Cultivating Self-Compassion Amid Tragedy

An interview with Dr. Joshua Knabb on cultivating self-compassion amid tragedy.

Posted Feb 05, 2019

This is the next in a continuing series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Joshua Knabb, used with permission
Source: Joshua Knabb, used with permission

Today’s interview is on the subject of self-compassion and resilience in the midst of hardships or tragedy, with Dr. Joshua Knabb, a board-certified clinical psychologist, specializing in individual and couples’ therapy. He resides in Southern California with his wife and two children, and is an associate professor of psychology at California Baptist University, serving as director of the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology Program in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

JA: How do you personally define self-compassion?

JK: I have found two definitions of compassion from the psychology literature to be especially informative. Both influenced by the Buddhist tradition, the developer of compassion-focused therapy (CFT), Paul Gilbert, succinctly defines compassion as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it,”[1] whereas Kristin Neff, the developer of the self-compassion scale (SCS) and co-developer of the mindful self-compassion (MSC) program, focuses on three key ingredients: applying kindness and empathy to ourselves when we are struggling with pain or personal shortcomings; recognizing that our seemingly separate, isolated struggles are actually consistent with those of others; and maintaining a sense of non-judgmental openness towards difficult thoughts and feelings.[2] 

Interestingly, because both of these definitions have been operationalized from Buddhist psychology, they tend to promote an “inside-out” perspective, meaning that self-compassion involves an awareness of our own suffering, along with the motivation to ameliorate intrapsychic pain by looking to the self as the catalyst for change. Yet, if we widen the focus, other faith traditions have just as much to say about compassion. For example, in the Christian tradition, mercy captures the ability to assist a suffering individual who cannot help him or herself, offering an amalgam of compassion, forgiveness, and the withholding of due punishment.[3] Thus, a Christian conceptualization of self-compassion emphasizes an “outside-in” approach, rather than “inside-out” strategy, with Christians first looking to a perceived relationship with God to alleviate suffering, then extending God’s compassion to the self, before offering compassion to others.

Whether conceptualizing self-compassion from clinical, Buddhist, or Christian perspectives, the more common elements often include the motivation to extend understanding, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness to the self in the midst of pain and suffering, coupled with the tendency to non-judgmentally embrace some of the more difficult thoughts and feelings that persist over time. Ultimately, applying compassion to the self seems to involve the ability to self-soothe when we are suffering, whether the source of comfort comes from the “inside-out” or “outside-in.”

JA: How can practicing self-compassion help us live more resiliently?

JK: One of the more difficult human experiences, shame, is made up of a collection of thoughts (e.g., “I’m worthless”), feelings (e.g., fear), and behaviors (e.g., withdrawing, avoiding).[4] When we experience shame on a regular basis, referred to in the psychology literature as “shame-proneness,”[5] we can get into the habit of attacking ourselves, leading to a variety of psychological problems.[6] Unfortunately, shame can be a rather pervasive, painful human experience, so much so that we may have a hard time identifying it and openly talking about it. Because of this, shame can be a driving force, albeit unknowingly, in daily living, leading to the tendency to withdraw and isolate ourselves and undermining our ability to thrive in our relationships with others.

Practicing self-compassion on a regular basis can help us self-soothe in the midst of suffering, rather than attacking ourselves. In fact, research has revealed that compassion may actually explain the link between mental health and psychopathology.[7] Therefore, learning how to practice self-compassion can allow us to be more present in life, whether we are pursuing personal goals or attempting to deepen our relationships with others. As we work on being more kind and gentle towards ourselves, we can shift our focus to living out our values, creating a life of meaning and purpose because we are no longer bogged down with debilitating shame and negative self-judgments.[8]

JA: What are some ways we can cultivate self-compassion when facing hardships?

JK: In psychology literature, loving-kindness meditations are currently quite popular. Emanating from the Buddhist tradition, they typically involve repeating short phrases to ourselves to cultivate self-compassion (e.g., “May I be free from suffering”).[9] In other words, with this type of formal meditative practice, we are attempting to proactively develop positive emotional experiences when struggling with unhelpful thoughts (e.g., negative self-judgments) and feelings (e.g., shame), extending kindness and gentleness to ourselves in the midst of psychological pain.[10]

Beyond the Buddhist tradition, many world religions offer similar meditative practices. For Christians, the Jesus prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”—has been used over the centuries to shift the wandering mind from unhelpful thoughts to Jesus’ compassionate reply, asking for soothing comfort in the midst of human struggles. Recent research in the psychology literature has revealed the Jesus prayer, as an alternative to Buddhist-influenced meditative practices, may be helpful in reducing worry, depression, anxiety, and stress.[11],[12]

JA: Any advice how we might support a friend or loved one struggling with self-compassion?

