DUCKWORTH: That looks like someone who needs a hug.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How do you practice self-compassion?
DUCKWORTH: I tend to feel alone in my failure. I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong.
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MAUGHAN: Angela, it is always a delight to talk to you.
DUCKWORTH: Hello, Mike Maughan.
MAUGHAN: Today we have a question from Andrew Davis. Andrew and his partner just had their third child under five. They said they have virtually no time to step back and take a break. So, his question — he said, “I was talking to a family member, and he suggested practicing self-compassion, which suggests things like talking to yourself and saying things like, ‘I know this is hard right now, and it’s only natural you’re feeling so stressed. I’m here for you.'” Andrew continued, “This struck me as a ridiculous thing to do — to tell yourself that you’re there for yourself.” So, he asked, “Do you think this is a worthy practice? And more generally, how do you feel that self-compassion can help while in a hard situation?”
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I love this question in a million ways. Andrew, I think, maybe is reacting to this idea of talking to ourselves like, “Hello self, how are you today?”
MAUGHAN: Which sounds a little bit ridiculous. When you talk to yourself, people are like, “Hey, maybe Mike’s losing it. You know, maybe it’s over for him.”
DUCKWORTH: All right, well, let me begin by asking you this question. Have you ever talked to yourself? Like, have you ever had a kind of covert dialogue just with your alter ego? You know, it’s a kind of foundational question for the self-compassion question. Like, is it preposterous to talk to ourselves in that way. And I’m going to answer that question myself, which is to say I do. I do have not only an inner monologue, but an inner dialogue. You know, like, the Angela who doesn’t really want to do this and the Angela who does. What about you?
MAUGHAN: Okay. So, first of all, I never thought I would tell this story out loud, so I can’t believe I’m about to tell it.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to hear.
MAUGHAN: But yes, I— I don’t think I make a practice of this at all, but the other day I actually did this. So, I’m sure you’re familiar with Maya Angelou. She was an amazing poet, author. She wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and is just one of my major heroes in life. Anyway, so she has this conversation years ago with Bill Moyers. And what I think is so fascinating — she said, “You’re only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” “More and more, I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I’m very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.” And so, I’ve thought about this quote that “I belong to myself.” And I recently moved into this new neighborhood — don’t know a ton of people. The neighborhood is very inclusive and loves to create opportunities for people to get together. And so, on Sunday afternoons they do these “walk and talks,” they call it. And I don’t want to go, because I feel dumb and don’t know anyone. It’s so awkward to walk in by — you know. So, I literally thought about Maya Angelou. And I said out loud to myself — I feel so dumb admitting this. I said out loud to myself, “I belong.” And then, I walked in and met all these people. But it was this moment of, like, centering myself to just say, “Okay, I belong. I can do this.”
DUCKWORTH: And you were talking to yourself. You’re like, “I belong, I belong, I belong. Okay, I’m going to do this,” right?
MAUGHAN: Okay, to be clear though, I only said it once. The way you said it makes me sound so desperate.
DUCKWORTH: See, you’re so squeamish. As a psychologist, I’m like, “Go, you! Well done.”
MAUGHAN: I know, but this is where Andrew’s question legitimately — he said it sounded ridiculous. And I agree with him. And I think even in my telling this story, while it worked, it sounds ridiculous.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I am here, Mike, to reform you and Andrew both. I’m really hoping in this conversation to make you think that talking to yourself is a good thing and not a bad thing. And also I want to give you some tips on how to do it in a way that is optimally self-compassionate.
MAUGHAN: Before we get into it, I do think we should acknowledge that maybe when you talk to yourself, don’t do it in public all the time, right?
DUCKWORTH: I haven’t even made my case. And you’re like, “All right, but one thing is clear. It’s not good to talk to yourself in public places.” You are so uncomfortable with talking to yourself.
MAUGHAN: I’m deeply uncomfortable talking to myself in public. And I feel dumb having — having told that story. I just want to tell you — one of my favorite memes is a photo of something you would buy at like T.J. Maxx or whatever that just says, “I am enough.” But it says it like 10 times. And then, the meme says, “For only $10.99, you can let every visitor in your house know that you are struggling.”
