Fierce Self-Compassion - Standing firm while keeping your heart tender
Updated: Oct 11
When we think of compassion, qualities such as kindness, tenderness and nurturing are likely to come to mind. Another form of compassion can be called when we are challenged or threatened and need to stand firm. This form of compassion is what writer and researcher Kristen Neff calls fierce compassion.
Neff likens the two aspects of compassion to the complementary concepts of yin and yang. Yin or tender compassion is like a mother tenderly comforting her crying child.
Yang or fierce compassion is like a mother bear ferociously protecting her cubs from harm. It is powerful and courageous.
In her research, Kristen Neff has identified the three qualities of self-compassion as self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness of suffering. How do these qualities manifest in their ‘fierce’ or yang aspect?
Fierce self-kindness can be expressed in the way we protect, support, and motivate ourselves with kindness. It is about creating safe boundaries and having the capacity to be firm and say ‘no’ without developing a hostile attitude.
When we experience threat, anger can be an appropriate, self-protective response. With fierce self-compassion anger is directed towards injustice rather than anger at a person. We stand up for ourselves and for those who are under threat.
Some of us may have received the message that it is not appropriate to express anger. This may have happened in childhood, or it may come from well-intentioned ethical or spiritual principles. When we suppress our anger, or deny the relevance of anger in our lives, then we are likely to silence our own voices and lose the capacity to speak our truth to power.
In fierce self-kindness we allow ourselves to experience appropriate anger, and at the same time display the discrimination to understand the complexity of a situation and be able to navigate our way through it without causing unnecessary harm.
Common humanity, in its yin aspect, supports us to recognise that we are not alone, especially at times when we are suffering. When we acknowledge that what we are going through is part of the larger human experience, our sense of isolation is reduced, and the experience of suffering can be alleviated.
The yang aspect of common humanity empowers us to make change – in the name of love. If someone insults or disrespects us, instead of taking it personally, feeling undermined and disempowered, we can acknowledge to ourselves that no being deserves this kind of treatment. Then we are more likely to stand firm. We understand that it is not just about me; it is about humanity. We are able to defend our rights as a matter of principle.
Mindfulness of suffering in its yang aspect, allows us the clarity and wisdom to discriminate between what is and is not true. We are able to hold the awareness of anger, betrayal, and injustice without becoming overwhelmed by them. The fierce attitude of mindfulness exposes what is causing harm and calls out what needs to change. This is done with balance and perspective. We don’t avoid the situation, nor do we over-react. When we hold our pain with fierce-empowered-truth we can speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed. We can discern the short-term and long-term consequences of an action and make choices that lead to the greatest benefit.
Faced with threat or injustice, we need love in our hearts, so we don’t perpetuate a cycle of anger and hate, and internally we need to hold a ‘fierce’ attitude to protect, provide for and motivate ourselves.