Compassion-Focused Therapy for Self-Injury

Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a coping mechanism that is rising at alarming rates. “In Canada and the United States, prevalence ranges from 12% to 41% in community samples of adolescents and young adults,” said K. Jessica van Vliet, Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta. Most people who self-injure do so to cope with negative feelings, acceptance and social fears. “In particular, there is a need for counseling approaches that strengthen client emotion regulation, self-acceptance, and positive ways of relating with others,” said van Vliet. “Compassion-focused therapy (CFT), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to help people relate to themselves with greater compassion, is proposed as an approach for addressing the most common underlying functions of non-suicidal self-injury.” This relatively new form of therapy is aimed at teaching self-acceptance, compassion, and emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is one of the most common problems for people who self-injure. “Studies of NSSI have reported higher levels of negative emotions and subjective emotional distress and increased physiological reactivity to stress.” van Vliet said, “NSSI may also be related to having a limited repertoire of healthy strategies to cope with intense emotional arousal.” Studies have shown that compassion, the foundation of CFT, is a trait that, if directed inward, actually increases healthy psychological functioning. “Other studies have suggested that among college students self-compassion is correlated with adaptive coping and well-being in response to academic failure,” added van Vliet. Other research has indicated CFT helps NSSI clients relieve symptoms of anxiety, shame, depression and self-criticism. “Techniques such as compassion-based imagery that focus on both the inward and outward flows of compassion may also help clients relate to other people in more positive ways. A compassion-focused approach may also counteract self-directed hostility through self-directed warmth, understanding, and kindness.” van Vliet added, “To be effective, counseling interventions must address the underlying functions of NSSI, which are generally emotion regulation, self-punishment, and need for interpersonal influence.”

Van Vliet, Jessica K., and Genivieve RC Kalnins. “A Compassion-Focused Approach to Nonsuicidal Self-Injury.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 33.4 (2011): 295-311. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • benny


    November 1st, 2011 at 7:46 AM

    self injury definitely has its roots in a person not able to understand himself.its hard to believe that there are so many people who indulge in self-injury and it is even stranger that this rate has only grown in the past years.

    what all this points to is that our youngstewrs have trouble understanding themselves and are at crossroads when it comes to emotions and self-awareness.

    why this happens is one thing that needs to be studied and hopefully the methods mentioned here which do include the necessary things like understanding the self,self-compassion,etcetera are able to fix the issues for the various young people out there.

  • Rob


    November 1st, 2011 at 11:24 PM

    Compassion?Doesnt sound like the right word for yourself-it sounds more like self-pity!

    Self injury episodes would be much better handled by feeling good about oneself,by feeling proud of yourself!

  • helenwillow


    January 26th, 2012 at 1:35 PM

    I self harm, I am now 41. I have done it on and off since I was at least 13. I have tried therapy, it’s slightly effective, being in relationships helped for awhile, but the urges come back, and the problem is I am very creative in coming up for ways to self harm that aren’t visible or can easily be explained away. Are there any newe therapy techniques for dealing with self harm, any studies going on?

  • Joey Delgado

    Joey Delgado

    March 23rd, 2012 at 9:26 PM

    When I heard my sister threw herself twice over a height of 13 steps two days ago, the feeling was like a lightening striking my head. I have cried and have realized that I may never get back the sister I knew. After she threw herself many times in the midnight, she insisted on going to work, which was told to me by my father. I immediately knew that she may commit suicide. That day I looked all the news about accident death in New York. Luckily, none. Then at around 9:30 pm, I learned that NYPD took her to a psychiatric ward. I went to visit her yesterday and learned that she put herself in front of the a parking truck and someone called police. When she saw me, she said that a 5-metric ton truck went over her and she could still remain unscathed. This delusion made my realize that she is really mentally sick. None of my family and none of my friends are mentally sick. I need advice in helping my sister. Is there anyone who can offer some advice such as recommendation for an experienced psychiatrist, a compassionate therapist who can help my sister. Or any support group I should go to get help for my sister. I am here for my sister.

    Thank in advance!

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