DUCKWORTH: I’ve got to tell my mother-in-law that because T.J. Maxx is her favorite retail establishment, and she has probably seen that plaque, but maybe not seen the meme.
MAUGHAN: But you know what I’m saying. That’s why I feel a little dumb telling you the story, because it’s like the meme is right.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, look, I love when Maya Angelou says, “I like Maya. I like Maya very much.” I mean, it’s just so interesting, because she is stating something about herself as if she were another person. I, I want to say that we have this inner dialogue, in part, because when we talk about having two minds about something — should I go to the “walk and talk,” or should I not go? I don’t know. I don’t know what to do — it’s almost like underneath one skin, there are two Mikes, if not three, if not five. And it’s not just psychologists who have observed this about people. It’s also, like, every philosophy and every religious tradition. And when I start to describe this to people — I was actually talking to my husband Jason about it. He was like, “Oh, like multiple personality disorder?” And I was like, “Okay, when people have a clinical disorder, which is actually now called dissociative identity disorder, they actually legit have total alter egos that are completely separate, and one alter ego doesn’t even know about the others. That is not what I’m talking about. When I say that you have multiple selves, Mike, and that I do, and that Jason does, and that Andrew does, and his partner does, and all three of their children are going to grow up to have multiple egos — what I mean is that we have different identities. And, you know, the father of cognitive therapy, which you could argue is basically modern psychotherapy, Tim Beck, he called them “personality modes.” We have angry Angela mode. We have Angela the patient professor mode. We have Angela who’s extroverted and confident. And we have Angela who’s deeply insecure. And the reason why Tim thought we needed to have these different personality modes is because, when we move through our day and our week from one situation into another, it’s adaptive and appropriate for different aspects of ourself to rise to the occasion. You know, it’s not really helpful to come home and be Professor Angela with my kids. Like, they don’t need Professor Angela, who’s authoritative and answering questions. They need mommy Angela. So, I want to say as a foundation for Andrew’s question that not only do I think it’s healthy to talk to yourself, one of the reasons why we do have these inner dialogues is because we have multiple selves.
MAUGHAN: So, I love the idea that, that maybe the idea of self-compassion is also recognizing that you have multiple selves. And you can be compassionate with the fact that you’re, you know, impatient with the idiocy of youth — because, let’s all be clear, kids are amazing and can be idiots.
DUCKWORTH: You’re talking about Andrew’s three children under five?
MAUGHAN: I’m not speaking of Andrew’s children. They are, I’m sure, angelic.
DUCKWORTH: They are angels.
MAUGHAN: Always. And sleep all through the night. So, it’s weird that he’s having a hard time right now. I’m just kidding. But I like the idea of — part of self-compassion is understanding that we have different elements to our lives and different elements to who we are. I wanted to tell you a story and get your take on it. So, I, as you know, trained for Mount Kilimanjaro last year.
DUCKWORTH: I know, because I was supposed to come, and then I didn’t.
MAUGHAN: I know. But here’s— here’s the story that I thought of after I read Andrew’s question. So, I hire this nutritionist, because I need to get ready. Her name is Megan Lyons. She’s very good at what she does. Ultimately, she helps me lose 30 pounds. You know, I’m— I’m doing this during a super stressful time. I guess I would say all of life is a super stressful time. It is what it is. And I’m reporting back to her about different moments when maybe I didn’t follow through on the plan — in terms of what I would eat and exercise, whatever. And if you’ve been in a tech company, you know that most of them have kitchens everywhere. There’s free food everywhere in abundance.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like an unlimited buffet.
MAUGHAN: Which is part of the problem. Anyway, so I tell her I am having this bad day and this super stressful situation. And I walked downstairs and got a big fountain drink of Diet Coke and a bag of Doritos, and I sat in a corner in someone else’s chair and just drank the Diet Coke and ate Doritos. And Megan says to me — she said, “Mike, what do you see when you see someone in that situation?” And I was like, “Well, I see someone who made a short-term decision that was a bad choice, and there were a lot of other ways I could have handled this than using food to cope with the stress.” And she says to me, “No, Mike, what I actually see is someone who probably just needs a hug.” And I had this moment where I was like, “Oh” — because, again, she is really good at helping me think through every situation, about what are other ways to get dopamine if you’re trying to get a dopamine hit. It doesn’t have to be Doritos. Listen to a great song. Go outside. Send a gratitude text. Like, there are other ways to cope. But in that moment —.
