mental health Philosophy Psychology

On Becoming a Compassionate Mess

A recipe for self-compassion and why it works: the key takeaways.

Self-compassion is good for us.

Kristin Neff is a self-confessed self-compassion evangelist. Self-compassion is a central construct in Buddhist philosophy, defined as the desire to alleviate one’s own suffering – and Neff has spent the last two decades investigating this concept empirically. As one of the first academics to conduct studies into self-compassion, Neff created the Self-compassion Scales as instruments for researchers, leading to a large volume of empirical support within the field of self-compassion research.

These are my notes from the conversation with Kristin Neff on The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos: Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Self-compassion makes it safe to fail.

“Why is self-compassion a more effective motivator that self-criticism? Because its driving force is love, not fear.”

Kristin Neff

Motivation of self-criticism is a motivation of fear. It might even work in the short-term, but it creates a number of unintended consequences – such as anxiety, fear of failure and the undermining of confidence. Failure is our best teacher, but how can we learn from failure if we’re afraid to fail?

A common behaviour associated with fear of failure is procrastination –one of our natural responses to threat. By practicing self-compassion you are shifting from your defense system to the care system. It means when you fail, you won’t desert yourself. It encourages us to pick ourselves up after failure, overcome procrastination and try harder to reach our goals.

Self-compassion beats self-confidence.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, then I can change.”

Carl R. Rogers – On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy

True self-compassion isn’t dependent on success or failure. The problem with self-esteem is that it is contingent upon success. We can fall into the trap of constant social comparison, which might lead to bullying ourselves and others. We all have strong intuitions about how to motivate ourselves to create better habits; and harsh self-judgement is a fairly universal one. But the research shows being hard on ourselves doesn’t deliver results.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resources we need as an alternative to self-esteem. It is not selfish or self-focussed. It’s not telling yourself lies to make yourself feel better, or seeking solace in self-pity. It’s opening yourself up to the truth. A core component of self-compassion is self-acceptance, which Neff describes as “tender self-compassion”. When self-esteem asks, “how am I different than others?”, self-compassion asks, “how am I the same as others?” Taking steps to acknowledge this common struggle leads to connection instead of isolation. Some suffer more than others and this also needs to be acknowledged, but we do all suffer. Being imperfect is part of the shared human experience and self-compassion encourages us to accept ourselves and our flaws non-judgmentally.

It slays our inner critic.

“The more compassion can flow inward the more it can flow outward…it’s additive. The more we give ourselves compassion, the more resources we have to give to others.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Try this thought experiment. Think about it your child (real or imaginary) came to you after making a mistake. Imagine the effect on that child if you shamed them instead of offering care, kindness and warmth. We have the ability as adults to be good parents to ourselves, even if our own parents didn’t happen to model that for us. When our inner critic is strong we are both the attacker and the attacked. Self-compassion helps us to feel safe. It looks for what is good for us, rather than telling us we aren’t good enough.

It gives us an ally.

What makes you weak versus what makes you strong when you go into battle? Combat veterans who were able to be compassionate to themselves about what happened when they were overseas were less likely to develop PTSD on returning home. These findings can be applied to all of us:

“For all of us, at some level, life’s a battle. What’s going to make you stronger when you go into battle? If the inner voice inside your head is an enemy, cutting you down, shaming you ‘I hate you’, ‘you aren’t good enough’ – is that going to make you stronger? Or is it going to be stronger if you’re an ally: ‘I’ve got your back’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘you can do it’, ‘how can I help?’ Clearly, having an ally inside your head is going to make you stronger than having an enemy inside your head.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Compassion has a fierce side too.

There will be times when we need to draw boundaries to protect ourselves and make the necessary changes to meet our needs. For example, in certain situations we need self-compassion to help us take action – to remove ourselves from the metaphorical firing line. We need it to support healthy habits and to find fulfillment in our lives and relationships. Whereas tender self-compassion encourages self-acceptance, “fierce self-compassion” cultivates courage. It helps us to move forward and put ourselves first.

“Imagine you have the ultimate compassionate coach, one who is very wise and knows what needs to change. The wise coach can help you decide what does need to change. The good coach is going to help you get there.”

Kristen Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

The goal of practice is simply to become a compassionate mess.

Like most things worth striving for, it takes practice. The first step is to give yourself permission to be self-compassionate – and remember to do it.

I like this as a reminder (although it’s not especially snappy): ‘self-critical shaming mess’ leads to hopelessness and inertia; ‘compassionate mess’ leads to care and motivation. Simply become a compassionate mess!

Compassionate Mess

The Recipe

  • Common humanity (replaces isolation)
  • Mindfulness (replaces over-identification)
  • Self-kindness (replaces self-judgement)
  • Actively give yourself kindness by choosing the right words and using a nicer tone.
  • Do a short mindfulness exercise and practice naming or acknowledging (validating) any pain or discomfort as you notice it.
  • Practice soothing touch by placing a hand on your heart or giving yourself a hand massage.
  • Display a quote by someone who has overcome tough times to remind yourself you’re not alone.

Read Kristin Neff’s own tips for practice here.


