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Fierce Self-Compassion

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

This month I am running a Fierce Self-Compassion book club to read Kristen Neff’s new book on the subject. For anyone who is new to self-compassion, Kristen likes to say we have tender (yin) and fierce (yan) self-compassion.

Her initial work was focused more in the tender self-compassion. On ‘being with’ ourselves in difficult times with the same kindness and care as we would be with a dear friend who was going through something challenging. Most of us (particularly women) find we are much harder on ourselves than we are on others. If we spoke to our friends the way we speak to ourselves when we mess up, we probably wouldn’t have many friends left. And it can take practice to treat ourselves with that same warmth, patience and care we strive to give to others.

Due to our default mode network, our brain is wired for survival and threat detection rather than contentment. If we are alive, it’s fair to assume our ancestors were worry warts whose vigilance spared them the fate of being lion dinner. The scientists call this ‘negativity bias,’ and it operates closely with our inner critic. Most of us aren’t worried about lions these days, however, criticism of ourselves can activate the same level of threat in our nervous systems as lions once did. And we often try to keep ourselves safe by being hard on ourselves. The brain that was scanning for potential attacks now scans for personal inadequacies. When we criticize ourselves, we are both the attacker and the attacked, and it can be exhausting.

Kristen’s course gave me the awareness of how hard I had been on myself all my life, the awareness that others also feel this way and I was not alone with this problem, and tangible ways to learn to be kinder to myself. It was so simple, and so revolutionary. Her goal with these courses was to teach us to be with ourselves kindly, and deepen our relationship with ourselves by asking on the deepest levels “What do I need? What do I really need?”.

Her goal with fierce self-compassion is to reclaim our right to Mama Bear fierceness in pursuit of the same question “what do I need”, the wider question “what does the world need?” and learning to find a good balance between these two. Kristen references how the Marvel Comics writer Jack Kirby was inspired to create the Incredible Hulk after watching a mother lift a car off her baby that was trapped underneath it. She had come to realise that in order to realise the full benefits of self-compassion, we need to develop both its fierce and its tender sides.

Tender self-compassion harnesses the energy of nurturing to alleviate suffering, while fierce self-compassion harnesses the energy of action to alleviate suffering. Tender self-compassion, when not complemented by fierce self-compassion, is incomplete, and runs the risk of becoming passive and complacent. On the other hand, fierce self-compassion without the balance of tenderness faces the danger of being hostile, aggressive and/or selfish. When these are fully integrated, they manifest as caring force.

However, for those of us who are caretakers, either professionally or personally, we can often get caught up in “what does the world need” and forget to include ourselves in the same circle of compassion we so readily give to others. Women are often socialised to care for others, and studies have shown that it is a widespread challenge for women to learn to meet their own needs in the same way without guilt.

Highly gendered behavioural expectations are problematic in both directions. Women are trained from early childhood to “be nice” and give to others but not speak up or ask for too much, while simultaneously being socialised out of their anger or sense of entitlement. While many men have been harmed by a culture of toxic masculinity that shames them for being soft, sensitive or feeling vulnerable. I wonder what the world would look like if society gave men more opportunities to develop their more tender yin qualities, and women more avenues for embodying and developing their fiercer yan qualities.

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