DUCKWORTH: In that moment, she wasn’t thinking, “You could’ve gone for a walk. You could’ve breathed deeply for 10 seconds.” She just thought, “That looks like someone who needs a hug.”
MAUGHAN: And I thought it was such a compassionate way for her to respond, but also introduce the idea that maybe if I exercised more self-compassion, I would also exercise better responses to stress or negative incidents, because it allows you to step back and say, “Hey, this is really hard.”
DUCKWORTH: I think that I should administer to you right now the short form of the self-compassion scale. Do you want to take it?
MAUGHAN: Well, do I want to, or am I willing? I’m willing. I’m absolutely willing.
DUCKWORTH: You’re willing. You’re scared.
MAUGHAN: I mean, look, I’ve already admitted so far that I said to myself, “I belong.”
DUCKWORTH: I know. You’ve been so vulnerable. We’ll go through these items. And hopefully, Andrew’s listening. And he might also ask himself these questions. So, I’m not going to read you all 12. It’s the short self-compassion scale; there’s an even longer one. And I want to point out that one of the co-authors of the scale is really the founder of the research on self-compassion. And her name is Kristin Neff. Anyway, Kristin and colleagues wrote these items, including: “When I fail at something important to me, I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy.” “I try to be understanding and patient towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like.” “When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation. When I’m feeling down, I tend to feel like most other people are probably happier than I am.” And finally — not finally for the scale, but finally for what I’m going to read to you — “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.” Okay. So Mike, I have sampled from the short self-compassion scale. Where do you think you fall on the continuum from, like, “oh, I’m super self-compassionate,” to, “I am lacking in self-compassion entirely.”
MAUGHAN: It’s fascinating hearing you go through the questions, because my biggest takeaway was not even to judge myself, or evaluate myself, where I am today, but to think through over maybe the last decade. And if there’s one thing I can say it’s that I have, I think, shifted substantially on the self-compassion scale — where I used to catastrophize a lot more. I would think that “Oh, I’m way worse. I’m da, da, da. And while I fail all the time, I care a lot less than I used to, meaning in terms of both judging others’ intent and judging myself in a way that I didn’t have the maturity early on.
DUCKWORTH: So, you used a word, “judgment,” that’s super important to this whole research tradition on self-compassion. Because in a way, what self-compassion is, is the opposite of self-judgment. And the origin story of Kristin Neff’s research is actually her own personal crisis. So, she was going through a divorce. And this is back in the ’90s. She says, “It was very messy. And I felt a lot of shame about some bad decisions I had made.” And then, she goes on to say that she went to a local Buddhist center and signed up for meditation classes. And what she took away from this mindfulness practice was not just that, like, “Oh, I can do deep breathing and it provides relief from this pain that I’m feeling.” She took, actually, a sense of self-compassion. This perspective that maybe before we say, “I’m a bad person. I made bad choices. Like, what kind of pathetic idiot crawls into the corner of an office with Doritos and a Diet Coke?”
MAUGHAN: Okay. Okay. Okay.
DUCKWORTH: Just to make it real.
MAUGHAN: Not pathetic. Just having a hard day.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m — I’m modeling self-judgment, Mike. We’re going to turn from self-judgment to self-compassion. But she basically had this, like, epiphany that, like, you don’t have to judge yourself all the time and you don’t have to be in denial either. I mean, that’s the wonderful thing. Like, the opposite of self-judgment isn’t denial. The opposite of self-judgment is self-compassion. And she just said like, “Wow, this idea that you don’t have to judge yourself, that you can be kind to yourself after observing that you make a poor choice,” she says, like, quote, “It just made an immediate difference.”
MAUGHAN: I immediately resonate with that. Because like I was saying before, when Megan said to me, “That looks like someone who needs a hug,” my thought process was, “Wow, that’s a compassion level I didn’t have for myself. And —.”
