Many years ago, I was on a long retreat with Jack Kornfield and Stephen Levine, at a “Conscious Living and Dying” meditation retreat, in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz. I was sitting on a boulder in the forest with one of the senior teachers, and I asked her for advice about how to focus my meditation practice while I was there.
She said, “Whenever any kind of suffering arises, even if it’s minor or subtle, recognize that it is there and send it compassion.” Ever since that day, I’ve been discovering how powerful this simple practice could be. Whenever I feel anxious or insecure or lonely, just a few minutes of self-compassion produces a real change: It almost always helps me to be able to feel a deep caring, sweetness of acceptance and empathy for my own suffering, and I’m then able to let go of whatever was bothering me, and live more fully in the present moment.
In many ways, that conversation has shaped the course of my personal life, as well as my work as a psychotherapist. Learning to recognize suffering and send it compassion, is at the core of my therapeutic and personal spiritual practice. I’ve found that this simple and direct method, can be enormously effective in helping clients who experience everyday suffering, as well as severe depression, anxiety, and trauma. It can also generate happiness, and help them focus more on the positive elements of life.
FIVE WAYS I USE SELF-COMPASSION IN THERAPY
Applying this to you, my client in psychotherapy, can be enormously healing. When people develop more compassion for themselves, they can more easily move through difficult emotional material, forgive themselves and others, and become more productive and happy human beings.
Here are the five main ways we will use mindful self-compassion in your therapy session:
We will unlock your natural compassion.
There is a deep well of compassion inside every person. Once we know how to get in touch with it, we can use that energy for transformation and healing. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, has discovered that one of the primary emotional circuits in the brain, is about creating the experience of warmth, caring, and compassion. He calls it the Care Circuit, and it is essential for bonding and caretaking in all mammals, including humans.
We will begin by using specific techniques to activate your Care Circuits and generate compassion within yourself. Later you will direct that compassion toward your own suffering to create healing. One such practice asks you to focus on some object of your affection. Start with an uncomplicated relationship—maybe a child, a pet, a religious figure, even a fictional character - and I will have you imagine sending love and compassion toward this person or animal. I will help you to focus on the feelings of warmth and openness that this engenders.
This practice activates the Care Circuit in your brain, which researchers have demonstrated can both be strengthened through practice, and has a powerful impact on regulating emotional distress.
We will use compassion to transform suffering in the present moment.
Compassion has the power to heal and transform our suffering. Whether it comes from oneself or from another person, what matters is that one’s suffering is embraced with open acceptance and love. How do we direct compassion at the source of our suffering in each moment?
The first step is relating to ourselves with acceptance. If I’m struggling in a particular moment, such as feeling anxious or frustrated - the first step is simply noticing that suffering is present in me, and then giving myself permission to feel exactly what I’m feeling. That doesn’t mean I want to continue reacting the same way, but just that I’m not fighting myself.
If I notice that I’m feeling nervous, I can say to myself, “You are feeling nervous right now, and that’s OK. You are allowed to feel nervous and you don’t have to make that feeling go away.” Just this recognition and acceptance can often lead to real relief. But compassion doesn’t end there. It is not merely the recognition and acceptance of suffering. It also means responding to suffering with care and kindness.
So after noticing the suffering in me, and giving myself permission to feel exactly as I do, the next step is to relate to the part of me that feels nervous with tenderness and love. I might say to myself, “I know you feel nervous right now, and that’s OK. Is there anything I could do to help you feel a little safer or more comfortable?”
Then I listen to myself. I might need to take some action, like leaving a dangerous situation, or I might just need some words of reassurance, like “No matter what happens, you are still worthy of love.” Bringing kindness and compassion to moments of suffering can make us more resilient to the inevitable challenges we face in life.
We will use compassion to transform suffering in the past.
When the primary cause of one’s suffering is in the past, this requires practicing a little differently. If I’m feeling lonely, I might begin by accepting my emotion and relating to myself with kindness and care. Yet, after some reflection, I realize that my loneliness in this moment is deeply connected to my childhood. I know that I was very lonely as a child, and that has created a tendency in me to feel lonely, even if I’m surrounded with friends.
In this type of situation, I can picture myself as a child. I see this lonely little girl and direct compassion to her. I might say to her, “I am here with you. You are never alone.” Or I might pick her up, hold her, and imagine sending her love, like I’m shining a light on her. What’s most important in this practice is getting in touch with my source of suffering, and generating compassion in the same moment.
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that this kind of practice can actually change a distressing memory, through a process called memory reconsolidation. If I activate a distressing memory, and activate the Care Circuit at the same time, a new association is built in my brain so that the memory itself becomes less distressing. This can be understood as emotional healing on a molecular level.
Understanding why you engage in self-criticism so that you can overcome it.
One of the most transformative applications of self-compassion is what I call “turning an enemy into a friend.” True self-compassion means having compassion for every part of oneself, including the parts that we might label as dysfunctional or pathological.
Rather than hating my depression, inner critic, or anxiety, I can learn how to care for them, like a parent caring for a child. This process can be tricky, so I’ll just give a simple example here:
If I were to drop a glass of water on the floor and reflexively call myself an idiot, what does it mean to practice self-compassion in that moment?
Imagine that I try to say some kind words to myself like, “No. You’re not an idiot. Everyone spills things sometimes. It’s OK.” But my inner critic immediately responds, “Yes, you ARE an idiot. That was careless and now people are going to think you’re clumsy.” How can I restore a sense of peace in me?
In my years as a therapist, I’ve learned that the inner critic responds much better to compassion than hatred or avoidance. If I start yelling at myself, “No! Don’t say that. I’m NOT an idiot!” I’m trying to overcome the inner critic with hatred. If I just try to distract myself with television, food, or something else to get away from those thoughts, I’m avoiding my inner critic.
On the other hand, I can also take a breath, slow down my reactivity, and bring loving presence to my inner critic by saying to her, “I hear that you really don’t want to look clumsy in front of other people. Are you trying to encourage me to be more careful?” I bring a real willingness to listen to this part of me that is afraid, that is suffering.
If I can bring compassionate presence to this part of me, then I can hear the helpful message (try to be more careful) without taking on the criticism (you’re an idiot). It requires a lot of practice to be able to do this on your own, but it can create a huge amount of change.
Practicing compassion for myself, so I can be a role model and inspiration to you!
Just as important as teaching self-compassion to you, is practicing compassion for myself. We all experience many painful feelings, including confusion, anger, disappointment, boredom, and helplessness. Learning to accept these feelings and finding compassion for my own suffering, helps me to be more present in therapy, and can indirectly help you.
Ways of practicing self-compassion might include nourishing my own happiness, giving myself permission to experiment as a therapist (rather than having all the answers), taking good care of my physical and emotional health, and setting aside some time each day to send myself love and compassion - even if it’s just 10 minutes.