In Episode 18, I speak with Dr. Chris Germer, who is a Clinical Psychologist, Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, co-founder of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and author of several books on the subject. Dr. Germer unravels intriguing aspects of human behavior, his connection with India, the inspirations he derives from Indian contemplative wisdom, the founding of MSC, and disarmingly shares his personal story. To know more about his work please visit his personal site. You can know more about Mindful Self-Compassion by visiting their website.
In May 2019, I had a great opportunity to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts to meet Dr. Chris Germer. He was kind enough to invite me to his house for the interview. He took me out for lunch to a beautiful Asian place – I think it was Thai. I got to know a lot more than what I had read about him. A multi-faceted personality, who has followed his intuition to be who he is today. His travels to India early on in his career to starting the Mindful Self-Compassion training with Dr. Kristen Neff to where the future is taking us. No one imagined that we would be releasing this episode in the middle of a pandemic and protests. We need Self-Compassion more than ever and I am glad that we are able to release the podcast at a time when we need it the most. Dr. Germer talks about Mind and Life Institute, where I was supposed to be last week for the Summer Research Institute (SRI). Our SRI was held online, though we missed the in-person interactions and proximity makes a huge difference. I kept thinking about my conversation with him throughout. Offline we talked about many things – and was my love for photography and his camera, both of which are the same brands! The photo above was taken in his backyard. I hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I enjoyed interviewing Dr. Germer. He also gifted me a signed copy of his Mindful Self-Compassion Handbook, which I refer quite frequently.
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Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna
Transcription: Gita Venkat
Show Transcription >>
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. It’s an honor to have amongst us, Dr. Dr. Chris Germer who is one of the founders for The Mindful Self Compassion.
Dr. Chris Germer: A really important thing for men to realize is that when you think about leaders who really inspire you, they’re often people who are both strong and kind. Strong and kind. And that’s what compassion teaches us to do………….. Shame is kind of a sticky …as kind of a glue that makes a lot of difficult emotions sticky, including anxiety. Shame also makes anger sticky. You know, if you know anybody who’s angry all the time, really look for the shame, you know?
Nitesh Batra: Welcome, Chris.
Dr. Chris Germer: Thank you. Great to be here.
Nitesh Batra: So, one of the first things that we do in our interview is get to know a little bit about the person we’re speaking to, a little bit about their upbringing and maybe a role spirituality played in their life? So, if you can talk a little bit about that?
Dr. Chris Germer: Sure. Well, I was raised in the United States within the Protestant background. My parents were both European and in particular, my father spent nine years in India when he was a young man and brought some of that sensibility into the household. I remember hearing about the Dalai Lama since I was capable of hearing anything. My mother was always somewhat devout Christian and uh, I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70’s, and I first learned transcendental meditation actually in Germany in 1976. And then in the same year, I went to India for a year and working with the Bangalore National Institute of Mental Health, I had a chance to do, kind of a research project on indigenous healing methods in India. Ayurvedic and meditation and a variety of other practitioners and that just completely opened my mind. I also met many gurus, teachers, and was deeply impacted. And after that I went to graduate school and never forgot it. Actually, when I left India, my wish was a deep wish, it wasn’t even clearly articulated, was to bring some of the contemplative wisdom of the sub-continent to Western psychology. And when I got into graduate school after that year in India, I saw the need, you know. Actually, the very first patient I ever treated as a graduate student in clinical psychology had an anxiety disorder. And I didn’t know anything about therapy, but I knew something about meditation. So the first thing I did was..taught her how to meditate.
Dr. Chris Germer: I thought she would never return. As a funny side note, she did return and I started out the second therapy session with, “Would you like to practice together to review your meditation?” And her response was, “Well, if YOU need to.” So, she was further along than I was at the time, let’s put it that way.
Nitesh Batra: And that’s a good introduction. That’s a good story as well. Is that the reason why you went to do your Ph.D. in the same field or did anything else prompt that?
Dr. Chris Germer: Well, I’ve always been interested in clinical psychology. I also did some research in Germany and on schizophrenia and so forth. But my dissertation was on acceptance-based” treatment, which is now you could say, the new wave of empirically supported psychotherapy. At the time we didn’t really know all that much about mindfulness. So, I did a dissertation on the “acceptance-based treatment of test anxiety.”