JK: One of the more helpful ways to respond to someone who is experiencing a lack of self-compassion (e.g., shame) may be to first maintain an awareness that we all struggle, as humans, by empathizing with their pain.[13] In turn, we can offer kindness by spending time with them or meeting one of their needs by directly asking, “What do you need from me right now to help?”

Above all else, key ingredients may include recognizing that their suffering is a ubiquitous part of the human experience, then attempting to respond to their pain with kindness and relational connection. Rather than trying to somehow “fix” them, a compassionate response may simply involve being present for an extended period of time and offering our non-judgmental friendship as we travel with them on the roads of life.

We can practice self-compassion through our own formal meditative practices, too, “taking our own medicine” before attempting to offer compassion to another. To do so, Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer just published a highly accessible workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, which offers a range of exercises for cultivating self-compassion, and I just published a similar workbook, The Compassion-Based Workbook for Christian Clients, drawing from the Christian, rather than Buddhist, tradition. In The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, the “giving and receiving” meditation is presented, which involves breathing in compassion and kindness for ourselves, then breathing out compassion and kindness for another. For Christians, this practice can be modified with the Jesus prayer, breathing in Jesus’ presence, then breathing out a request for Jesus’ compassionate, merciful reply—first for the self, then for others. These types of exercises can be helpful in allowing us to cultivate a compassionate emotional response when we are relating to ourselves, as well as responding to another person’s pain.

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to self-compassion?

JK: As noted above, I just published a workbook for Christians struggling with self-compassion, offering Christian-sensitive strategies to help Christians with shame and self-judgments.[14] I also recently completed a multi-site randomized trial with several colleagues on Christian meditation for repetitive negative thinking (e.g., rumination, worry), which has revealed promising results, and I just wrote a four-week program for Christians with trauma-based intrusive memories, using Christian meditative practices to help Christians shift from ruminations to focusing on God. In the coming year, I will be working with several colleagues to test this approach via a multi-site randomized trial. In my current work, I am especially interested in helping Christians with perseverative thinking, which has been linked to shame in recent research.[15] Because rumination and worry can exacerbate shame, helping people to first identify these types of repetitive thinking can be an important starting point on the road to self-compassion.

References

[1] Gilbert, P. (2017). Compassion: Definitions and controversies. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion: Concepts, research and applications (pp. 3-15). New York: Routledge.

[2] Neff, K. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

[3] Knabb, J. (2018). The compassion-based workbook for Christian clients: Finding freedom from shame and negative self-judgments. New York: Routledge.

[4] Gilbert, P. (1998). What is shame? Some core issues and controversies. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 3-38). New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Tangney, J., & Dearing, R. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York: The Guilford Press.

[6] Pineles, S., Street, A., & Koenen, K. (2006). The differential relationships of shame-proneness and guilt-proneness to psychological and somatization symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 688-704.

[7] Trompetter, H., Kleine, E., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2017). Why does positive mental health buffer against psychopathology? An exploratory study on self-compassion as a resilience mechanism and adaptive emotion regulation strategy. Cognitive Therapy Research, 41, 459-468.

[8] Tirch, D., Schoendorff, B., & Silberstein, L. (2014). The ACT practitioner’s guide to the science of compassion: Tools for fostering psychological flexibility. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

[9] Germer, C. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: The Guilford Press.

[10] Germer, C., & Barnhofer, T. (2017). Mindfulness and compassion: Similarities and differences. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion: Concepts, research and applications (pp. 69-86). New York: Routledge

[11] Knabb, J., Frederick, T., & Cumming, G. (2017). Surrendering to God’s providence: A three-part study on providence-focused therapy for recurrent worry (PFT-RW). Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9, 180-196.

[12] Knabb, J., & Vazquez, V. (2018). A randomized controlled trial of a two-week Internet-based contemplative prayer program for Christians with daily stress. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 5, 37-53.

[13] Neff, K. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

[14] Knabb, J. (2018). The compassion-based workbook for Christian clients: Finding freedom from shame and negative self-judgments. New York: Routledge.

[15] McEvoy, P., Mahoney, A., & Moulds, M. (2010). Are worry, rumination, and post-event processing one and the same? Development of the repetitive thinking questionnaire. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24, 509-519.