The Yin and Yang of Self Compassion

The Yin and Yang of Self Compassion

At first glance, self-compassion  can seem kind of wishy-washy and wimpy – something to be used when times are easy-going and carefree – not something to be utilized as a force of strength, wisdom, devotion, or action.  Self-compassion can be easily misunderstood as a way to “let ourselves go'' where we allow ourselves to eat that fifth cookie, stay up scrolling on the phone, or not set an important boundary. But self-compassion is actually much more robust than we give it credit for. Self-compassion can be used as a way to open ourselves up to tenderness, while also fiercely protecting ourselves when we need it.

Tender and Fierce

Dr. Kristin Neff, a well-known psychologist who first coined the term and practice of “mindful self-compassion” has written numerous books on the power of self-compassion in all areas of life. However, it wasn’t until this year that she published a book solely focusing on the fierce (yang) side of self-compassion in a book entitled, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim their Power, and Thrive. She compares fierce self-compassion to the energy that a fierce Mama Bear has in protecting her cubs, catching fish to feed her family, or moving her cubs to a new territory with better resources. In human terms, Dr. Neffs explains that this kind of energy equates to things like standing tall when we need to say no, drawing boundaries, and fighting injustice. It could also equate to saying yes to ourselves instead of ignoring our needs to please others.   


The softer, more tender (yin) energy of self-compassion is important and similar to the energy of a parent soothing a crying child. According to Dr. Neff, tender self-compassion is a way of “being with” ourselves in an accepting way, in which we comfort ourselves, reassure ourselves that we aren’t alone, and be present with our pain. She further states, “when we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal.”

Nurses in particular need fierce self-compassion

While there are many studies about nurses and self-compassion, there is one in particular published in the Holistic Nursing Practice Journal in 2017 that also notes the high correlation of burnout with the nursing profession.  Gracia-Gracia and Olivan-Blazquez wrote that “nursing staff has been identified as one of the main risk groups for the development of burnout…[and] the results [of our study] show that the level of burnout of nursing staff is inversely related to their level of self-compassion.”  This means that nurses (already in a high-risk category) are at an even higher risk for burnout if we don’t have compassion for ourselves

Tender (yin) self-compassion allows us to soothe ourselves so that pain or stress doesn’t overtake us. The fierce (yang) self-compassion allows us to stand up for ourselves, have boundaries, and not take on more than we are capable of handling. Tender (yin) self-compassion allows for recognition of the common humanity in everyone to provide the sense of community. Fierce (yang) self-compassion empowers us to advocate for our patients no matter what一even if implicitly or explicitly discouraged from doing so for any number of reasons.  

The next time you feel pressured to take on more than you can manage, or beat yourself up for not doing more than you can do,  remember that the Yin and Yang of self-compassion has got your back. It is easier to navigate life stressors with the care and protection we deserve as part of humanity, when we utilize both the tender and fierce sides of self-compassion.



The Five Myths of Self-compassion:

Why Women need fierce self-compassion:

Fierce Self Compassion – Overview, Video, and links to fierce self-compassion meditations:

“Burnout and Mindfulness Self-Compassion in Nurses of Intensive Care Units” 2017 Holistic Nursing Practice Journal, 2017:


Susannah Marshall, BSN, RN-BC, CCM has been a Registered Nurse for eight years, and is board certified in both case management and psychiatric nursing.  Prior to becoming an RN, she worked for ten years with children in social service settings, where she became passionate about patient advocacy and de-stigmatizing mental healthcare needs.  When she isn’t practicing Argentine tango or west/east coast swing dancing, she loves to play with her baby nephew and write children’s stories.



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