In Self-Compassion, Neff makes a convincing argument for taking a compassionate attitude towards oneself rather than getting wrapped up in self-criticism and self-blame. She distinguishes these from self-esteem and self-pity, and shows that it does not have the problems that they do. Being self-compassionate means acceptance of oneself as one is rather than faking a belief that one is faultless. It does not mean no longer wanting to change and improve, and it does require seeing oneself as one really is. Indeed, Neff suggests that self-compassion can lead to change faster than self-criticism. One sympathizes with one's difficult challenges and one actively comforts oneself when struggling with pain, and so makes one's life easier, and doing this helps one accomplish more. While her claims do not have the status of scientific fact, Neff does site scientific studies to support her claims, and she is able to show a critical understanding of the flaws of the self-esteem movement. She is a tenured professor at the University of Texas as Austin in their department of Educational Psychology, and self-compassion is the main focus of her research.
Neff also practices it in her own life; she gives details of the ways that she has judged herself negatively in the past, and how she shows compassion for herself now. She explains how during her first marriage she had an affair, and how she left her husband for another married man, who then decided not to leave his own wife. She also talks about her experience as a mother of a son with autism, and the difficulty she has in coping with helping her son. She also discusses her relationship with her husband Rupert Isaacson, who wrote about their son in The Horse Boy; (a documentary with the same title was made of their journey to help their son).
The book contains exercises to help the reader increase their ability to be compassionate towards themselves. Neff argues that self-compassion improves people's abilities to flourish in their own lives and in relationships, in romance and sex, and at work. There is a companion website that has audio downloads of meditations people can practice in order to learn to be self-compassionate.
While Neff does not emphasize the Buddhist roots of self-compassionate practice, she does mention them alongside the scientific studies she discusses, and it is helpful to see how this approach has its origins in non-Western culture. While Western culture seems stuck between either being harshly self-critical or blindly self-praising, self-compassion provides an alternative which avoids the pitfalls of both. Neff also integrates ideas of mindfulness and breathing exercises into her recommendations; these too have been shown to be helpful in scientific studies, so the whole book can be seen as part of the trend of showing that alternative and complementary medicine can be brought into scientific psychology.
The book is performed by Xe Sands, whose voice is calm and slightly laconic. She makes listening to the unabridged version enjoyable. It is about 8 hours long.
Link: Neff's Self-compassion website
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York