DUCKWORTH: You knew that was a better response, right?
MAUGHAN: I immediately knew it was a better response. And I knew that what Megan was channeling was that I was actually going to make better decisions if I had positive self-talk and more compassionate self-talk than if I had said, “You’re an idiot. Here are the three things you should have done instead.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, because then you just go get more Doritos.
MAUGHAN: Or Cheetos at that point. Maybe some Twix bars.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, that is actually I think some of the most exciting research there is in social science, when you’re like, “What? There is a way that you can both feel good about yourself and do stuff that is productive?” It’s not like either you feel self-compassion, or you get to your goals. Like, you can have both. So, let me just summarize some of the major findings. First of all, that, you know, as we’ve defined it, what self-compassion is s a posture towards the self that is in a way the opposite of self-judgment. So, the kind of compassion we would have for another person, if we can understand that, now we just apply it to ourself. And now we know we have multiple selves, so one of ourselves can feel compassionate toward another of ourselves. Right? That’s another way of thinking about it. The research shows that you can measure self-compassion through questionnaires like we just practiced with. And then, the outcomes of self-compassion are many, and they are wonderful. Self-compassion has been associated with happiness and wellbeing. And people who are more self-compassionate actually are in better health physically, not only mentally.
MAUGHAN: Wait, really?
DUCKWORTH: Really, because there is a kind of mind-body connection that we as human beings continue to find surprising. But, you know, one of the mechanisms connecting self-compassion to physical outcomes is not just that you take care of yourself more, but also, there could be, like, a more direct path where you are experiencing less of the stress response because you are not shaming yourself. You’re not yelling at yourself. And the stress response has lots of inflammatory and other negative effects in the body. So, this self-compassion posture that we can learn — and that’s one of Kristin Neff’s major contributions is to suggest that there are ways that we can practice self-compassion — just like she went to that meditation center in the ’90s, like, we can learn to be more self-compassionate. You have learned, you said, to be more self-compassionate. We can get these benefits, even if we’re not especially self-compassionate right now.
MAUGHAN: Absolutely. And what I’d love to hear from our listeners is how do you show yourself compassion in times of intense stress or chaos? And how do you calm down? How do you center yourself? So, record a voice memo in a quiet place. Put your mouth close to the phone and email it to us at NSQ@freakonomics.com. And maybe we’ll play your voice on a future episode of the show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela and Mike discuss the relationship between self-compassion and self-care.
DUCKWORTH: You are okay. You are always going to be okay. There’s nothing you can do that will make you not okay,
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about self-compassion.
DUCKWORTH So, Mike, since you were so vulnerable and sharing, let me do the same. This year, even though I have read many of Kristin Neff’s scholarly articles and was pretty well versed in the science of self-compassion, I didn’t do such a great job of it, because, as you know, I’ve been working on a book. And I really struggled, because I think during different points in this year, we saw each other in person. And I, I was effectively crying, right, like, on your shoulder. I was, like, a little bit falling apart.
MAUGHAN: You will always have a shoulder to cry on here.
DUCKWORTH: I wish I had as much compassion for myself as you had for me, Mike, in these conversations where I would relay to you, like, the latest installment of this terrible sabbatical year I’ve been having. And I have to tell you that when I look at my journal entries at different points this year, honestly, I was so self-judgmental and so unable to find self-compassion. When I look at these items that Kristin Neff uses to measure self-compassion, like, “When I fail at something important, I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy,” I’m like, “Yeah, check.” “When I fail at something that’s important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure. I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong. I’m disapproving and judgmental.” Like, check, check, check, check, check. So, I think to me, what this conversation is reminding me of is that even when we kind of know in this cold, intellectual way that we have multiple selves and that we can talk to ourselves, and sometimes we forget that we are showing up in a situation where we need a hug, it’s a great reminder to me to like — I don’t know — even write it down somewhere. Like, maybe I need to go to T.J. Maxx.
MAUGHAN: “I am enough. I am enough. I am enough.”
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to put that up on my wall in an un-ironic way.