Dr. Chris Germer: And when I got out of graduate school, I was technically an expert in anxiety disorders and also a pretty consistent meditation practitioner. And I’d also learned Mindfulness Meditation in 1977 in Sri Lanka. But I personally was suffering from public speaking anxiety and that dogged me for about 20 years. And that is in spite of meditating, in spite of, you know, doing everything that I knew as a so-called expert in anxiety disorders to alleviate the problem, I exposed myself to all possibilities for public speaking, so I’d lose my fear. I took beta-blockers, I went into therapy, everything you can imagine. Nothing worked until I learned “Loving Kindness Meditation” in 2005. And when I learned that, is when I actually also learned about self-compassion. That’s it. That was actually 2006 and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. And I’m doing less and less therapy because I’m asked to speak all over the place on this subject
Nitesh Batra: So, this idea of anxiety is one thing that has intrigued me about you, the whole notion of speaking in public. You were in therapy where you were speaking to people all the time, but going further back, was this a problem in your childhood as well, or do you think there was something that triggered it, that started it? The reason why I ask that is, figuring out that you have this particular thing, and searching for a solution for 20 years is a long time. So as someone who’s a clinical psychologist, how did the shaping of those 30 plus years of figuring out like, you know, this is something that I’m doing and I’m not comfortable with….and finally, yes, self-compassion comes in and helps you with the “loving-kindness meditation”.
Dr. Chris Germer: Well, the reason why I wasn’t able to address the problem in my view, was that I didn’t actually know what the problem was. I always thought public speaking was an anxiety disorder. And what I discovered is that it’s actually a “shame disorder”. And I think, you know, apropos child that I think I’ve always been a shame-prone person. You know, some people are more or less shame-prone than others. But in particular, in my case, I was trying to give talks in different places around the country on mindfulness, but I could hardly speak. So needless to say, that I felt rather shameful. You know, to me it meant that I was, you know, incompetent, fraudulent, and so forth. But I really couldn’t touch that whole side of things. It was just unacceptable to me,to think like that about myself. And the anxiety actually arose out of that fear.
Dr. Chris Germer: So what happened in my case was that when I learned “loving-kindness meditation”, which really means being kind to yourself just as you are, as an imperfect human being, no matter what the matter is, whatever you’re dealing with, what you’re experiencing or who you are, you know, we still deserve kindness. Everybody deserves kindness. And I was pretty good at actually giving kindness to others, but I was not so good at giving kindness to myself, particularly when I was engulfed in shame, when I thought that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. And indeed, I did think this because I couldn’t manage this public speaking problem. But the ‘loving-kindness meditation’ ironically, treated the shame i.e., addressed the shame, actually dissolved the shame without even knowing that the shame was there. This was one of the great insights that I had at that time.
Dr. Chris Germer: And there were a few other insights. One was that sometimes, you know, mindfulness is about loving awareness of moment to moment experience. But sometimes when emotions are intense and disturbing enough like shame, we just cannot be mindful in the midst of those emotions or mindful of those emotions until we are the first kind to ourselves. So, the take-home message there was, in order to hold our moment to moment experience, sometimes first we have to hold ourselves–ourselves as a broken, imperfect human being. And that’s compassion. You know, compassion is personal. It’s about one sentient being to another. But it’s also about how we relate to ourselves as a sentient being, as an entity, as a person. So that was new to me, to do kind of a U-TURN with compassion. To the same kindness that flows naturally towards others. To offer that to yourself was pretty revolutionary. And I only discovered that AFTER it dismantled my public speaking anxiety. That was amazing.
Nitesh Batra: So, to make it a little bit clearer, and from an understanding standpoint, a lot of people may not be able to distinguish what comes first, shame or anxiety. And if I understand it correctly, shame may be a precursor to anxiety and there might be many pickers as to anxiety. Is that a correct thing to think about?
Dr. Chris Germer: Yes, I think that’s correct. When it comes to social anxiety or performance anxiety, often there’s an element of shame that sustains it. You know, shame is kind of a sticky… as kind of a glue that makes a lot of difficult emotions sticky, including anxiety. Shame also makes anger sticky. You know, if you know anybody who is angry all the time, really look for the shame, you know, or somebody who’s grieving somebody for a long, long time, they often feel ashamed about how maybe they treated that person while the person was still alive. So, shame refers to an assault on the sense of self. Guilt means I did something wrong; shame means I am wrong. And that kind of self-attack underlies a lot of problems in life. And in particular, it seems to underlie a social and performance anxiety, at least it certainly did in my case.
Nitesh Batra: I think to a lot of people it is something similar but probably it manifests in different forms–public speaking for you. For someone else, it may be something else.
