their needs, just simply giving in to their partner.

Exactly. People with less self-compassion were more likely to subordinate their needs to those of their partner. 

More self-compassion meant more compromise solutions. So you were more likely to compromise win-win solutions as opposed to saying, “OK, I’ll give in.” 

How can people use self-compassion to make their relationships better?

When you’re more authentic, you’re more capable of intimacy. When you’re more intimate with yourself you’ve got more capability for intimacy with others.

To come up with compromise solutions.

It makes you less needy in a relationship.

You’re more emotionally stable with self-compassion, which is also good for relationships.

So there’s just a ton of ways in which it’s good for relationships.

Are there one or two critical times — like during conflict — where couples can practice self-compassion in a certain way?

Any stressful time in a relationship. Things happen. They’re difficult. They’re painful.

Having a way to cope with that pain through the process of self-compassion, and not being totally dependent on your partner to do it for you, it’s really useful.

Again, the authenticity — it’s really important at all stages of a relationship. When you get into one …

Right, even if things are good, right?

Yeah, when things are good, and when things aren’t so good.

There are so many levels on which [self-compassion is] good. For instance, dealing with empathic distress …

Like feeling bad because your partner feels bad?

For instance, there’s research showing people whose partners get cancer or have health issues — which can happen.

When you’re connected to a partner, you tend to feel their pain. And when you’re able to meet some of your empathic pain [with self-compassion], that helps you stay in the game and get less burnt out, for instance, by caring for an ill partner.

There’s so much, I could go on forever.

I know. It’s overarching. I see that.

What can couples, friends, or family members do to help each other practice self-compassion? Because it’s something you have to do for yourself, right?

The best thing you can do is to model it.

It’s interesting. If you start looking at what we do as human beings, often we criticize ourselves in front of others, hoping to get their compassion.

Like, “Oh, I’m such an idiot for doing that.” — You know?

And so that’s one way to elicit compassion, but you’re also modeling the best way to treat yourself when you make a mistake is to say, “Oh, I’m such an idiot.”

When you model self-compassion and you make a mistake, you’d say, “Oh, that hurt! Well, it’s human, we all make mistakes. What can I learn from this?” Something like that. Then you’re actually modeling the compassionate response. 

There’s a great research study called “Self-compassion is contagious.” When you speak self-compassion out loud, other people are like, “Oh! That makes sense.” 

But also again through our mirror neurons, through our empathy system.

Really?! People around you experience self-compassion when you express it toward yourself?

Yeah! So with empathic distress for instance, when we embody self-compassion, because of the way our brains are structured, mirror neurons and just a lot of the real estate of our brain is devoted to feeling the emotions of others.

Of course, we’re more empathically attuned to people we’re close to — like a partner. You can read each other, even if you aren’t saying anything out loud.

Saying it out loud is important, but just like when you embody self-compassion — when you’re kind of calm, when you’re open, you’re feeling connected, your demeanor is warm — then other people can resonate with your self-compassion.

So that’s another way you can help — is just by embodying it and then modeling it out loud.

There’s this culture of self-criticism. The culture of — we should beat ourselves up in front of others.

It’s starting to break that down, like, “Hey, that’s not helpful. It’s not going to help you to talk to yourself that way…. It’s about everyone’s needs getting met, including yours.”

You aren’t saying, “I’m perfect.” It’s not like you’re being narcissistic. You’re just saying, “Hey I’m a flawed human being trying the best I can.”

Like all of us. We’re all worthy of a compassionate response.

So you can say that to others you care about.

Yeah, absolutely. Especially like with your friendship circle, it’s something you can talk about and encourage each other. 

So this is another example. We taught self-compassion to the nurses and doctors at Delft (?) children’s hospital, which had a complete culture of self-sacrifice.

They’re dealing with kids with cancer. So it was always about cutting yourself down, ignoring your own needs. And we taught them self-compassion, which not only reduced burnout, but it also changed the culture of the hospital.

Instead of saying like, “How many shifts did you work?” it was “Hey you really need to take care of yourself, that’s really important.” And so people started talking about it and supporting each other in their self-compassion practice, and it made a big difference.

That’s the contagiousness, right? 

That’s the contagiousness, yeah. Changing the culture. Talking about it, but then also really embodying it.

Can you talk a bit about tender vs. fierce self-compassion?

The tender self-compassion is more the nurturing, like, metaphorically maternal energy, like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’re hurting. I’m here for you. I care about you.”

But I also like to talk about fierce self-compassion — the mama bear self-compassion. 

Because sometimes what you need, especially if your stress is caused by, maybe you’re in a toxic work environment, you don’t want to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you’re in a toxic work environment,” you want to say like, “Hey! This is not OK! I need to draw some boundaries or change.”

Standing up for ourselves, speaking up, again drawing boundaries is also a really important aspect of self-compassion.

People often don’t realize that. They think it’s only soft and tender. Not always. Think of a mama bear protecting her cubs. That’s not soft and tender.

That’s cool to personify those aspects of it. It helps me to imagine how that person or that mama bear would react.

Especially if we’re talking about couples, gender role socialization plays a role in the ability of people to experience fierce or tender self-compassion.

People raised as men — and I’m not talking about gender identity, just gender role socialization — are often not allowed to be tender.

There’s a reason why 15% of the people at my workshops are men, because they’re kind of socialized that that’s weak, or that’s a woman’s thing, or real men don’t do that.

That actually harms men, because we know that self-compassion is such a powerful coping resource. And if you don’t have that ability to turn that caring inward, that’s going to limit your coping resources.

People raised as women, on the other hand, they’re allowed to be tender toward others, but the norm of self-sacrifice means that women are actually a little less self-compassionate than men because they feel like they should always be focused on meeting others’ needs, not their own.

And then the fierce self-compassion can be more uncomfortable for people raised as women to be fierce, to draw boundaries, or to get angry if they need to assert themselves and be that mama bear — because we don’t like fierce women.

Everyone needs both. It’s like yin and yang.

If you’re too fierce, not enough tenderness, you’re going to be aggressive and striving and stressed. But if we’re too tender and accepting without making changes, we might be complacent. Everyone needs it like yin and yang.

But gender role socialization, it’s something especially in a relationship to be aware of — that it’s not going to be experienced the same way by everyone, depending on how they were socialized. 

So they might need a bit more permission to be tender. 

Yeah, so women may need a little more permission to get angry, for instance, and people raised as men may need a little more permission to be tender with themselves.

And it can be acknowledged. And we can have compassion for the fact that it’s difficult to have self-compassion.

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Science writer and founder of Relationship Smart. A bad boss once scoffed at her decision to study psychology, calling it "pseudoscience." She's had a chip on her shoulder ever since. This website is her response — because the world of our minds is real, important, and studyable. Relationship Smart is here to answer all your burning questions about relationships with scientific rigor and sensitivity.