“Why we need to stop working on building self-esteem, and instead work much more on self-compassion” With Dr. Barbara Vacarr

For many years, the mental health and child development fields have focused on building self-esteem, but it turns out that the quality that supports resilience much more effectively is self-compassion. Researchers have found that self-compassion is more helpful than either self-esteem or optimism when it comes to coping well with adversity. For example, in one study, scientists found that newly divorced people who spoke compassionately toward themselves adjusted significantly better in the 10 months after the divorce than those who had less compassionate self-talk. Research also suggests that self-compassion can moderate depressive symptoms, and also serve as a buffer against depression. Moreover, we can all learn to access self-compassion; research by Kristin Neff, among others, shows that simply pressing your hand against your heart or giving yourself a little hug can boost self-compassion. Another lovely thing that research has revealed is that we can raise our self-compassion levels by being kind to each other. So the best way to collectively create a more self-compassionate world is to be kind to ourselves and to others. This is the simple, profound essence of the wisdom shared by all the great teachers, from the Buddha (as quoted above) to Jesus (the Golden Rule) to Swami Kripalu, who said, “Serve with a full heart. By making others happy, you make yourself happy.”

I had the great pleasure to interview Dr. Barbara Vacarr. Dr. Vacarr is a psychologist, an adult educator, and the former president and CEO of Goddard College in Vermont. Her distinguished careers in higher education and mental health and human services have given her the skills and wisdom to advance Kripalu’s leadership position, offering the gold standard for yoga education and serving as a global vehicle for social impact. Committed to learning what creates meaningful change in the world, Barbara has spent almost 30 years developing programs that support adult and non-traditional students to grow and transform — strengthening the connections between their education, their livelihood, and their daily life. During her tenure at Goddard, Barbara acted as a change agent to build sustainability and regain the school’s historic leadership role in higher education. Prior to that, she served as the founding director of the PhD in Adult Learning program at Lesley University, where she developed and led degree programs in adult education, human development and mental-health counseling, and organizational leadership. As an ambassador of progressive education with audiences around the world, Barbara was named one of 50 “Influencers in Aging in America” in 2015, by PBS’s Next Avenue. She is a sought-after speaker and writer on topics including aging, mindfulness, diversity, and community collaboration and engagement. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a deep commitment to missions that have meaning and resonance, and a dedication to organizations doing bold, good work. Barbara holds a PhD in psychology and human development. She is the founder and senior leader of the Intergenerational Women’s Mentoring Collective, served as an interviewer for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and is a project leader for the Cambodian Youth and Missing History Project. Barbara and her husband of 40 years are grandparents of five. She most enjoys spending time with her family.


Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Vacarr! What is your backstory?

Everything I’ve ever done, regardless of the organization, I have worked for a mission that is about changing the world. My work has always been about developing change agents. From the time I was little, there was a part of me that wanted to heal my family and heal the world — I was very connected to recognizing the places where there was pain and wanting to make them whole. I think this probably comes from living in a family of Holocaust survivors. For me, the conduits for this mission have been the fields of psychology and higher education, specifically adult learning. Before coming to Kripalu, I was the president and CEO of Goddard College in Vermont, and before that the founding director of the PhD in Adult Learning program at Lesley University. I see my role as the first female CEO of Kripalu as a continuation of a career in experiential learning — truly transformative learning as a result of the connection between theory and direct experience.

With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

First, let me make clear that family dynamics can be both difficult and healthy! It’s the rare and fortunate family that experiences smooth sailing at all times. The difference between healthy and unhealthy dynamics, however, lies in the level of authenticity in the communication among family members, and the extent to which all members of the family are willing to take responsibility for their needs and their roles — in both everyday interactions and more intense conflicts. In addition, if family members can continue to hold steady in their self-compassion and in their compassion for each other, even if the midst of strong emotions and difficult challenges, they will have a better chance of moving through the conflict and emerging as a stronger, more resilient unit.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

Put on your own oxygen mask first, as they say. If you go into a strained family situation feeling grounded and centered, not only will you be more immune to triggers, you’ll also have the inner resources to help defuse difficult situations. Prioritizing self-care is key, because it’s amazing what happens when you approach people from a stable, centered place, with an open heart and a real willingness to connect. Unfortunately, when we get busy around the holidays, self-care often tends to be the first thing that goes — we skip our run, or yoga, or nature hike, or whatever it is that keeps us balanced and refills our well. Then we go into a challenging family situation already feeling on edge.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