MAUGHAN: Is that possible? I say that compassionately, but I don’t know. Okay, let me ask you this question, because I think it’s interesting. There is this gentleman Charlie Gilkey. He’s an executive coach and business growth consultant. He wrote an article called “The Foundation of True Self-Care Is Self-Compassion.” And he says that self-compassion is regarding yourself compassionately. Self-care is treating yourself compassionately.
DUCKWORTH: So, one is like an attitude, and the other is, like, a behavior.
MAUGHAN: Right. And one thing that I have admired for a long time — so I’ve worked with Ryan Smith for over a decade — co-founder of Qualtrics, owner of the Utah Jazz, and a lot of other sports and entertainment properties. He’s grown this little tech business that he started in his dad’s basement into a $12 billion company and done all these other things. Most founders can’t scale with their businesses long term, meaning that, like, you grow it to $100 million in revenue, but you can’t take it to $500. Or you’re not the person to take it to $1 billion in revenue. Ryan’s been able to scale with his business the entire time. And one of the things that I’ve observed about him is that he’s very good at self-care, meaning that he doesn’t burn out.
DUCKWORTH: What does he do? I want to know what he does.
MAUGHAN: When he knows he needs a break, he’ll take a break. Now, I know some people listening to that are like, okay, cool, if you are the boss —.
DUCKWORTH: What does that mean? Does he, like, take a nap?
MAUGHAN: No. So, for example, one time we flew into San Francisco. We are running from meeting to meeting. And they’re all important. And he just says, “Look, I’m going to go take 30 minutes and go for a run.” Or when we just hosted the N.B.A. All-Star game in Utah recently. We all worked an insane amount of hours in the weeks and months leading up to it. And after that, it was like, hey, we all need to take a few days to reset and reprogram ourselves. But he’s always mindful of: if I’m not at my peak productivity here, I need to take a break to do something different. I think that’s a little bit harder if you’re Andrew, and you’ve got three kids under five. Uh, that’s where I was looking at all the — “what do people do for self-care?” And all these people are like, “I go to a retreat, I do a spa.” And it’s like, okay, awesome if you have that opportunity. But then I found on just healthline.com a list of different things that one can do for self-care. If you have one minute, it says, “Light a candle, practice box breathing, laugh, hug somebody, drink a glass of water.” And then, it’s like, “If you have five minutes, text a loved one, amp up your shower routine, listen to your favorite song, sit in the sun. If you have 10 minutes, go get your heart rate going, play a game, meditate, walk barefoot. If you have 30 minutes, make yourself a meal, declutter a room, read a book for fun. If you have an hour,” listen to this inspiring podcast. Just kidding. “Do an online yoga class, pamper yourself, spend time with a friend.” There are kind of these micro things you can do if you just have one minute. My sister, when she was raising her four kids, they were all young and at home. She talked about how sometimes, you know, you can’t go to the bathroom. You can’t take a shower without the kids, like, crawling everywhere.
DUCKWORTH: Totally frazzled.
MAUGHAN: She hid chocolate in her closet and would just shut the door to her closet and eat a piece of chocolate and take a minute, recenter herself, and then say, “Okay, now I can go handle this again.”
DUCKWORTH: She knew she needed it. And by the way, because she was self-compassionate she didn’t need to eat a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. It was like, “I need a moment. I’m going to shut the door. I’m going to have a piece of chocolate. I’m not going to feel bad about myself and therefore spiral into more chocolate and self-blame.”
MAUGHAN: Right. I think because she was self-compassionate, she didn’t spiral like I did with just a bunch of Doritos. She was like, “I’m giving myself a moment. And chocolate is a thing that I love.” But no, the unhealthy mechanism is what Megan was identifying in me, which is, okay, you’re spiraling probably because you’re not treating yourself with compassion and thus you’re choosing unhealthy mechanisms to deal with your stress.
DUCKWORTH: I think with self-compassion, a little bit goes a long way. And, you know, I speak to many audiences, as you will not be surprised, about the topic of grit. And one of the most common misconceptions about grit is that people like Ryan Smith, whom I have studied as a paragon of grit, when people think of those people and they don’t know them very well, they make the mistake of thinking, oh, they’re always tough on themselves. And that’s only half right. Because they are their own toughest critic, often. But they’re doing something that’s more like tough love. So, I think there’s a kind of, like, can I do it faster? Can I do this smarter? Like, how else can I do this better than I did before? But they’re doing it in a loving, compassionate way. So, here’s my prescriptive advice and what I think I’ve learned from thinking about things through a grit lens. When you look at parenting or leadership, and you ask this question, like, “Which is better, to be supportive or demanding? Like, where on the continuum should I be?” What the research suggests is that there is a way in which you can be both supportive and demanding.
