Many mental health care providers are aware that self-compassion practices can benefit people in therapy. Whether a person is battling negative inner critics or facing the challenges of healing from trauma, self-compassion is often a useful partner in the therapy session.
Any person can learn to practice self-compassion when they begin to notice the usual negative tape playing in their heads or feel the dreaded, familiar pangs of disappointment. In fact, that is exactly the time to do it. When practicing self-compassion, we learn to extend self-compassion not to feel make ourselves feel good, but because we feel bad.
Therapists might learn more about self-compassion practices from workshops or from learning about self-compassion as a path to emotional healing. But it can be more challenging to know when to introduce self-compassion to people in therapy. Rather than jumping right in, it can be helpful to take a step back and wisely consider how, when, and with whom to integrate this powerful tool.
First, let’s define self-compassion. It is the practice of extending compassion toward ourselves when we are suffering, rather than criticizing ourselves or ignoring the pain. It is similar to we show compassion to others, and it is a skill that can be practiced (Neff 2011). Sharon Salzburg is credited with saying, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Regular practice helps transform self-compassion from a concept understood in the brain into a soothing resource experienced in a person’s body and being.
Here are five things therapists might find helpful to consider when wondering how and when to include self-compassion practices in therapy.
1. Know when to use self-compassion.
This practice is ideal for people who are highly self-critical, perfectionistic, and/or prone to feelings of shame. It is also often a helpful tool for those who are looking to develop a more stable sense of self-worth and for anyone wanting to learn how to self-soothe during difficult moments.
Self-compassion also has great value for teens. It can help them learn how to befriend themselves and step off the self-esteem roller coaster where they only feel good about ourselves when things are going well. Self-compassion practice can also support survivors of abuse as they learn to become their own clear mirror and reflect back their goodness and humanity.
But self-compassion can help many people. If you believe teaching and practicing self-compassion will benefit the person you’re working with, it is generally most helpful to introduce the concept and practices after you have established a therapeutic connection and are in the working stages of therapy. Make sure you both understand the connection between the practice of self-compassion, why they came in for therapy, and how the choice to practice self-compassion on their own is one way to take a positive step forward.
2. Know when not to use self-compassion.
If you believe teaching and practicing self-compassion will benefit the person you’re working with, it is generally most helpful to introduce the concept and practices after you have established a therapeutic connection and are in the working stages of therapy.
While self-compassion can be helpful for many, it may not be wise to introduce self-compassion when a person is struggling to receive empathy from you in session. When someone has trouble receiving empathy from you, they may have difficulty with the concept of self-compassion. It may feel overwhelming to some people because, in their experience, love and care have been paired with pain and humiliation.
It may also not be ideal to use self-compassion practices, if you, the therapist, have not regularly practiced self-compassion, formally or informally. Becoming familiar with the practice, inside and out, is essential to teaching it effectively to people in therapy.
3. Explain the concept with some helpful analogies.
One of my favorite analogies for self-compassion is the idea of tending to and watering a garden. When we practice self-compassion for the first time, we are tilling the soil and planting seeds. We then have to regularly water the seeds, pull out weeds, water some more, and so on, in order to one day have a flourishing garden. In order for the state of self-compassion to be more readily available to us in a time of pain and disappointment, we must spend some time in our garden doing what needs to be done for plants to flower and bear fruit.
Some people may prefer an analogy of practicing an instrument, exercising a muscle, or fixing an old car. But whatever example you choose, these acts take time, patience, care, and a willingness to return to the practice again and again. To begin simply, you could ask what they might say to a good friend who was having a hard time. Analogies can help the person in therapy internalize the concept and begin to relate to the benefits of the practice before beginning to try it for themselves.
4. Start small and go slow.
Start small. Begin by having them place a hand on the heart, the belly, or both. Let them know there is research backing this simple act. Start small by having them acknowledge that this is painful, that they are having difficult feelings, that this moment is very hard. To stop the struggle with the feelings, it’s helpful to come into contact, even briefly, with the fact that this is a difficult, human feeling.
Move slowly. Advocate for the part of them that can approach this practice slowly, dipping a toe in the water rather than leaping into the pool. Go slowly by checking in with how it feels to simply put a hand on the heart. Check in with how it is to just acknowledge the pain. You might stop there for the session and another day introduce a bit more, such as a guided meditation. You might also have them come up with their own self-compassion phrases.
5. Practice self-compassion yourself in the session.
If you are stressed or otherwise having difficulty, perhaps because of an overfull schedule, practice soothing and giving yourself self-compassion throughout the day. You can practice in between sessions. You can practice in the session. The people you are working with may feel it in the room. Even if you aren’t technically teaching self-compassion, on some level, you are modeling it.
Self-compassion is a wonderful and powerful agent for change because when we can accept and be with ourselves exactly as we are. It allows us to acknowledge our shortcomings without getting lost in the story. This is how real change can actually happen. Carl Rogers best explained this mysterious phenomenon when he said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
The practice of self-compassion can help us stay in a difficult moment and not abandon ourselves when we need ourselves the most. When blended into therapeutic work in a timely and wise manner, it can make a difference in your clinical work and in the emotional resilience of the people you work with.
- Neff, K. (n.d.). The physiology of self-compassion. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/the-physiology-of-self-compassion
- Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: Harper Collins.
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