The Necessity of Self Compassion in the Therapeutic Process

By Nicole Arkin, LMFT

Lately, I have found myself thinking a lot more about compassion and particularly the role of compassion in the therapeutic process. In some ways it may seem quite obvious that compassion is central and essential to the therapeutic process. However, it has been coming to my attention how much many of us tend to struggle with this, both in and out of therapy.

Compassion has sometimes been expressed as the quivering and responsiveness of the heart in the face of someone else’s suffering. I wish here to expand this to how we relate to ourselves. When we are suffering and in pain, how do we respond and relate to ourselves? Do we respond with a caring, kind and open heart? Many of us, for various reasons, from difficult and abusive childhoods to simply more general cultural contexts, may respond to ourselves with dismissiveness, anger, self punishment, or maybe patterns that involving getting away from it by any means possible, such as addictions or even simply “spacing out”. And, for some of us being in pain fuels pockets of self hatred that already exist within us. Apparently when the Dali Lama visited the US he was surprised to see how many Westerners contend with and experience self hatred. And, when he asked a group of Buddhist teachers who of them experiences self hatred every one of them raised their hand. I would say that this self hatred makes for particular dilemmas and challenges that may arise through the course of therapy and calls then especially for a great deal of compassion and tenderness with ourselves.

Within the context of therapy, from beginning to end, there are many opportunities to practice compassion for ourselves. Simply beginning therapy can require a great deal of compassion. Some of us may feel ashamed to need or want therapy or feel as if it means something is wrong with us. On top of this some of us are from cultures where therapy is thought of as taboo or for “really crazy people”. Phew, just to get past all that, hold ourselves in compassion and get the help we needs requires a great deal of kindness and strength, simply to begin the process.

Not to mention when we get to the middle and often murkier stages of therapy. I think of the middle stage of a decent of sorts in which we often are faced with difficult and painful aspects of ourselves and our lives, as well as have the sense that we are in darker and more confusing territory. All this from a larger perspective can be seen as being part of becoming and deepening ourselves as well as developing our capacities. However, when we are in this phase we may not know where we are and what is happening and this can feel quite disorienting and even scary. This also may include coming into contact with more shadow related qualities of our selves- Parts we tried to get rid of, push down or run away from begin to rear their heads up, saying “look at me, look at me”. For example, someone who has always thought of himself “as a nice guy” may begin to feel bouts of anger or even rage. Or, someone who has always been proud of their self reliance may encounter places of deep vulnerability and fragility. One woman I know who generally thinks of herself as “cooperative and kind” described it as having “all her sharp edges” come out. Another possibility during this phase is beginning to notice the places where we don’t feel, where we are numbed or spaced out. This too can be particularly distressing.

So, what seems essential to all of this is how to bring a kind and caring attention to whatever is arising. Often therapy emphasizes moving toward deeper understandings, truth and insight about ourselves and our lives so that we can begin finding and seeing more choices and possibilities for ourselves rather than the pervasive and persistent patterns we often find ourselves in. I would argue that without holding these discoveries, learnings and ourselves in kindness, tenderness and gentleness we are missing the mark here. So when the anger or numbness or whatever arises in the therapy can we be patient with ourselves, can we learn to accept and hold what is happening without it leading to an attack on ourselves? Can we learn to be with whatever arises? Gently, kindly, patiently…And, if we do attack ourselves can we learn to see that without attacking ourselves for not being more compassionate and kind with ourselves?

So you may ask how. For many of us, especially if we have been through abuse and trauma, we may have no idea where to start as far as being kind and compassionate to ourselves. We may have no concept of what this looks like or how it may feel like. Perhaps the starting point here is simply noticing and becoming aware of the places and incidences, in which we attack, are unkind or harmful to ourselves and what original pain and suffering may have brought that on. Eventually and moment to moment we can learn to care about ourselves and our suffering. Often this takes another person and here is where therapy can be such a blessing. Here it may take another person as the poet Galway Kinnel says “to reteach a thing its loveliness” and lovableness I may add- carefully, consistently, patiently persistently and over time. Luckily, we do not have to go at it alone.

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