DR CHRIS GERMER is a clinical psychologist, meditation practitioner, author and teacher of mindfulness and compassion in psychotherapy and everyday life. He is the co-developer of the Mindful SelfCompassion training program. Here AMIR IMANI continues interviewing him during a webinar for mindfulness practitioners.
Q: This practice of self-compassion never ceases to amaze me: how human it is. My own mindfulness or meditation journey started with one of my teachers in graduate school in Toronto walking us through this practice of loving kindness and self-compassion before starting the lecture.
Q: I remember those days when he would tell us, “On your way home, when you’re sitting in the metro subway, do this instead of just looking around. Get in touch with yourself and get in touch with the person in front of you. Give yourself some love, recognition, and offer them prayers, loving kindness and positive thoughts.”
I remember because it was just the crack in the wall; an introduction. I was amazed how he was changing my city.
The whole city had become a much softer place to live in. Citizens were warmer towards me, just because of this simple practice of returning to the heart and practicing with intention, practicing this as a skill.
I was reading your book and you said, “Holding oneself in this bubble of kindness is the most difficult thing. It is even more difficult than holding someone else in that bubble.” I wonder why. Is this the degree of separation from ourselves? Is this the depth of forgetfulness of ourselves? Even coming back to ourselves and being kind, we feel weak. When we start the practice we feel, “Oh, this is not for me.” Why are we like that?
CG: Well, that’s a profound question, for which there are so many different answers. I would like to give a superficial answer, and then maybe a profound answer. Actually, the profound answer comes from Hafiz.
The superficial answer is: It’s very hard to do anything for ourselves, because our culture says that kindness toward ourselves is selfish. In other words, although compassion is both inner and outer, only outer compassion is right, is legitimate, is okay. The problem is we cannot sustain compassion for others if we don’t have compassion for ourselves.
It’s very hard to do anything for ourselves,
because our culture says that kindness toward ourselves is selfish.
In other words, although compassion is both inner and outer,
only outer compassion is right, is legitimate, is okay.
The problem is we cannot sustain compassion for others
if we don’t have compassion for ourselves.
Another reason is that usually our nervous system is in a ‘threat’ state, and not in a ‘care’ state. And what selfcompassion does is it shifts the physiology from threat to care. So when you’re kind to yourself and you’re kind to others, starting with kindness to yourself, you’re actually moving your physiology from threat to care, as Phil Gilbert from the United Kingdom would say. But it’s not possible to be kind to ourselves in a sustained way if we are in a threat state. So we have to figure out how to move from threat to care.
Now comes the deep part, and this is the Hafiz part. Hafiz (translated into English by Daniel Ladinsky) wrote:
Admit something: Everyone you meet, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
He says, “Admit something: Everyone you meet, you say to them, ‘Love me.’” And it’s kind of true. You might ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I were less approval seeking, if I could let go of the wish to be approved of?” But not everyone in the world would like to be less approval seeking. Will it ever work? From birth we have needed to be loved in order to survive; we’ve wanted to be loved until the day we die.
We want to be loved, but this is the deep part – we have forgotten. And the reason we’ve forgotten is because it hasn’t worked, because our parents and our culture have said, “This is good, that is bad, this is bad, that is good.” And at some point we forget that we wish to be loved by everyone we meet. When we don’t realize that we wish to be loved, we won’t see in others that they wish to be loved. And when we cannot see this wish to be loved in ourselves and in others the heart remains closed. We are in a shade of fear.
Imagine what it would be like if you woke up in the morning and you knew that just as all beings wish to be loved so do I wish to be loved. Imagine! If you remember Hafiz’s words, when you go out in the street you’ll see in everybody’s eyes the wish to be loved. And what would happen in our hearts? Our hearts would be soft. We would feel care. We would feel kindness. We would not be so afraid and we would not feel so alone.
So this is an insight and a foundation for living our lives in a way in which compassion for ourselves and compassion for others becomes very easy.
Q: So we’re actually practicing something that we have forgotten. We are practicing to remember.
CG: To remember our loveliness. To remember our beauty and our wish to be welcomed into this world again and again, as we are.
Q: I do get from people that it sometimes feels very artificial. But it is okay to put intention into remembering, right? We are cultivating a skill.
CG: Yes, in the beginning it feels artificial. When we start to ride a bike it feels artificial, but eventually we can ride a bike very nicely. But we think that if it feels artificial then maybe it is not real. And that’s not correct, actually. Sometimes the truth feels like fantasy, you know. Like when people thought that the Earth was flat, that seemed true. Then when people heard the Earth is round, that felt like fantasy. But actually no, that was more true! It’s the same with love. The same with universal love. The same with self-compassion. It’s the most natural thing in the world.