MAUGHAN: The old both/and, huh?
DUCKWORTH: You know me. I am so predictable. But the research, especially in parenting, I think is really solid. And there’s also analogous research on leadership that the best bosses, and the best teachers, and the best coaches, and honestly the best parents, are actually very demanding. I mean, that’s actually what I have benefited the most from having mentors like Marty Seligman. Like, it’s just never good enough, right? But there is this other axis. Let’s call it the vertical axis, if we were just on the horizontal one. Okay, that is the continuum from not at all supportive to totally a hundred percent supportive. So, the quadrant that you want to be in as a mentor, as a parent, as a coach, and even when you’re compassionately coaching yourself is to be in the top right quadrant, which is to say, I am in the role of someone who’s saying, “it’s not good enough,” and, “I 100 percent support you. I care about you. And you’re okay.” And I know it sounds like I’m contradicting myself, because in one sense it’s saying you’re not okay. And in another sense, it’s saying you’re 100 percent okay. But I think the nuance is that when you are a supportive and demanding mentor, what you’re demanding is a behavior. What you’re demanding is an action. And you can say that the action that you just took was not good enough, but the supportive part is about what I think of you as a whole and as a person.
MAUGHAN: And one might paraphrase that no one cares how much you demand until they know how much you care, and then you can demand other things. You say with Marty Seligman, nothing’s ever good enough. But you know it’s because he cares about you and has compassion for you at times when maybe you’re struggling or going through a rut, that you take that as motivation rather than as this soul-crushing moment.
DUCKWORTH: 100 percent. As demanding as he ever was, I always knew with this kind of, like, rock-solid certainty that he had my back and that he had this — the psychological term is “unconditional positive regard.”
MAUGHAN: That’s like a dream that you want to have from anyone who loves you in your life. “Unconditional positive regard.” That’s a great phrase.
DUCKWORTH: If you could get three words tattooed, like, I don’t know, those are pretty good. Like, “unconditional positive regard.” You know, there were these humanist psychologists. They were all therapists. And this goes way back, you know, this is before Kristin Neff started studying self-compassion. But I really like this aspect of what the humanist psychologists said, which is that they thought that what all people really need, right— not just people who walk into a therapist’s office — is to feel this unconditional positive regard. It’s also part of a lot of religious traditions. For example, in Christianity, the idea of grace, that there could be this kind of unconditional positive regard from God. But more generally and secularly, I think they’re exactly right that we have a need to feel like we’re okay. And when our boss or our other self says, “You know what? You need a hug. I love you. You are okay. You are always going to be okay. There’s nothing you can do that will make you not okay,” After you thoroughly receive that message, you are ready for, “So, let’s talk about what we’re going to have for a snack the next time we’re stressed.” Like, you’re open to that.
MAUGHAN: Right. And it’s not the old — I’ll edit here — the “crap sandwich.: Like, “You’re great. Fix this. We love you.” Right? It’s not that, which doesn’t work anyway. It’s the idea of: if I feel in general this sense of love, care, compassion, then we can have these conversations, versus the crap sandwich type of feedback, which is crap.
DUCKWORTH: You know, when people talk about the crap sandwich feedback, I know there is a deeply critical view of that. Like, you don’t seem to be a big fan of it. I know our friend Adam Grant, who’s also a professor at Wharton, has written about how he hates the idea.
MAUGHAN: Our dear friend Kim Scott, who wrote Radical Candor, also hates the idea.