Now, I think I read somewhere in one of your articles you mentioned like the way you define compassion, that when love and suffering meet, love sustains and that’s what compassion is. And I think you go to that from Dalai Lama or I think you paraphrased it, somewhere along those lines. So, when the whole idea of self-compassion came in, and I would love for you for us to explain a little bit about the formation of the program of Mindful Self Compassion that you’ve developed with Dr. Neff and how did it materialize? Because it has taken the world by storm. It has gone in almost every part of the world. So that’s something we would be really interested in listening about.
Dr. Chris Germer: Yeah. Thank you for asking. So, Kristin, you know a lot of this really…gratitude and appreciation to Kristin Neff, for in 2003 creating a self-compassion scale and also for operationalizing self-compassion for use in scientific research. So, in 2003 there was one article on self-compassion and that was hers. And now there are about 1,800 articles. If you do a Google search with self-compassion in the Google Scholar search with self-compassion and title, you’ll see about 1,800 articles. And this is really, you could say the fruit of her initial inspiration. And I met her in 2008. So, I had my own epiphany with self-compassion in 2006. And then we met in 2008. And, we were both going to a meditation retreat that was hosted by the Mind and Life Institute at, the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. And on the way back, as I was driving her back to the airport, I said to her.. I said, “You know, Kristin, you really ought to start a training program.”
Dr. Chris Germer: It’s one thing to do correlational research and see that self-compassion is really a factor in just about all measures of emotional wellbeing. But what would happen if we could actually train people in self-compassion? And she looked at me and she said, you know, I’m a scientist. I don’t do that sort of thing. She said, however, you’re a clinician, you know, you do a workshop. I could always do workshops, by the way, I just couldn’t do big public speaking. So anyhow, we decided at that time, why don’t we do this together? Why don’t we create a program that teaches and, that teaches self-compassion explicitly, you know, self-compassion can be increased through yoga or having a dog or mindfulness training. But what would happen if we did it specifically, if we dedicated eight weeks of training to self-compassion, cultivating self-compassion. And, and so that’s what we did. And in 2010, we did our. We held our first course. This was at the Esalen Institute in California and 12 people came and after the first day, three people quit.
Dr. Chris Germer: It was a bit of a rocky start. But Kris and I have always been, you know, completely committed to the importance of this thing. And now the MSC, the program has been taught to maybe, who knows, tough to measure… Maybe 50, 60, or 70,000 people around the world. And it’s really probably an honest thing to say that it’s now a community –world community project because we are hearing from, we have 2000 teachers around the world and we are hearing from them all the time about what works and what doesn’t work. And, and the program is constantly evolving. So, it’s now a community effort and we have an organization, the Center for Mindful Self Compassion that is really just trying to keep up with demand to be quite honest. Yeah. People are discovering that this is a powerful emotional resource.
Nitesh Batra: So now self-compassion is almost everywhere. People are talking about it. And like you mentioned, there’s so much research that’s backing it up as well. How do you define it and how do you use it in your day to day life?
Dr. Chris Germer: There’s a formal definition and informal definition. The informal definition would be treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding as we would treat someone we genuinely love when they suffer, fail, or feel inadequate when they’re struggling. So, it’s again, it’s just kind of a U-turn. It’s the kindness that we would give to others. Can we also give that to ourselves when we’re struggling? Kristin’s more scientifically based, the operational definition includes three components and they are: (i) self-kindness as opposed to self-criticism (ii) a sense of common humanity rather than isolation and (iii) mindfulness rather than over-identification with our experience. So self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, but they’re really together. You know, it’s not like it’s one and the other. It’s, they’re all together. It’s a state of what we call “loving connected presence.”
Nitesh Batra: Alright. That’s a good way to understand those three important components because if you’re mindful and then of course the common humanity, you see the other person as a human. And then finally having that self-kindness within you. I think growing up, a lot of us were brought up in a culture where we forget ourselves and forget to take care of ourselves. And I think that’s where self-compassion really comes in. But was there a precursor to self-compassion that really brought up to this point or did it just come up?
Dr. Chris Germer: So, you said that as children, we’re mostly trained to see others and care for others? Yeah, and I think that’s true. I think most cultures really encourage compassion for others and don’t necessarily encourage us to be kind to ourselves. Yeah. But then your question was also how did the idea of self-compassion arise culturally? Like, where did it come from?
Nitesh Batra: Yes. Thank you for rephrasing that question. That’s exactly what I was asking.
