Craig Wallace used to think self-compassion was weak—one of those soft, fluffy fads to ignore. Turns out the professor and chair of the Department of Management at the Daniels College of Business was not alone in his misconceptions. In her keynote address at the inaugural Emerging Leaders Conference Thursday, May 23, in Margery Reed Hall’s Reiman Theater at the University of Denver, Kristin Neff surveyed the 120-person crowd for their thoughts on the topic.

Neff then dispelled the audience’s commonly held myths about self-compassion with evidence from her research.

Kristin Neff

Self-compassion is a powerful sign of strength, for example, and the No. 1 predictor of a person’s ability to cope during tough times. This outcome was measured in soldiers. Those who were more self-compassionate were less likely to develop PTSD—regardless of the severity of combat they saw.

“You’re stronger with an ally in your head than an enemy in your head,” Neff said. “As a culture, we believe that self-compassion will make us weak. It’s exactly the opposite.”

Neff is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” and co-developer of the internationally acclaimed Mindful Self-Compassion training program. She pioneered the first research studies in the field of self-compassion 15 years ago.

Self-compassion is “being kind and supportive of yourself when you’re struggling,” Neff explained. “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give a good friend. It’s using what we already know how to do but turning that inward for ourselves.”

She shared that several personal struggles—parenting a child with autism and enduring a difficult divorce while finishing her PhD—led her to mindfulness meditation, and eventually, self-compassion.

Self-esteem was previously regarded as the optimum psychological state. But, self-esteem is a judgment of one’s self-worth that’s contingent on achievement or superiority over others. Hence, pursuing it can lead to social comparison, bullying, narcissism and perfectionism.

Kristin Neff Self-Esteem

“We inevitably feel inadequate,” Neff said, since the human experience is imperfect. “Self-compassion is a great alternative to self-esteem because the sense of self-worth isn’t contingent on success or failure. You feel good because you are a human being deserving of kindness like everyone else.”

Neff also said people who are more self-compassionate are rated as being more caring, more connected to others, better able to take responsibility for their mistakes, more motivated, and less angry and controlling. It’s a healthy psychological state that also helps create calm, increased happiness and decreased depression and chronic pain.

“The more inner resources you have, the more resources you have to meet others’ needs,” she said. “And if you care about yourself, you’ll want to meet your goals and succeed. It’s a powerful mind state to cultivate.”

Neff said kindness, common humanity and mindfulness are the three main components of self-compassion.

The formula looks like being present with whatever is happening in the moment without judgment, acknowledging struggle, treating ourselves kindly by asking, ‘what do I need to help myself in this moment?’ and recognizing that failure is a normal part of life that all people experience.

Neff also shared that many effective social justice leaders—Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.—were fiercely self-compassionate, with a balance of feminine yin and masculine yang qualities that yields care and concern with forceful action to alleviate suffering.

For business leaders, self-compassion provides resilience during challenges, decreases stress and burnout, increases creativity and wisdom, and allows leaders to recognize and learn from their mistakes without shame.

“When there’s a difficult situation, are you going to be an ally or an enemy?” Neff asked. “It’s going to help if you support yourself.”

Craig Wallace Emerging Leaders Conference

Craig Wallace

Neff was the fourth speaker of the four-hour conference hosted by the Daniels Department of Management to help emerging leaders from the DU and Denver business communities learn crucial skills to navigate new leadership roles.

Conference attendees also learned about crafting intentional leadership presence through mindful and intentional communication from Daniels Teaching Assistant Professor Diana Nguyen; about the role of diversity in innovation and high-performing teams from Associate Professor of Management Aimee Hamilton; and about how high effective leaders involve stakeholders at all organizational levels from Master of Science in Management alumnus Cameron Simmons (BA 2016, MS 2017).

After her keynote, Neff joined business consultants Adam Schlegel and Amy Kelling for a panel discussion about leadership successes and failures, which was moderated by David Morelli, former executive director of Executive Education at Daniels.

Emerging Leaders Conference panel

Kristin Neff, Adam Schlegel, Amy Kelling, David Morelli

The afternoon concluded with a networking reception among attendees, presenters and panelists on the Margery Reed patio.

For more information about self-compassion, visit self-compassion.org.