I’m sharing an email from Kristen Neff, PhD, developer of Mindful Self-Compassion and author of books on self-compassion, including Fierce Self-Compassion. This article on balancing compassion in relationships highlights the importance of both warmth for oneself, so that one is not overly needy for attention in relationships, but also the need for boundary setting in relationships. 

by Kristen Neff, PhD

Self-compassion involves being caring and supportive toward ourselves, so that we give ourselves what we truly need to be happy. But that leaves the question – what about our relationship partners? Don’t we also want them to be caring, supportive, and meet our needs?

When we learn to give to ourselves, there may be recognition of a lack of balanced giving in our relationships. Reciprocal giving and taking is necessary for a relationship to be truly healthy and stable, but imbalances often occur.

We need both fierce and tender self-compassion to work with relationship imbalances.  The tender, nurturing, accepting side of self-compassion allows us to realize that our worth is not dependent on the love or support of others.  It also helps us to hold the pain and grief of not being treated as we deserve to be treated, or of having a relationship partner who is not capable of really being there for us.

The fierce protective side of self-compassion is also imperative, however, so we can state our needs and draw clear boundaries. If we are giving more than receiving, can we be brave enough to speak up about the imbalance?  Can we ask for what we need in a kind way?  Can we say no to giving in a lopsided manner, even if that’s the pattern we’re most familiar with?

Of course, self-compassion isn’t magic dust that we sprinkle on relationships to make all our problems go away.  Our partners may not like it if we speak up.  Or they may not be in the strong emotional space needed to give in a balanced manner.  Relationships are messy and complicated, which is why compassion needs to flow outward to our partners as well as inward to ourselves in a balanced manner.  We’re all just human beings doing the best we can in the moment.

Ultimately, wisdom is needed to determine how, when, and where to draw boundaries, ask for what we need, improve our relationship interactions or perhaps even to end unhealthy partnerships. But wisdom can’t emerge without the inner strength, warmth, and stability offered by fierce and tender self-compassion.  

Metaphorically, tender and fierce self-compassion correspond to the yin and yang energies described in ancient Chinese philosophy. Both need to be in balance for health and well-being.  I’m including a short meditation here called Balancing Yin and Yang that’s designed for this purpose.

Dr. Neff is teaching a three-hour course on Fierce Self-Compassion. Register here.

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