Training Self-Compassion in Clinical Practice
The following excerpt has been adapted from The ACT Practitioners Guide to the Science of Compassion, by Dennis Tirch, PhD, Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc, & Laura R. Silberstein, PsyD
Regardless of their theoretical approach, clinicians often notice that successful therapy leads to a profound sense of self-reconciliation. We believe that compassion for oneself and one’s inevitable failings, past, present, and future, is a key element in such self-reconciliation.
Clinician Pierre Cousineau likes to say that if he could give his clients only one skill, he would give them the skill to be self-compassionate. Unfortunately, our evaluative and comparing minds make it so easy to fear or hate ourselves, histories, thought patterns, emotions, behaviors, and the self-concepts that inevitably come to filter our experience and seemingly limit our options.
Yet when we are at war with ourselves or some part of ourselves, what could a victory possibly look like? Who would win and who would lose? What would become of the loser, and what would be left of the winner?
From a compassionate perspective, nothing is to be gained by prosecuting a war against those parts of our experience or ourselves that evoke discomfort and stubbornly resist our attempts at change. It’s only natural to dislike aversive experiences such as fear, sadness, or self-doubt. From there, it is only a very short distance to hating them and the vessel that contains them. Then comes hatred for the kind of person who feels or does such things; in other words, oneself.
Our culture disparages weakness and negative experience and makes this dislike abundantly clear in myriad ways—including, quite often, through our caregivers. As we learn how to relate to our private world from our early caregivers, we may adopt a hostile, dismissive, avoidant, or invalidating attitude toward difficult inner experiences, perhaps based on the assumption that we are supposed to think rationally and feel good, supposed to be confident and optimistic. We may believe we are expected to “just do it” regardless of inner obstacles.
These messages are pervasive to the point where it can feel unsafe to publicly show any sign of weakness. When the evaluative mind enters the fray, these social processes become highly potentiated and the war against inner experience starts in earnest.
If only we felt differently, if only we could see the good side of things, if only we’d had a different history; if only we had a less negative vision of ourselves, more self-esteem, less self-doubt, more of this, less of that…then we would finally be complete and whole. Verbal processes trap us in endless evaluative frames from which we nearly always emerge at fault.
In this context, training self-compassion can be seen as the overarching goal in therapy. If we all had the skill and courage to make space for our own suffering and be kind to that part of ourselves that stumbles and sometimes falls, change would become so much easier.
Through self-compassion, mistakes cease to present us occasions to berate ourselves, shame dissipates, and we become our own best friend, coach, or ally, providing ourselves with whatever support we need to make it through and move toward what really matters to us.