The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: An Interview with Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

Today I have the pleasure of bringing to you another renowned Psychologist who integrates the practice of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Christopher Germer, PhD. Christopher is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Arlington, Massachusetts and author of the recent book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.

He is a founding member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, and co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Christopher also conducts workshops internationally on the art and science of mindful self-compassion.

Today Christopher is going to talk to us about what compassion is and why our cultures suffers from a prevalence of unworthiness.

Elisha: What is compassion exactly and why do you think it’s getting so much attention lately?

Christopher: The Dalai Lama defines compassion as the wish for others to be free from suffering. That’s a little different than loving-kindness, which is the wish for others to be happy. We need to be in the presence of suffering to experience compassion.

Compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer).  When we’re being compassionate, we “suffer with” another. However, the pain isn’t usually overwhelming because it’s tempered by a deep feeling of mutuality. The sense of connection softens the bite.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation teacher, says the following about compassion:

There’s some sense of being wide awake and free. At the same time, there’s some tenderness that arises without any cause or condition. There is a deep-felt sense of being tender. Not sad in a depressed way, but tender, and somewhat delighted at the same time. There’s a mixture. There’s no sadness for oneself. Nor is there sadness for anyone in particular, either. It’s like being saturated with juice, just like an apple is full of juice.

In most religions, compassion for oneself is used as an example for how to be compassionate toward others.  For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Dalai Lama considers self-compassion as necessary for cultivating compassion for others. However, nowadays it’s often easier to have the tender feeling of compassion toward others than toward ourselves.  We’re likely to feel self-indulgent or unworthy the minute we offer ourselves the same kindness we’d give to another person when they need it. Ironically, we now use the feeling of compassion for others as an illustration for what it may feel like to be compassionate toward oneself.

Why is compassion getting so much attention lately?  That’s a complex question. As the Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj said, the single cause of most events is the “universe of causes.” From my limited point of view, however, it’s the science that’s making the difference.

In our culture, science is the arbiter of truth, for better or worse. Compassion has always been one of those invisible qualities that makes a big difference in our lives—like love, truth and peace—but now compassion is directly observable on brain scans.  Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin once promised the Dalai Lama to put compassion on the scientific map, and he and other researchers around the world have done just that. Compassion falls under the umbrella of “affective neuroscience.”  There are also many psychological studies underway right now that explore the emotional, physical, and psychological benefits of compassion, such as those at Emory University and the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University.

A humorous explanation for the current interest in compassion might come from Steven Hayes at the University of Reno: “The crazies are driving the bus!”  Erstwhile hippies are now senior researchers and grant reviewers at major organizations that enable this kind of research to be done.

Psychotherapy is another place where compassion is getting a lot of attention.  Buddhist psychology is reshaping the science and practice of psychotherapy in America, and compassion is a key component of Buddhist psychology.

Finally, it’s possible that the world is getting smaller with the Internet and we feel an urgent, global need for compassion—compassion for ourselves, for others, and for our environment. News of people who die in an earthquake or a mineshaft is felt within hours in our living rooms. The only way to bear all that suffering without fatigue and resignation is to keep our hearts open with compassion.

Elisha: Feeling unworthy, deficient or defective is so prevalent in our culture. What are the factors that have led to this?

Christopher: That’s an interesting question, and one that we probably need a whole lot more research to answer!

In our American culture, we’re taught we need to be exceptional to be worthwhile. Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion, likes to ask, “How would you feel if somebody told you that you were “average”—average looking, average intelligence, average talent?”  Most probably it would hurt your feelings. Perhaps we’d even add a few choice comments directed at ourselves, such as, “You’re so stupid!”  “What a loser!” “No one will love you.”

Feelings of disconnection and loneliness probably play a role in our feelings of unworthiness. About 60% of Americans—20% of the population—suffer from loneliness. And being alone in one’s own mind puts us at the mercy of self-critical thinking.  Anne Lamott once wrote, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.”

It’s an open question, though, if people living in other cultures suffer less than we do from feelings of unworthiness.  Asian cultures seem to have a more connected sense of self, but if the culture uses shame as a means of social control, then being alone might protect us from emotional injury.  Conversely, if compassion is emphasized in parenting and social contacts, such as in Thailand, then feeling connected to those around us is probably a good thing for our self-esteem.

Kristin Neff did some cross-cultural research and found that self-compassion—the opposite of self-criticism—was highest in Thailand, lowest in Taiwan, and the United States fell somewhere in between. That means that people living in an Asian culture—where people are less likely to feel alone than in the United States—might still feel unworthy, defective and deficient.  In all three cultures, however, Kristin and her colleagues found that high levels of self-compassion predicted greater life satisfaction and less depression. It therefore seems that no matter which country or culture we come from, self-compassion is still good for our mental health!

Thank you so much Christopher!

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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