When we refer to a friend or family member as “toxic,” we’re often saying — whether consciously or not — that this relationship is beyond saving. It’s not just difficult or unhealthy; it’s a consistent source of negative, even poisonous feelings. So our first decision might be to change that terminology, to take the “toxic” label off that person and redefine the relationship in terms that help you feel better about having them in your life, even if it’s only for a few days each year. Draw on caring and empathy to support you in this process. What can you see in this person that you appreciate? What are they going through or feeling that you can relate to? Pinpointing even a very small thing — you both have children you care about, or you both have fears for where the world is going, even if you’re coming from completely different ideological viewpoints — can help you feel connected to them. In your interactions, let go of needing to tell them what’s “right” and how “wrong” they are. If you know from past experience that they won’t be willing to hear anything you have to say, simply listen with care. And, if you feel that your well of empathy is drying up, excuse yourself from the conversation and re-center by taking a few moments to meditate, or to go outside and take a few deep breaths.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

  1. Agree in advance that some conversation topics are off-limits. Sometimes authentic communication includes deciding jointly to skirt hot-button issues during a family celebration, with the understanding that you’ll return to them later.
  2. Practice self-care. I can’t emphasize this enough! Don’t skimp on sleep, exercise, yoga, meditation, time in nature, time with your significant other — whatever serves you best in staying centered — so you can come from a grounded, nourished place no matter what’s happening around you.
  3. Lower your expectations; be optimistic but also realistic. If family gatherings have always been tricky, don’t expect everything — or anything — to change this year. Make your peace beforehand with a less-than-ideal holiday gathering that doesn’t match the perfect pictures that the media presents to us.
  4. Ask for help. You don’t have to do everything alone, whether the nuts-and-bolts work of holiday preparation or the emotional work of reentering a troubling dynamic. Recruit moral and practical support from family members you can count on. Perhaps get together with a trusted relative or two before the big gathering and commit to consciously supporting each other throughout the season.
  5. Have a mini centering practice in your toolkit. What quick, portable practice helps you navigate difficult moments? Perhaps simply taking three slow, deep breaths while placing your hand on your heart; repeating a meaningful phrase or poem to yourself; taking a full-body stretch; or going outside for a few minutes to watch the clouds roll by or the snow fall. Remind yourself before a gathering that you have the ability to return to this calm place at any time throughout the event.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

Again, when you come from a place of centeredness, compassion, and empathy, you create a ripple effect. Your very presence can shift the tone of the room toward more positive conversation and activity. A little practical planning doesn’t hurt, either: If you’re concerned that a gathering will devolve into excessive drinking or negative talk that triggers the person you’re concerned about, work with a couple of trusted relatives to build some structure for the get-together. Take a group hike, play a goofy game, put on music and dance. If there are children at the gathering, focus some healthy activities around them — crafts, charades, a game of tag. Even if not everyone chooses to participate, hopefully some family members will support your effort to create a healthier environment — especially if you recruit their cooperation ahead of time.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

I love this quote attributed to the Buddha: “You yourself as much as anybody in the universe deserve your love and affection.” This speaks directly to the practice of self-compassion, which has a powerful positive impact on mental health (much more on this below).

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

For many years, the mental health and child development fields have focused on building self-esteem, but it turns out that the quality that supports resilience much more effectively is self-compassion. Researchers have found that self-compassion is more helpful than either self-esteem or optimism when it comes to coping well with adversity. For example, in one study, scientists found that newly divorced people who spoke compassionately toward themselves adjusted significantly better in the 10 months after the divorce than those who had less compassionate self-talk. Research also suggests that self-compassion can moderate depressive symptoms, and also serve as a buffer against depression. Moreover, we can all learn to access self-compassion; research by Kristin Neff, among others, shows that simply pressing your hand against your heart or giving yourself a little hug can boost self-compassion. Another lovely thing that research has revealed is that we can raise our self-compassion levels by being kind to each other. So the best way to collectively create a more self-compassionate world is to be kind to ourselves and to others. This is the simple, profound essence of the wisdom shared by all the great teachers, from the Buddha (as quoted above) to Jesus (the Golden Rule) to Swami Kripalu, who said, “Serve with a full heart. By making others happy, you make yourself happy.”