Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff

The drama that just unfolded in the Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court is just one more example of why women need fierce compassion. Why feminine ideals of care need to include anger and resolve if we are ever going to stop being controlled by men. It took tremendous bravery and courage for Dr. Blasey Ford to tell the world about her memories of the humiliating and sexually aggressive way that she said Judge Kavanaugh violated her as a teenager. She has since had to go into hiding out of fear for her life. How many of us women have experienced something similar in a less public way? A narcissistic man who believes he has the right to sexually abuse us because he is empowered by patriarchy to do so.

How many of us have remained silent because we didn’t want to rock the boat or risk being judged for putting ourselves in a compromising position?

Largely as a concession to the #MeToo movement, the predominantly male Senate judiciary committee and Judge Kavanaugh himself (at least at first) did not try to discredit Dr. Blasey Ford or question her morality because they knew it would create a backlash. Instead, they portrayed her as a confused victim, to be pitied but not believed. What really struck me, however, was the demeanor of Dr. Blasey Ford herself. While she spoke with confidence when discussing her area of expertise — the psychology of trauma — at other times she spoke like a young girl who needed to placate all these powerful men so they would like her. This doesn’t undercut the courage she showed for being there — it was tremendous — but she clearly felt she had to be soft and sweet to be heard. And she was probably right. Imagine if she had shown her righteous anger at Kavanaugh for derailing her life, she indeed would have been discredited. She was allowed to show her pain at being victimized, but no more. Kavanaugh, in contrast, was celebrated by many of the male senators for being angry and enraged at being “wrongly” accused. It is this anger that largely led to his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

This is why women need fierce compassion. Compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering – that of others or ourselves – and can be ferocious as well as tender. These two poles are represented by the dialectic of yin and yang. Yin compassion is like a mother tenderly comforting her crying child. Yang compassion is like a mother bear ferociously protecting her cubs from harm. Traditional gender roles allow women to be yin, but if a woman is too yang — if she gets angry or fierce — people get scared and often insulting. Men are allowed to be yang, but if a man shows vulnerability he risks being kicked out of the boys’ club of power. In many ways the #MeToo movement can be seen as the collective arising of female yang. We are finally speaking up to protect ourselves, our sisters, our daughters and sons. Thank goodness.

Women need to fully embrace and integrate both tender and fierce compassion if we are ever going to free ourselves from patriarchy.

The three core components of self-compassion according to my theoretical model are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness of suffering. These manifest in yin self-compassion as loving, connected presence. Self-kindness means we soothe and comfort ourselves when in pain. Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open, accepting manner. When we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal. With yang self-compassion, the three components show up as fierce, empowered truth. Self-kindness means we fiercely protect ourselves. We stand up and say “NO! You cannot harm me in this way.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone. We don’t need to hang our heads in shame. We can stand together with our brothers and sisters in the experience of being harmed and become empowered as a result. Me too. And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth. We no longer choose to avoid seeing or telling in order not to rock the boat. The boat needs to be rocked. When we hold our pain with fierce-empowered-truth we can speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed.

It is challenging to hold loving, connected presence together with fierce, empowered truth because their energies feel so different. But we need to do so if we are going to effectively stand up to patriarchy, to racism, and the people in power that are destroying our planet. We need both simultaneously, as advocated by great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr.

We need love in our hearts so we don’t perpetuate a cycle of anger and hate, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path.

I am deeply saddened by the success of attempts to paint Dr. Blasey Ford as a confused victim who was somehow mistaken about what happened to her all those years ago. I hope that soon women such as her are allowed to be fully empowered. To temper their sweetness with steel. To call upon the strength and fierceness that is the birthright of all people. While it is crucial that we take action to change the political system, the first place to start is with ourselves. The next time we are at the grocery store with a rude check-out person, or in a conflict at work, or confronted with a difficult life challenge, we need to turn inward and call up both yin and yang self-compassion in a balanced manner. We need to learn to use caring force to change ourselves and our world. Now is the moment.

Dr. Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research and training. See www.CenterforMSC.org for more information.

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