Ph.D. candidate stresses importance of practicing self-compassion

By: Kirsten Handler, Community Relations Intern 

Girls Empowerment Network sat down with Marissa Knox, a Ph.D. candidate at UT-Austin, to discuss why self-compassion is so important and how it can help young women and girls navigate girlhood. Knox’s research specifically focuses on the role of self-compassion in body image and appreciation. The research she has conducted with Dr. Kristin Neff has shaped how our programming teaches girls to own their power, develop their self-efficacy, and address their inner critic.

So how did you first begin working with Dr. Kristin Neff?

I was interested in it from a very personal standpoint and found it to be the missing link my ability to have mental wellness and emotional wellness … It just kind of clicked that this was the secret ingredient to finding a way to find peace with myself and having a really loving and accepting relationship with myself. And so when I was applying to graduate school, it just aligned where I was able to work with her and learn more about myself  and about this skill that feels invaluable to so many people, especially young women who struggle with body image, which is another thing I struggled with in my own life.

It’s very difficult for girls, especially in middle school, to be confident in who they are. On that same note, what do you think is one of the biggest challenges that girls face? How can they use self-compassion to address that challenge?

It’s about learning to trust yourself when we’re receiving all these messages that we’re not good enough and need to buy this next thing, look a certain way, accomplish this next thing. (Self-compassion) goes against all those messages that say we’re not enough and we never will be. It’s about learning to trust in our own worthiness. It’s a lifetime journey, really.

Self-compassion gives us the tools to do that because it helps us remember who we are and what we care about. I think living with a sense of integrity and reclaiming what matters to us … is an enormous and empowering act of self-compassion. Instead of going along with what mainstream dominant culture says about self-compassion, it’s about what matters to us and what we can make the heart of our lives.

Dr. Neff suggests different exercises for self-compassion. To deal with those issues you’ve mentioned, which exercise do you find most helpful?

For me, it’s about listening to myself and what I need. One of the central questions of self-compassion is, ‘What do I need?’ We have to figure out, within our current capacity and access to resources, how we can go about getting what we need, giving it to ourselves and asking someone to help us with that … One of the most self-compassionate things I do as much as I can is be in nature. That helps me remember what matters to me and remember the perspective of common humanity and wholeness of life.

Can you explain why self-compassion is a better measure of wellness than self-esteem?

Self-esteem is really about evaluating ourselves in different domains of life. Often, those domains change from day to day — appearance, performance on a task … When we put our sense of worthiness and esteem and all of these changing variables that are out of our control, it’s a turbulent experience of our own self-worth. Because one day you feel like you look good and the next day, it’s different … 

Self-compassion is there for you even when you mess up or even when things are challenging. It’s about realizing, “I’m worthy of attention and time and energy just because I am there for myself when things are hard and when things are good. There isn’t a sense of uncertainty of when you can feel worth. You are already. It’s a much more stable and nourishing sense of yourself as opposed to self-esteem, which is just this kind of roller coaster.

At Girls Empowerment Network, we help to grow girls’ self-efficacy, which is the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals on your own and with what you have inside of you. How do you think self-efficacy and self-compassion support each other?

I think they support each other really well because self-compassion is there when we mess up. So when we make a mistake and we lead ourselves with compassion … it helps you reinvigorate your tenacity or willingness to try again because you realize mistakes are a part of life and you can do this. You remember your resources and your abilities, and then you’re not so afraid to make a mistake because you’re not going to beat yourself up when it happens. You’ll be there for yourself in a kind and forgiving way. And in self-efficacy, when you’re trying to believe in your abilities, there will inevitably be a learning curve when you make mistakes along the way.

Can you tell me how students can use self-compassion to deal with the daily stressors of student life?

What I really hope the next generation of students can tap into is the work Kristen Neff is doing on fierce self-compassion … having self-compassion in the sense she calls protecting, providing and motivating ourselves. 

For the stressors of school, it’s important to protect yourself from the threats that might be going on, whether that’s distractions, interpersonal conflicts, or habits that perpetuate further stress or difficult in you and your school life …

In school, it can be really hard to make time for the things that matter to us because we have to do homework, study for tests, and do whatever extracurriculars we might have. We have to make sure there’s time protected in the schedule for something that feeds our souls and honors your body …

Then there’s the part about motivating ourselves. In school, you need motivation to deal with the challenges of difficult subjects or relationships. Learning how to be there for ourselves in an encouraging way is an important part of self-compassion. Supporting other people can even be a way to be self-compassionate.

Finding ways to protect, provide, and motivate yourself in a really strong, empowered way is a piece of self-compassion that I hope continues to grow for girls in school.

Brittany Yelverton