What inspired you to write this?
Celeste Headlee: I had come upon a great deal of research into self-compassion as I was writing my book on how to have conversations about race and other difficult subjects. Self-compassion is required when you engage in that kind of conversation because it can be so exhausting, and it’s so easy to make mistakes in difficult conversations with other people that it can also be quite easy to come down pretty hard on ourselves and really punish ourselves when we screw up. We can think the worst of ourselves. So that’s how I started to come upon the research.
But frankly, the research into self-compassion relates to pretty much all of the work I’ve done not just related to conversation, but also to the work I’ve done with the book Do Nothing and my fight against our productivity obsession. Every single thing that I read about self-compassion made me want to learn more about this quality and how to foster it both in myself and how to help my friends and family foster it as well. It just became one of those things where I thought to myself, “Everybody needs to know about this.” So when I have that kind of feeling, that means it’s time to start writing.
Did you learn anything surprising from this project?
Celeste Headlee: This project was pretty much one surprise after another. Frankly, as a journalist, I go into all of this research with a skeptical eye. When I hear about how beneficial something is, I start to look for the downsides. So that was one of the biggest surprises: That I wasn’t able to really find any significant downside. I’m assuming that after we have the same decades of research into self-compassion that we have into other qualities that we will find some downsides or at least weaknesses, but so far, no.
Another thing I think that is really surprising to me is the level of self-hatred in your average American. Especially your average American woman. As I began to talk about this project with other people, I was really struck by how many people immediately said, “I need this. The voice inside my head is always yelling at me.” That was surprising, too.
If you could do it again, would you change anything?
Celeste Headlee: No. Although, I think that this is a subject that I’m going to continue to write about and dig into. I think there’s just a whole field of knowledge here and also practical experience in terms of figuring out what works for people in real life. Not what works for them in a therapeutic setting or in a laboratory, but how we can make this doable and practical for people as they’re going about doing everything else in their lives.
Do you have books or podcasts or other material you’d recommend for people who enjoy your work?
Celeste Headlee: Yes, absolutely. I have a number of books. I wrote another for Scribd called You're Cute When You're Mad about how to talk about sexism. I have a book called Speaking of Race which is how to have difficult conversations about race, but really it helps you have difficult conversations about almost anything. Frankly, that book is very much tied into self-compassion. The other book that's really tied into this one is Do Nothing. Do Nothing is all about letting go of this need to be constantly busy and productive and hacking your life constantly so that you're improving. It’s about sometimes putting a pause on becoming and just being. All of those are tied into this and would make a good next read for people.
You describe self-compassion as “bad ass.” Why does it tend to have a reputation for making someone seem soft?
Celeste Headlee: We have this idea in American society and a number of industrialist nations that the way to make someone resilient is by making them suffer. That's what tough love is, right? That is what so many of these reality shows that we see are based on: making people suffer. That somehow makes them tougher.
That is not reality. That's not evidence based. In fact, evidence and study shows that suffering makes you more vulnerable, not more resilient, but we have this idea that somebody like Mr. Rogers, for example, is not tough and not strong, certainly not compared to Rambo. But frankly, that is the same attitude that kept us from giving treatment to our returning soldiers who had PTSD for so very long. It's only been recently that we began to treat people for PTSD — something that they used to call shell shock during World War I. We thought that was somebody cracking up. But that’s what happens when you put people through violent, traumatic experiences.
So this idea that the toughest person is the one who can withstand the most punishment is just threaded throughout all parts of our lives. It’s also part of our productivity obsession, where we think that in order to earn success you have to work more hours and harder than anybody else. It’s just all completely wrongheaded. It’s not based on evidence.
In fact, the better you take care of yourself, the healthier you make yourself, the more resilient you are. It’s quite that simple. Because self-compassion is always connected with suffering. Self-compassion is about what you do when something has gone wrong and it is tough.
What would you say to someone who’s skeptical about the self-help/self-care/self-compassion movement?
Celeste Headlee: I would separate self-compassion out from self-help and self-care primarily because those two phrases have come to mean something different in our society than self-compassion. Self-compassion is a concept that has been around literally for centuries, since at least Buddha was alive and teaching students for the first time. Self-compassion is the root of compassion for others. Self-compassion is how we take care of ourselves in a way that is honest, and brave, and tough, and also realistic. Very realistic.
Self-help has come to be associated with this idea of constantly improving yourself. And that is very much not what self-compassion is about. Self-care has come to be associated with the idea of treating yourself. Going to the spa, getting a mani-pedi, buying a really awesome piece of clothing or shoes or whatever it may be. That’s what self-care means to a lot of people and that’s not at all what self-compassion means.
Self-compassion often doesn’t give you what you want. Self-compassion is concerned with what you need, not with what you want, and those are often two different things. Self-compassion is not indulgent. It requires that you look at your own weaknesses with complete honesty and a realistic view of what has gone wrong and how you might prevent it from happening in the future, but in a way that’s kind. Self-help is not always kind. Self-care is not always kind.
So to someone who's skeptical of self-compassion I would say, “Read the book, and when you’re done reading this book, then read more. Try it out.” I would say, “Let’s do it that way. If you’re skeptical, fine. Give it a couple of weeks and just give it a try and see if you feel any different. See if it makes any change.”
Celeste Headlee: I have really kept that concept of kindness in my head. I’ve spent my life with the voice inside my head being pretty harsh and very condemning, very insulting, and I have not been successful in sort of turning away from that voice or replacing it with a kinder voice. But I can speak back to that voice in a kind way. I can say, “Well, that’s not kind. What would kindness look like right now?” The idea of being kind because it’s so very distinct from being nice has really helped me.
What’s an easy first step towards developing self-compassion?
Celeste Headlee: The best thing is to take a self-compassion break, as outlined in the book. Just really quick. It could take 30 to 60 seconds. A very quick break to walk yourself through – “What does it look like for me to be kind right now?” That has been one that I do many times a day.
The first step is to just notice how mean you are to yourself. If you do nothing else, just start taking note. As I suggested in the book, keep your little journal there and actually note down what you say. One thing I have found is that when I have seen the language I use to myself written down, it's been horrifying to me to see how I speak to myself. We get so used to that voice that it fades into the background and we stop noticing how harsh we are. That easy first step is just start noticing how you talk to yourself when you make a mistake, when you drop your phone, when you forget an appointment. Just listen to what you say to yourself.
Speak to yourself like you would to a friend in crisis — with compassion rather than cruelty — and you’ll unlock the secret to lasting happiness. Journalist Headlee researched self-compassion with rigor and found that, far from making people soft, it makes them strong. This Scribd Original lays out the benefits and best practices of self-compassion so you can start treating yourself better today.
You can also read Headlee’s first Scribd Original, You’re Cute When You’re Mad.
Compliments based on a person’s gender can be just as damaging as overt insults. Journalist Headlee supplies practical advice for dealing with microaggressions and mansplaining in the workplace in this Scribd Original. “You’re Cute When You’re Mad” isn’t just for women: it’s for anyone who wants to create a more equitable and inclusive society.