Dr. Chris Germer: And so, for both Kristin and me, it really emerged out of mindfulness and also out of Buddhist psychology. We were both mindfulness practitioners when we kind of stumbled on this thing. I stumbled on ‘loving-kindness meditation’, especially for myself while I was on a meditation retreat. And Kristin first heard about self-compassion when she went to a Dharma talk in Berkeley, California where she was a graduate student.
Dr. Chris Germer: So, for both of us, it arose out of that tradition… Out of the Vipassana tradition, the Theravada — Southeast Asian Buddhist tradition. But since then, we of course realized that, self-compassion has been a strain, been a thread through most wisdom traditions .. it is just not very explicit, you know. So, like, in Christianity there’s a saying, love your neighbor as yourself, which means, you know, you should really love yourself and your neighbor equally. That idea though comes from, you know, we all love ourselves and so using that as a model, go ahead and love others in the same way. The irony is that nowadays, in modern times, people actually find it easier to love others. The research shows that in the United States, 78% of us are more compassionate to others than to ourselves. This means that if we would like to learn self-compassion, we really need to love ourselves as we love our neighbor. You know, in other words, taking as an example of how we treat others and then just trying to begin to treat ourselves in the same way.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you for that. And knowing the history is one part of just understanding where it’s coming from. One of the other things that specifically MSC has tried is to include or make this training specifically for men because we don’t have that many men who talk about emotions. It’s.. Be a man, don’t cry. Those kinds of things happen. Now, what has your experience been in that regard and what do you think we can do further to get men to talk more about their emotions?
Dr. Chris Germer: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on the problem. Throughout the world, to be a man in a kind of extreme way means, not to be vulnerable. You know, not to have unnerving emotional experience….just kind of numb out and get the job done. When I was in India, I heard a wonderful saying that women build temples in the heart, and men build temples. So, it kind of means getting the job done no matter how you feel. And that’s valued, you know. So, it works in some settings, but it actually doesn’t work very well for emotional wellbeing. The research is quite clear that this version of masculinity is actually not healthy. It’s not physically healthy, it’s not emotionally healthy, it’s actually toxic.
Dr. Chris Germer: It’s bad for us. So, for men to be able to be more fully human and kind of shed themselves, shed somewhat, the strictures of the traditional male role are really important. As far as self-compassion is concerned, you know, it’s hard for men to come through the door to learn self-compassion unless you make it clear how it will benefit them. In other words, how it will improve physical health, how it will make a person happier, how it will improve relationships, how it will motivate us, it will actually increase our motivation not to decrease. So, when men see the instrumental value of self-compassion, how it basically improves, you know, a wide array of areas in our lives, they’re more likely to get on board. What I’ve found is that when men understand what self-compassion is, they love it. It’s just hard to get them through the door. But what we’re now doing with self-compassion training is talking about the Yin and the Yang of Self Compassion. So, the Yin of self-compassion is what we usually associate with self-compassion, which is this quality of nurturing, being with ourselves, or being with others. But compassion also has a Yang side, and that is an action in the world side. And so if you think, you know, say there’s a burning building or say you are in a burning building and you’re not going to sit there and say, “Oh, poor me, I’m in a burning building,” you’re gonna want to get the heck out of the building. So that’s an action component. Similarly, if you’re a firefighter, you know it’s a compassionate thing to run to the building and try to save somebody. So, compassion has an active aspect. And most people, first of all, don’t think about it that way. But what we’ve found is that it’s easy for women to get into the door into self-compassion training, but when they’re in it, what they really like is the Yang side.
Dr. Chris Germer: They really like to stand up and say, “No, this is not acceptable.” Or to validate their inner experience. Like, yes, this is how I feel. And to motivate themselves to do difficult things. So, these areas, protecting, providing, motivating, this is the Yang of self-compassion and women love it. So, they get through the door with Yin and then they learn Yang. And men, they will get through the door when they understand it’s about Yang, but many of them actually need the Yin side. They need to learn how to comfort themselves, soothe themselves, validate their experience. In other words, to be safely with human vulnerability. And that’s what compassion actually enables us to do. A really important thing for men to realize is that when you think about leaders who really inspire you, they’re often people who are both strong and kind, strong, and kind. And that’s what compassion teaches us to do. It enables us to be very strong and also wisely kind.
Nitesh Batra: And now we’re doing this for mostly young adults and adults. And there has been some conversation about taking this to schools as well because making it part of the value system, which is the foundational element for our upbringing. Have there been courses or schools that have shown interest in including self-compassion practices or have self-compassion practices being developed just for the kids as well?