DUCKWORTH: But let me just stand up for the crap sandwich which is to say that, I agree a kind of formulaic, predictable, like, “I am just going to, like, sugarcoat the bitter pill of my negative feedback for you in this way that is totally insincere,” like, that’s not good. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making sure that somebody is in the right ego state to receive what is always stinging criticism. I mean, you could tell me anything I did wrong, the smallest thing, and I would be defensive and feel wounded. And so, I think putting people in a space where I affirm how much I appreciate about them, and then say some things that I know are going to be hard, and then make sure that I end by reminding them that I still think they’re great people, like, that is my Pollyanna version of the crap sandwich. And I do try to do that, you know. And I don’t think it’s always as bad as it sounds.
MAUGHAN: I think that’s fair. So, Angela, I want to end by telling you an example of a time I tried self-care, and it went totally awry.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I’m listening on bated breath.
MAUGHAN: One thing that I’ve tried to do over the years for self-care is also establish certain rituals where it’s like, okay, we’re going to get away with a group of people, and our ritual is that in the midst of our busy lives, we’re going to carve out X weekend every year to go on this trip or something to connect with each other and with ourselves. And so, for years, I’ve been going on this horseback-riding camping trip with these three brothers: Adam, Wes, and Will Marriott. We call it our “brothers’ camping trip,” though obviously I am not —.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, they’re all brothers with each other?
MAUGHAN: They’re all brothers, and I’m not.
DUCKWORTH: They are not your brothers.
MAUGHAN: Correct. But we call it our “brothers’ camping trip.” And they have other brothers who don’t come. It’s just the four of us.
DUCKWORTH: Wow, that’s so many brothers.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, well, they have 11 children in the family. Anyway, so we’ve been going on this horseback-riding camping trip. We ride deep into the mountains, camp by a lake, enjoy time together. There’s no cell service whatsoever. It turns out that after years of this tradition, somewhere along the road, I developed a deathly allergy to horses. Which we didn’t — we didn’t know. And so, we go out horseback riding. We are deep into the mountains. No service. I mean, we rode for probably four hours.
DUCKWORTH: Right, you rode away from medical care.
MAUGHAN: And I don’t realize how allergic I am yet, still. And we hobble the horses. And we get everything ready for the night. It starts raining. We jump in the tent, kind of in our horsehair-covered clothes. And all of a sudden, my throat begins to completely seize up.
DUCKWORTH: You had anaphylactic shock.
MAUGHAN: My eyes are the deepest red I’ve ever seen. And I can’t breathe. I am barely wheezing with all of my energy to just get air in and out. And I— I can’t get enough air. I legitimately think I’m going to die.
DUCKWORTH: Why are you talking to me? How are you not dead?
MAUGHAN: We literally were pulling out a knife to try to— you can’t Google how to do an emergency tracheotomy.
DUCKWORTH: Tracheotomy with a pen.
MAUGHAN: I think I’m going to die. And I keep reciting to myself that poem, “I Will Not Go Gentle Into This Good Night.” And my point is, I made a really dumb mistake. So, to get over that terrible, horrific event three years ago, I text the Marriott brothers again and say, “Hey guys, let’s do this again. But let’s take a lot of precautions.” We just went on this horseback-riding camping trip. And I had gloves. I didn’t touch the horses. They saddled everything, dah, dah, dah. And I didn’t almost die this time. But it was horrific and so uncomfortable.
DUCKWORTH: What, the second time? Like, the time with the gloves and everything?
MAUGHAN: Yes, the time I just did. Why did I go back after that? I don’t know.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, why didn’t you go, like, swimming or something?
MAUGHAN: Well, we went swimming in the lake to wash off all the horsehair.
DUCKWORTH: But just non-horse-related swimming.
MAUGHAN: This is my point. My point for dear Andrew, and for all of us, is that sometimes some examples of self-care should be retired. And everyone needs to find out what works for themselves. And as we were riding back into civilization, Will, who’s the one who owns all the horses, looked at me and he said, “I hope you enjoy your last ride.” Because we all knew this was the end. And I think the point is this: self-compassion takes many different shapes and forms. And at different points in your life, it means very different things. And so, maybe while you’ve got three kids under five, you’re going off of that one-minute list where all you have an opportunity to do is say, “I’m going to take a deep breath. I’m going to laugh. I’m going to hug someone. Or I’m going to drink a glass of water.” And later in your life, you can do all these other things. Whatever works for you, have compassion in those moments where you go grab a 64-ounce Diet Coke and Doritos. And realize that you’re going to be okay.