What we’re learning to do with self-compassion is to remove the obstacles to compassion. And when we remove the obstacles, then natural compassion will flow. This is the path of least resistance. We’re learning to give up the resistance to compassion for ourselves, compassion for others.
Q: Wonderful. Removing the barriers to love, Chris, brings me to one of the questions somebody emailed me: “In your work you quote Rumi a lot. Can you please tell me, in deepening your understanding of compassion and self-compassion, how much have you been inspired by Rumi?”
CG: When you mention Rumi it brings tears to my eyes, because Rumi knows the path of love and he has found the language for it. Rumi, right now, is the poet. He is the most read poet in the United States. Rumi understands the path of love, without limitation, without ideology, without dogma. He understands. And this compassion, and self-compassion, is the path of love. Not only is it packaged in scientific language, it is very digestible for people in the modern world.
Q: That’s the genius of his self too: giving something to people, making such a thing more accessible to people. That is what I love about self-compassion: bringing the centuries-old wisdom into academia, into the business world, into everywhere.
CG: Yes, it’s a scientific excuse for love practice!
Q: Okay! Here’s another question from a psychotherapist: “How can self-compassion heal a broken heart? How can we use it with our clients? How can we use self-compassion with our clients suffering from feeling unwanted and rejected in a broken love relationship?”
CG: There are really two questions there. One is: How do we integrate this into psychotherapy and counseling? And the other is: How does it heal a broken heart? I’ll try to answer the first one.
So the way to integrate self-compassion into counseling is on three levels:
The first level is the personal embodiment of compassion and self-compassion by the counselor.
The second level is having a compassionate conversation, which literally means radical acceptance of the client as they are, with their suffering, with their grief, with their self-doubt, with their broken heart. Radical acceptance – that’s the relationship level.
And then the third level is the practices, like the Self-Compassion Break we did, like meditation. So in other words, clients can practice self-compassion for themselves.
But the most important thing is the embodiment by the counselor, because sometimes somebody just wants to be loved, wants to be appreciated before they can even begin to think. Warmth is necessary before they have space to solve their problems. Warmth creates space; space creates warmth. Sometimes we need the warmth to begin to open to what’s going on in our lives. So the most important navigation for a counselor is to bring this radical acceptance, this loving kindness and compassion to the person who is suffering. And that cannot be underestimated.
Sometimes therapists feel that the client is suffering too much, or it hurts the therapist too much that the client is suffering. Then we want to stop it by throwing selfcompassion exercises at the person to make it go away. This is not compassion; it is not self-compassion. The most important thing is the embodiment in relationship. Then, when the client feels ready and willing, and wants to practice for themselves, they can do it.
And when they do practice for themselves, they are giving themselves the hands that are reaching out to the world to have their needs met – the need to be seen, the need to be heard, the need to be connected, the need to be loved.
Then those hands that are reaching out can actually return toward ourselves, so we give ourselves precisely those things that we think we need and look for from others.
This is the great revelation or epiphany of the practice of self-compassion: a lot of our unmet needs can be met by ourselves. We can give ourselves the love we might have been desperately seeking over 5 months, 5 years or 50 years. And when people discover that, self-compassion becomes a permanent part of their lives.
This is amazing. It is like gold right underneath our noses that we have not yet seen. And usually it’s a broken heart that makes us see it for the first time, and that’s a silver lining. Sometimes suffering teaches us about self-compassion. And as a therapist we want to go slow, we want to invite a person into self-compassion, but we want to do it through our compassion.
Warmth is necessary before they have space to solve their problems.
Warmth creates space; space creates warmth.
Sometimes we need the warmth to begin to open to what’s going on in our lives.
So the most important navigation for a counselor is to bring this radical acceptance,
this loving kindness and compassion to the person who is suffering.
And that cannot be underestimated.
Q: Awesome. What is the difference between self-compassion and self-confidence? Doesn’t self-compassion lead to being careless about others?
CG: There are a lot of important issues in that question. Self-confidence is often related to a sense of self-worth. And our sense of self-worth can come from two main sources.
Typically, self-worth comes from how we compare ourselves to others. So if I am a good student in school then I have high self-worth. But if the same person who is a good student in school is very bad in sports, then they have low self-worth. So, our self-worth often depends on our external circumstances and how we compare ourselves to others.
That’s what’s called contingent self-worth, based on social comparison.
