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Self-Compassion Expert Reveals Life-Changing Secrets

On a wise professor's advice to pursue her passion for self-compassion and make the world a better place, Kristin Neff took a leap of faith.
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If you don't know of Kristin Neff, you should. And if you do, you'll no doubt want to know more. Why? Because Neff, the world's leading self-compassion researcher, has developed a mind-altering prescription that just might change your life.

Neff, who conducts her compassion research at the University of Texas in Austin, would never indulge in such hyperbole. Neither would I, except the compassionate researcher's inspirational remedy changed my life -- no exaggeration. I was minding my own business -- practicing psychotherapy, teaching, writing articles -- and soon after finding Neff's heart-opening findings, I was not only going easier on myself, I was realizing my life's dream.

Turns out, Neff began researching self-compassion after her own life-changing experience. Before I go farther, it's worth pointing out that she and I are so similar there are even some points of confusion. We both blog for The Huffington Post, and we've both written books on the same subject with similar titles. Neff's new book "Self-Compassion" (not to be confused with my own, "The Self-Compassion Diet") reveals her personal and professional discoveries for all manner of positive change. If you're interested in changing for good, be sure to read this book and try each chapter's tried-and-tested compassion-enhancing exercises.

So Neff and I have a few things in common, but we've never met. Nor had we spoken until one thing recently led to another, and we got to chatting long distance about her and her new book. What follows are eight things you should know about Neff:


1. Self-compassion changed Neff's life almost immediately. Neff first learned about self-compassion in the late 90s, when she enrolled in a meditation class to deal with a deep sense of shame and self-loathing. "I was going through a nasty divorce and was a bit of mess," she says. "I had never considered that having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others." Long story short, the new divorcee found self-compassion to be so transformative, she did more than just make it her life's work: she and her now husband vowed to be compassionate 'til death do they part.

2. Before she dove into self-compassion research, Neff studied self-esteem. But after training with the leading self-esteem expert, the newly-minted Ph.D. concluded that the field of psychology had fallen out of love with self-esteem. "I realized that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem," she says. "Why? Because [self-compassion] steps in when self-esteem falls down, when you blow it, when you fail. That's precisely when self-compassion can help you: when self-esteem deserts you." On a wise professor's advice to pursue her passion for self-compassion and make the world a better place, Neff took a leap of faith. "I was unsure if it would be career suicide to study a field that no one in academia had ever studied, but I took his advice. He was right!"

3. She's not just a respected researcher, she's a real-life movie star. Neff believes the number of hats she wears on any given day is unremarkable, and yet, not all that long ago, this researcher, professor, writer, wife and mother took a professional timeout to star in a remarkable film chronicling her family's personal journey with autism (her nine-year-old son, Rowan, is autistic). Most remarkably, Neff is more than multi-talented, she's ever so humble.


4. She hates going to the gym, loves dining out with friends and maintains a healthy weight. Neff may look like a magazine cover girl in her book-jacket photo, but she's one of those rare women who maintains her weight without slavishly dieting and exercising. "I don't know any woman who's totally happy with her body," she says, "but I do try to appreciate what's good about mine." Health, not appearance, is what motivates this natural beauty to go for a walk, get enough sleep and generally take good care of herself. "I'm certainly not perfect," she adds, "but I feel fine with who I am."

5. She doesn't always practice what she preaches.Neff doesn't pretend to be perfectly compassionate. In fact, she's refreshingly honest about her all-too-human imperfections, like picking on her husband when she's irritable. But for Neff, self-compassion is always a life-saver, especially in dealing with her greatest challenge: raising a son who has autism. "Self-compassion helped me steer clear of anger and self-pity, allowing me to remain patient and loving toward Rowan despite the feelings of despair and frustration that would inevitably arise," she explains. "I'm not saying that I didn't have times when I lost it. I had many. But in those times I still had my practice of self-compassion to fall back on."

6. Practice makes ... bearable. When the going gets tough, Neff automatically gets a self-compassionate mindset going. When, for example, Rowan would throw a tantrum in a crowded airplane, the feel-good mother would automatically call to mind phrases from her favorite informal practice: "This is really hard. This is a moment of suffering. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need." For Neff, rehearsing kinder, gentler thoughts doesn't make an unbearable situation instantly better, but it makes it bearable.

7. Hate mail is all in a day's work. Expecting positive or neutral book reviews, Neff was initially surprised by the reviewer who threw her book in the trash. And yet, that one-star review and the singular piece of hate mail she's received reminded Neff that her message of self-love flies in the face of America's stiff upper lip culture. It's especially threatening, she's learned, to those who have, for whatever reason, shut themselves down emotionally. "Opening their heart and letting in all the fear they've kept out for so long is the last thing they want to do." Neff has to deal with the vocal minority who doesn't understand her book, but the overwhelming majority gives Neff's book five stars.

8. She can't think of a downside to self-compassion, but there are times when its downright impractical. "If you're a soldier in the middle of a battle, you aren't going to stop and tell yourself, 'This is hard,' and give yourself a hug." If there's a problem, she admits, it's that people get really excited about self-compassion then berate themselves for not being self-compassionate enough. Neff's best advice: "Don't beat yourself for beating yourself up."

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see Got a thing or two to say about any of the above? Please share in the comments section.