DUCKWORTH: Mike, I think that is excellent advice. And if there’s an asterisk on this advice, it’d be like, “if you are allergic in an extreme way to any of the things on the self-compassion list, just make a line right through it, and move on to the next item.”
MAUGHAN: And instead, go to a tattoo parlor and tattoo “unconditional positive regard” on your back.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
Angela says that individuals with dissociative identity disorder have separate alter egos that are unaware of each other. However, contrary to Angela’s statement, it is possible for alters to recognize one another and even communicate with each other in a state that the American Psychological Association refers to as “co-consciousness.”
Later, Mike shares that, in an attempt to skirt death during his nightmare horseback-riding trip, he recited the poem “I Will Not Go Gentle Into This Good Night.” The 1951 villanelle by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is actually called “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Mike makes it sound as if it’s a first-person struggle with one’s own demise, but the speaker in the poem is addressing his father. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we end today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on ultimatums.
Sara LARIOS: Hi, No Stupid Questions. Your recent episode brought to mind a compassionate ultimatum I received from a friend that changed my life. I had come to Zambia to do some short-term volunteer work, I ended up working at a local commercial firm instead. While I was there, I also started volunteering at a nearby prison on the weekends where I did recreational activities with the teens in custody there. And so, I was venting to my friend about how frustrating it was that I saw all these big needs that these kids had, yet all my working hours were being spent at this law firm. So, my friend said to me, “Either you’re going to help these kids or you aren’t. I challenge you on Monday,” this was a Friday, “to go hand in your resignation and start figuring out how you’re going to help. If you can’t do that on Monday, you never will. You might as well pack your bags and go.” I was stunned. But, after a weekend of soul searching, I actually went that Monday and handed in my resignation. That conversation happened eight years ago this month. And since that time, Up Zambia, my organization, has helped more than 3,000 children with free legal help. To this day, it’s still a little bit scary to talk to that friend, because I never know what new ultimatum will come my way, but I am so, so grateful to have a friend who challenged me like she did.
That was listener Sara Larios. Thanks to her and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your stories about how you practice self-compassion! Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Are you genetically destined to be overweight?
DUCKWORTH: Those questions reveal to me that people don’t actually understand how genes work.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: I’m not kidding though. I’ve been taking my inhaler it’s a week later, and I still can’t breathe.
- Maya Angelou, author, poet, and civil rights activist.
- Aaron (Tim) Beck, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Charlie Gilkey, executive coach and business growth consultant.
- Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Megan Lyons, nutritionist.
- Kristin Neff, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Kim Scott, co-founder of Radical Candor and prominent C.E.O. coach in Silicon Valley.
- Marty Seligman, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Ryan Smith, founder and executive chairman of Qualtrics.
- “Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology,” by Kendra Cherry (Verywell Mind, 2023).
- “Why Self-Compassion – Not Self-Esteem – Leads to Success,” by David Robson (B.B.C., 2021).
- “The Theory of Modes: Applications to Schizophrenia and Other Psychological Conditions,” by Aaron T. Beck, Molly R. Finkel, and Judith S. Beck (Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2021).
- “Psychological Safety and the Critical Role of Leadership Development,” by Aaron De Smet, Kim Rubenstein, Gunnar Schrah, Mike Vierow, and Amy Edmondson (McKinsey & Company, 2021).
- “Self-Care Strategies for Parents When You Have No Time for Yourself,” by Natasha Burton (Healthline, 2020).
- “The Foundation of True Self-Care Is Self-Compassion,” by Charlie Gilkey (Medium, 2019).
- “Construction and Factorial Validation of a Short Form of the Self-Compassion Scale,” by Filip Raes, Elizabeth Pommier, Kristin Neff, and Dinska Van Gucht (Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 2011).
- “An Examination of Self-Compassion in Relation to Positive Psychological Functioning and Personality Traits,” by Kristin D. Neff, Stephanie S. Rude, and Kristin L. Kirkpatrick (Journal of Research in Personality, 2007).
- “A Conversation with Maya Angelou,” by Bill Moyers (1973).