But there’s another kind of self-worth that comes from kindness. And so when I suffer or fail, if I respond with kindness I develop self-worth through love. And this is more stable, more resilient, and you can take it with you everywhere.
Self-worth that depends on social comparison is very fragile. Self-worth that is based on self-kindness and self-compassion is stable.
And when we have self-worth based on self-kindness we are kinder to others. When we have self-worth based on comparison with others, we may do some very nasty things, like bullying people who are below us. We may also become delusional about how great we are.
In other words, when we are completely dependent on external comparisons, we are unkind to other people and delusional about our own worth, whereas when our selfworth comes from kindness to ourselves, that kindness will naturally radiate out to other people. This is what the research shows: that people who are high in self-compassion are actually more compassionate toward others.
And when we have asked the partners of people who are high in self-compassion versus the partners of people who are low in self-compassion, “What is your partner like?” we find that self-compassionate people are not only more compassionate, they’re also less aggressive. They are more likely to collaborate and to compromise, and are generally kinder in relationships. People who are high in selfcompassion are kinder in relationships.
There is hope for everybody, because no matter how damaged we are as people from childhood, or whatever, we can all learn self-compassion. This is the good news.
Q: How different is self-compassion from mindfulness? Where do they meet?
CG: I consider self-compassion and mindfulness BFFs – Best Friends Forever. When we are truly mindful, we are also truly full of loving kindness, full of compassion, full of self-compassion. That’s when mindfulness is in full bloom.
But often our mindfulness is not in full bloom; it’s tainted by wishing that things were other than they are. It’s tainted by avoidance; it’s tainted by grasping; it’s tainted by confusion. When we say, “I’m mindful,” usually we’re only a little mindful. Usually our mindfulness is incomplete because of difficult emotions. When that happens, and we would like to increase our mindfulness, we often need to actively bring in compassion training. And this is how it works. So when mindfulness is in full bloom, it’s full of compassion.
We’d like to say, actually, that self-compassion is the emotional attitude of mindfulness; it’s the beating heart of mindfulness. But if you want to pull it apart and ask, what are some of the technical differences? What we’d to like to say is: Mindfulness is loving awareness of moment-to-moment experience. And compassion is loving awareness of the experiencer of the person.
So usually in the mindfulness tradition and the wisdom tradition, we’re breaking things down into moment-tomoment awareness. But sometimes we can’t. And when we can’t, because the sense of self or the observer is under attack, we need to bring in lots of love and kindness to the observer. For example, you can’t be compassionate toward anger or despair. You can only be compassionate toward a person who is suffering from anger or despair. So self-compassion is holding the person.
In a nutshell, what we say is: Sometimes we need to hold ourselves before we can hold our experience. And this is how self-compassion is integrated into mindfulness practice.
Q: Great. Chris, in my experience more and more people complain of not having time to practice. Can you give us some micro self-compassion tools for people who really don’t have time?
CG: Yes, here are three micro practices.
Practice One: Ask yourself in a kind way: What do I need? What do I need to comfort, soothe, validate, protect, provide, motivate?
Throughout the world, across cultures, compassion is actually directly experienced through soothing touch and gentle vocalizations. For self-compassion, soothing touch means to find if there is some way that a simple physical touch to your own body – somewhere on your face, your heart, or maybe giving yourself a hug – gives you the direct sense of being comforted and soothed.
Practice Two: Find for yourself a soothing touch, and do that when you’re in a moment of struggle.
Practice Three: Tender vocalizations.
So soothing touch, tender vocalizations,and asking yourself, “What do I need?” are three micro practices that anybody can do. At first they might feel artificial, but we say, “Fake it till you make it.” First imitation, then realization.
Q: It reminds me of the line by the poet: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”1
CG: Yes, that’s self-compassion. She goes on to say:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
And the key word there, in my view, is ‘let’. You only have to let the soft animal of your body, because when we’re in a state of fear, we don’t let anything. Give ourselves permission. The body knows, the heart knows, the mind knows, and then all we have to do is say yes, and we will be healed.
Q: It’s so humanizing, this self-compassion practice. Returning to our humanness.
And it feels like a very integral part of the mindfulness practice: coming in touch with your humanness. Thank you, Chris. We had a wonderful time with you, illuminating and delightful.
CG: It’s just beautiful that you gave me this opportunity, and I hope it’s helpful. Thank you.
1 From the poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.
Interviewed by AMIR IMANI
Chris is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He is a co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion program, author of a number of books and a founding faculty member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion, Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School.