The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert (2010)

Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Self-Compassion to Speak Up, Claim their Power and Thrive by Kristin Neff (2021)

Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff (2011)

IMAGE: One Green Planet
Health and Fitness mental health Philosophy

In Praise of…Boxing

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Bruce Lee

Three years ago my mental health took a huge hit. In an act of desperation I forced myself to join the local gym. I was told there was a kickboxing class starting that Friday evening and so I went along to the first session. I must have felt nervous, but not about the activity itself. Oddly, I felt fairly at home with martial arts. Had I watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager? (No. There can never be too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Chinese traditions were given a lot of respect in my household growing up. On some mornings, usually on the weekends, I would come downstairs to find my Dad in the garden practicing Tai Chi. He talked to me about Taoism and introduced me to Bruce Lee. Many of us carry bad memories of P.E. lessons into adulthood. I was usually on the outside looking in when it came to school sports. Perhaps I felt restricted because of my gender; although my apathy for team sports is a more likely reason. I left home for London and immediately signed up for women’s-only Muay Thai. I had joined with a friend, but during one session we were instructed to spar with other training partners and I was taken aback by my disinclination to get involved. I remember thinking it felt unfair to pit one woman against another, as if the separation instigated by our patriarchal society wasn’t enough. This is how I rationalised my reluctance. When those classes stopped I still wanted to train, so I found a boxing club in New Cross. The impulse was always there, humming away quietly in my subconscious, but I didn’t find a club where I felt completely comfortable.

When I started kickboxing training in Oxford my motivation for anything else was zero. I was existing with little purpose. I seemed to have only two settings: intense irritability or emotional numbness. One day would bleed into the next. Then Friday would come around again and I would drag myself back to the sports hall for another kickboxing session.

I will try to describe the many ways my mind and body objected to this change in routine after being inactive for so long. In the beginning you feel sick and your limbs feel like lead. You worry whether you will get through the whole hour without crying, fainting, or starting an argument – or a combination of all three. Your head hurts and your eyesight blurs as you strain to concentrate. If you have experienced depression, or know someone who has, you will be familiar with the fatigue, flat affect, barrage of self-criticism and brain fog that goes with it. But you are so focussed on hitting the pads and getting the combinations right that the noise in your head quietens down. By the end of each session my brain fog had lifted.

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic stress manifests in the body long after the threat of harm has passed. Psychological trauma fragments the mind. Our bodies keep us trapped in the past with wordless emotions and feelings. This expression of trauma creates disconnections – within the mind, brain and body. Van der Kolk explains how trauma sufferers can heal by reconnecting their thoughts with their bodies, with one way being through physical yoga.

This mind-body connection is what sets martial arts techniques apart from other forms of exercise. Van der Kolk writes, “when our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.” Martial arts training reawakens the senses. A strong stance depends upon being grounded, both physically and mentally. It means paying attention to proper alignment and transfer of energy. It even gives physical expression to suppressed feelings. You learn to tolerate certain physical sensations, regulate the breath and work through strong emotions. Kickboxing exercised the traumatic stress I continued to hold in my body. I could harness the force of it and channel it into something productive and cathartic. It was possible to shift a lot of negative energy this way. As I grew in confidence I found my feet in other situations too. This discipline rewards you with courage and self-belief.

If you have spent your formative years or any significant time in the fight-or-flight response, then martial arts might come naturally to you. It suited me for this reason. It was a natural remedy for my hypervigilance. It sharpens ones focus and stops overthinking in its tracks. In the moment the only choices are to pay attention or be hit. I began to experiment with achieving a healthy level of alertness. Learning to relax my muscles minimised stress-induced tension, helped along by the pain-reducing release of endorphins. I worked through my frustrations during training, which had the added bonus of better sleep. Taking all your anger out on the pads leaves you with that walking on air feeling afterwards. Eventually it felt good to inhabit my body. It is also teaching you a new skill, and with continued effort and encouragement you start to see progress.

This became my one commitment. I never missed a training session. Back then I didn’t realise how restorative this discipline would be. All I knew was that it stopped my overthinking, but truthfully it made me feel alive.

This was my only reason for returning each week. The structure of a martial arts class is inherently social. Everyone was pleasant and respectful, but initially I was not in the right frame of mind for conversation. Having to talk to other people was an uncomfortable necessity. As my confidence grew this started to change. It turned out to be a training ground for interpersonal skills. Because pad work involves partnering up I began to open up to others, which reduced my self-consciousness. Each person had their own strengths and each personality revealed something about mine.

I missed my group exercise classes during lockdown. Since establishing my kickboxing routine, this was how I had maintained my wellbeing. With the gym closed I returned to trail running instead, adding the occasional burst of jump rope skipping. Meanwhile my gloves were hanging in the hallway gathering dust. In the spirit of acquiring new skills during lockdown, I coached the other members of my household in the four basic boxing punches (I was meant to receive piano lessons in return, but I never found the inclination). Watching them try it out for the first time gave me such vicarious enjoyment, my enthusiasm and energy soon returned. I am grateful for the opportunity to resume my own training recently. It has reminded me of why I gravitated towards martial arts in the first place.

What I’m about to say will almost certainly sound cliché, but with martial arts you reveal the inner demons you have left to fight. There is a reason why Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) is my all time favourite sport biopic.* Martial arts training is a mind-body therapy. It promotes trust and increases self-awareness – offering us a unique opportunity to heal.

*Ali (2001) comes a close second.

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Muhammad Ali