Many years ago, I was on a three-month meditation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains outside of San Diego. I was sitting on a boulder that overlooked the ocean with one of the senior monks, and I asked him for advice about how to focus my meditation practice while I was there.
He said, “Whenever any kind of suffering arises, even if it’s minor or subtle, recognize that it is there and send it compassion.” Over the next three months, I discovered how powerful this simple practice could be. Whenever I felt anxious or insecure or lonely, just a few minutes of self-compassion produced a real change: I could 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 life as well as my work as a psychotherapist. Learning to recognize suffering and send it compassion is at the core of my therapeutic practice, and 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.
What is self-compassion? It is intimately tied to the practice of mindfulness—a special way of paying attention to the present moment, with complete acceptance of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Self-compassion comes from the understanding, gleaned through moments of mindfulness, that every human being suffers, that we all want to be happy but often don’t know how to find happiness, and that this commonality connects us with everyone else. Understanding these truths, recognizing our own vulnerabilities, and practicing more kindness toward ourselves is at the heart of self-compassion.
Applying this to our clients in psychotherapy can be enormously healing. When clients develop more compassion for themselves, they can more easily move through difficult material, forgive themselves and others, and become more productive and happy human beings.
This might seem like wishful thinking; but science supports the fostering of self-compassion. There is a growing body of research that specifically explores how self-compassion has powerful positive effects on our mental and physical health. Scientists like Barbara Fredrickson, Kristin Neff, and Sonja Lyubomirsky have documented how positive emotions, and especially compassion, increase our ability to notice more possibilities, take another person’s perspective, perform better on cognitive tasks, and even decrease the incidence of heart disease and cancer. When we know how to generate compassion from within, we begin to radiate more peace and stability and we have an easier time getting along with others.
You might be wondering how self-compassion differs from self-esteem. Self-esteem is about evaluating oneself as being good or better than others. However, self-compassion involves being kind toward oneself without worrying about who is better or worse. With self-compassion, our worth doesn’t come from how we compare to others; instead, we are worthy of compassion just because we are human.
You might also question whether adopting an attitude of self-compassion would erode our drive to improve ourselves and persevere through adversity. However, empirical research shows that the opposite is true.
In one study, researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen provided three groups of people with either self-compassion or self-esteem training; the third group did not receive any instruction. Then all three groups were exposed to difficult experiences, like taking a math test or focusing on personal weaknesses. The group primed to focus on self-compassion reported significantly greater motivation to improve—studying more after failing a test or expressing stronger motivation to change their personal weaknesses, for example—than the other two groups, leading the researchers to conclude that not only does self-compassion feel good, it motivates us to overcome our challenges.
Self-compassion has been shown in neuroscience research to strengthen the parts of the brain that make you happier, more resilient, and more attuned to others. It can comfort negative emotions in the present, permanently heal painful memories from the past, and change negative core beliefs. All of these are important aspects of a successful therapeutic experience.
So, how do we help clients develop greater self-compassion? There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to this, but I would like to offer a few guidelines that come from my new book, Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy. You may want to reflect on the concepts and practices presented here and experiment with them, making sure to be authentic and sensitive to the client’s reactions. For more information, you can go to my book to see how these general concepts can be applied to a wide variety of specific case studies.
1. Unlock a client’s 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 begin by teaching our clients specific techniques to activate their Care Circuits and generate compassion within themselves. Later they will direct that compassion toward their suffering to create healing.
One such practice asks your client to focus on some object of their affection. Start with an uncomplicated relationship—maybe a child, a pet, a religious figure, even a fictional character—and have them imagine sending love and compassion toward this person or animal. Help them to focus on the feelings of warmth and openness that this engenders. This practice activates the Care Circuit in the client’s brain, which researchers have demonstrated can both be strengthened through practice and has a powerful impact on regulating emotional distress.
2. Use compassion to transform suffering in the present
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?
The first step is relating to ourselves with acceptance. If I’m struggling in a particular moment—if I’m 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.
3. 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 boy and direct compassion to him. I might say to him, “I am here with you. You are never alone.” Or I might pick him up, hold him, and imagine sending him love like I’m shining a light on him. 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.
4. Help clients understand why they engage in self-criticism so that they 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 him, “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.
5. Practice compassion for yourself
Just as important as teaching self-compassion to your clients is practicing compassion for yourself. We all experience many painful feelings, including confusion, anger, disappointment, boredom, and helplessness. Learning to accept these feelings and finding compassion for your own suffering can clear you to be more present in therapy and can indirectly help your clients. Ways of practicing self-compassion might include nourishing your own happiness, giving yourself permission to experiment as a therapist (rather than having all the answers), taking good care of your physical and emotional health, and setting aside some time each day to send yourself love and compassion—even if it’s just 10 minutes.