Dr. Chris Germer: So, the MSC program was originally developed for adults, but very quickly people who work with teenagers realize that, those particular age kids are very vulnerable to social approval. And what’s interesting about self-compassion is that it’s a way of having self-worth that is independent of social approval. It’s when things go wrong, being kind to ourselves is an inner resource. It actually takes us out of the whole approval game. And so there have been some people who have been especially interested in helping teens to build self-worth in that way. It’s a more stable way of having self-respect, self-esteem, self-worth. And so, there are two people who created a program for teens. It’s called “Making Friends with Yourself” Karen Bluth and Lorraine Hobbs. So that’s something people can explore if they’re working with teenagers. There’ve been a number of efforts also to bring self-compassion to younger people.
Dr. Chris Germer: Usually the idea that until age seven, the best way to teach self-compassion to kids is to be compassionate, to help them to develop, you know, self-kindness and self-respect. But from age seven onward, until somebody is a teenager, they, they can begin to learn how to care for themselves and to give themselves the same kindness and understanding as they would give to others. So, there are a number of efforts underway as well to do that. But it’s really important. Apropos the schools in the United States, “The mindful schools” program is everywhere. And what we’re finding is that self-compassion can easily be integrated into mindfulness programs. And in fact, as we speak, “The mindful schools” program is starting to include some elements of self-compassion training.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you. I think it’ll be a good building block. “The mindfulness school” programs and wherever mindfulness has penetrated in schools across the US and I think other places in the world as well.
Nitesh Batra: We’re getting towards the end of our time with this interview. So, any final thoughts as to what do the next 15-20 years look for mindfulness, self-compassion or self-compassion in general? And what are your thoughts in terms of the research as well in that direction?
Dr. Chris Germer: Yeah, so I think we’re actually just at the beginning of a groundswell of interest in compassion training and in self-compassion training. I think mindfulness is mainstream in many parts of the world, but compassion is a kind of a new wave and self-compassion as a part of that. So, I think the next 5 to 10 years will see just a beautiful flourishing of compassion and selfish compassion training, secular, scientifically based training. And towards that end, in terms of the research, we’ll be discovering all kinds of things. We’ll be learning, first of all, to adapt self-compassion training for particular populations.
Dr. Chris Germer: We’ll be learning also what kinds of compassion training or mindfulness training might be best for whom or what the order of training, you know, maybe it’s better for some people to learn mindfulness first. Maybe some people learn compassion first and they’re going to be a whole lot of new things that we haven’t thought of. We’re going to learn and at this point, for example, in compassion training, we’re learning more, we’re exploring this Yin-Yang thing more. We’re learning more about the impact of culture on identity and how self-compassion can free us from the grip of cultural oppression. So, there’s so many different avenues. It’s really exciting. It’s going to be a good ride.
Nitesh Batra: Well, we all look forward to it. Before we end our interview, we do a few questions for rapid-fire and this is just to get to know you better for audiences. So, if you’re okay with it, we’ll go ahead?
Nitesh Batra: Our first question is: one childhood memory that brings joy to your mind.
Dr. Chris Germer: Oh, the first one comes to mind is walking around Washington DC with my family as the cherry blossoms were fluttering down like rain.
Nitesh Batra: We have just gone through that April month and that’s when cherry blossoms were around.One place that you would like to be right now in terms of traveling that you’d like to travel to?
Dr. Chris Germer: I can tell you I travel all the time and the place I like to be best is right here, in my kitchen, at home.
Nitesh Batra: I can totally relate to that. If there was one person in history that you would like to go meet, who would that be?
Dr. Chris Germer: Oh, there are so many people I would like to meet, but somebody from history, I would have loved to have met Mahatma Gandhi.
Nitesh Batra: And one final question. Your favorite book, artist, or movie …. pick anyone.
Dr. Chris Germer: Favorite book, artist, or movie. Wow, there’s, Oh my goodness. It’s impossible to answer. I think as an artist, I love Picasso because of the multiple perspectives. In terms of books, I’m, you know, deeply inspired by Indian wisdom. I love Nisargadatta Maharaj’s book. In terms of movies, Oh my goodness. It’s hard to say.
Nitesh Batra: That’s alright. We just wanted one, but that’s good. Well, thank you so much for spending this lovely afternoon with us, taking time out of your very, very busy schedule, and thank you so much for doing this.
Dr. Chris Germer: Thank you so much. It was a delight. And I appreciate your work. Thank you for bringing these teachings to the world.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you so much to all our listeners who have all tuned in. If you like our podcast, please remember to share it with your friends and your family. And please don’t forget to rate us on iTunes or Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcast.