To many, the term self-compassion evokes thoughts and images that are warm, loving, perhaps even feminine in nature: looking at oneself in the mirror, giving oneself affirmations, placing a hand on the heart, treating oneself with an attitude of acceptance and yes—love.
This is not so far off. Indeed, the above-mentioned strategies are in fact self-compassion practices—practices that have been shown through research to be helpful. But they’re only half the story.
The Two Sides of Self-Compassion
What might first come to mind when we think of self-compassion is what Kristin Neff & Christopher Germer—researchers, authors, and self-compassion experts—describe as the yin of self-compassion: “The attributes of being with ourselves in a compassionate way (1).”
The other side of self-compassion, the yang, is about acting in the world. This includes things like protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves (1).
Importantly, both sides of self-compassion are crucial for living a healthy life. Comforting, soothing, and validating ourselves is just as important as protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves.
It’s also important that these aspects be in balance with one another. Spending all my time comforting, soothing, and validating myself but taking no action in the world isn’t actually a healthy, balanced way to live my life. Nor is spending all my time protecting, providing, and motivating myself, but being unable to be with myself in a compassionate way.
This is why Neff & Germer use the symbol of yin and yang. Because it represents the complementary and interdependent nature of seemingly opposite things. The symbol, including a white circle on the black side and a black circle on the white side, represents the balance between the poles that exist within all of us.
Striking A Balance
This balance becomes very important during times in our life when we are experiencing pain or stress.
We all have our tendencies. Mine is the yang—taking action.
This was my approach to dealing with my low back pain. I believed for years that I could act my way out of pain. That if I just moved the right way, did the right exercises, and thought about it in the right way, it would go away.
While these things can be (and were) helpful for dealing with pain, something was missing. I wasn’t relating to the pain (read: myself) in a compassionate way. I was subtly battling it in my mind. I was making it my enemy.
The problem with this is that pain is a protective mechanism. So the moment we declare pain the enemy, we’ve lost. We’ve lost because we’ve declared that a protective mechanism in our bodies is bad. We’ve declared war on protection—this never leads anywhere helpful.
Things really started to shift for me when I started looking at the pain through a different lens. I started to see it as my body (read: my organism) telling me something. As I slowly put down my fists and began listening, I learned a lot. And things began to change.
I’m still learning just as you are. I still go through phases of imbalance of the yin and the yang. But as time goes on, I learn to have more compassion, and even gratitude, for my ‘missteps’, as they are ever-leading me toward a greater state of balance in my life by showing me the polarities.
This is one of the biggest lessons of the yin and the yang: it’s not just that the two poles balance each other, they depend on each other.
Indeed, this is true for all polarities in life. We wouldn’t know what happiness feels like were it not for sadness. We wouldn’t know what peace feels like were it not for chaos. We wouldn’t know what pleasure feels like were it not for pain.
To me, balance doesn’t necessarily mean staying centered all the time. A big part of it is trusting that things always balance out eventually.
Good luck out there,
Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thriveÿ ÿ. Guilford Publications.