What Makes Self-Compassion Such a Hard Sell?

Identify and Overcome Challenges to Self-Compassion

Posted Sep 11, 2016

For decades, I’ve helped clients evoke their most nurturing, wise, parental, and compassionate self when dealing with anger–as well as the inner suffering that underlies it. This practice supports resilience necessary to pause and reflect on rather than react to anger.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Practices in self-compassion can powerfully help us calm both threat and the inner pain associated with anger. Research in recent years highlights the positive impact of compassionate practices to effect physiological changes associated with safety and calmness (Gilbert, 2010). These practices aid in sitting with and soothing feelings such as anxiety, shame, fear, powerlessness or loss–even when such feelings are the result of faulty thinking. As such, self-compassion allows space for reflection regarding the meaning of our anger. Comprehensive self-compassion means striving to be validating, empathetic, and sympathetic not only with our suffering but also with every aspect of our experience.

As defined by Paul Gilbert, the founder of compassion-focused therapy, compassion “… can involve a range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors such as those aimed to nurture, look after, protect, rescue, teach, guide, mentor, soothe and offer feelings of acceptance and belonging—in order to benefit the target of one’s caring”(2010). Compassion can be directed toward others or with ourselves.

Kristen Neff, psychologist and author of Self‐Compassion, identifies the following components of self-compassion (2011):

• Kindness with oneself: Self-compassion involves being kind to oneself withregard to one’s mind and body, whether supporting well-being or in response to suffering. 

• Recognizing and honoring one’s humanity: Recognizing our humanity involves being aware that all of us suffer, have flaws and make mistakes. Additionally, recognizing our humanity further helps us to remember that we are not alone.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness helps us to not overidentify with our suffering. It also encompasses non-judgment. As described by Neff, over-identification occurs when our emotions overwhelm us and cloud our perception of what’s really occurring.​

Bernard Golden
Source: Bernard Golden

Challenges to Self-Compassion

On first review, cultivating self-compassion may appear to be an effective strategy for anyone to deal with destructive emotions, including anger. However, my clinical experience mirrors research findings that some individuals are made very uneasy when engaged in these practices. Some may even experience some form of dissociation (Germer & Siegel, 2012).

Some clients stare at me with eyes glazed over when I introduce the concept of self-compassion. Some seem startled, like deer on the road caught in the headlights of a car. “I didn’t feel anything” “I need to stop right now (while crying)” or “This is feeling quite uncomfortable” are a few of the reactions expressed by some clients. 

As Christopher Germer indicates, it is not so much that people are uncomfortable with self-compassion. Rather, when self-compassion opens the heart to receive it, such compassion also opens the heart to pain that may be dormant. It may awake the suffering of old wounds that have not been fully acknowledged, grieved or mourned. Opening ourselves to self-compassion may be threatening for the following reasons:

1. It may rekindle hurt and sadness regarding unsatisfied longings for compassion in earlier years.

2. It may compete with our view that self-compassion is weak or can lead to a slippery slope of being “too” forgiving of ourselves.

3. It may be experienced as threatening to an inner dialogue founded on “tough love”, one that denies and minimizes the need for such compassion.   

4. It may be experienced as being selfish or self-absorbed.

5. Some individuals may feel undeserving of self-compassion.

6. And, as a consequence of these factors, attempts to evoke self-compassion can even arouse shame–with its powerful tendency to want to hide or disappear.

Meeting these challenges can be very difficult. After all, these attitudes were developed in an effort to protect us from experiencing pain. They may have been important and effective at one time in our lives. However, holding on to them further increases our sense of isolation and pain.

Many individuals may require the support of a mental health professional to help them foster self-compassion. This is especially true of those who have had more severe trauma. Consider the following guidelines when trying to expand self-compassion:

1. Identify the discomfort by “turning up the volume” of the inner dialog to identify the        specific challenges to self-compassion. Explore them as a very natural reaction that makes sense, when considering your backstory.

2. Take time to explore that backstory and first work on grieving and mourning the wounds associated with that backstory. (This is perhaps the most challenging task and may require additional help.)

3. Slowly introduce self-compassion, in incremental steps-gradually making room for its acceptance.

4. Be fully present and compassionate with the protective value served by resisting self-compassion.

Receiving Compassion and Generating Your Compassionate Self

The following is an exercise I have used with clients to help them cultivate the self-compassion essential for accepting both feelings and thoughts that contribute to anger arousal.  

First, search your mind for any examples of compassion that you’ve ever experienced or observed. These may come from real-life experience or from movies, books, or the news. You may also draw on examples from religious or spiritual leaders. Perhaps you envision the Dalai Lama, or Yoda, the Jedi Master in Star Wars known for his legendary wisdom, or a most loving and forgiving God. You may even recall com- passionate animals or characters from cartoons or comic strips.

Try to identify individuals or characters that have demonstrated, in the most intense way, the qualities that reflect compassion. For example, I remember my seventh-grade social studies teacher, who made time to meet with students after school to discuss classwork, politics, or any concerns we had. I remember him most for his gentleness, openness, and nonjudgmental attitude. I also recall a movie character that, to my mind, is one of the most compassionate people depicted on film. Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, exuded consistent and overriding compassion for his children, for those around him, and especially for the person he defended.

Now, find a place where you can sit without being disturbed. Gently close your eyes if it makes you more comfortable.

Imagine yourself seated in a circle with all of the people, characters, or entities that you’ve identified. Slowly look around the entire group, paying special attention to each member’s facial expression.

Notice the warmth in their eyes or the relaxation in their faces. Observe their postures and general demeanors. For each one, identify the specific aspect of compassion that led you to include him or her in the group. Perhaps it’s kindness, wisdom, confidence, non-judgment, or a sense of connection you feel to them.

Redirect your attention to the members of your group and picture them showing compassion toward you. Mindfully imagine receiving compassion as each participant might express it. They may show compassion simply in their facial expressions and posture or through their words. Note the sounds of their voices. Perhaps you picture them coming over to you and demonstrating compassion through a hug or a handshake.

Imagine their compassion as positive energy directed at you and merging with the compassionate energy of your compassionate self. Imagine yourself taking in compassionate energy with every inhalation of breath. Feel this capacity for compassion permeating your core, around your heart, in your mind, and throughout your body. Be attentive to making their compassion a part of who you are and who you wish to become. Sit and savor the experience.

Just sit for a moment, sensing the calmness, warmth, and empowerment flow through your body. This is what it feels like to exude compassion and connect with your compassionate self. You’ve evoked the part of you that’s capable of kindness, empathy, sympathy, wisdom, and a powerful connection with yourself and others. Savor this experience for several minutes. Then slowly open your eyes.

Many of my clients say this is a very powerful exercise that increases their mindfulness of specific examples of compassion and unlocks their compassionate selves. They find it helpful for instilling a sense of calmness and safety, making them less vulnerable to experience anger or act it out when it does arise. Consequently, calmness and safety replace threatening feelings and allow wisdom—and not emotions—to prevail in thoughts and behaviors.

Cultivating self-compassion requires courage to overcome the challenges to embracing it. It calls for mindful commitment. It is a way of being in relationship with ourselves that is the foundation for resilience when dealing with life’s challenges. Self-compassion is a powerful compliment to a variety of strategies that are highly effective for dealing with anger and the negative feelings behind it. Such compassion is a major component of healthy anger.

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy. New York: Routledge.                         Neff, K. (2011). Self-​Compassion. New York: HarperCollins.                                     Germer, C. & Siegel, R. (2012). Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.