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Clinical Tips and Tools: Self-Compassion

Clinical Tips and Tools: Self-Compassion by Amy Heard-Davidson, PhD

I am excited and honored to kick off a new segment in our revived newsletter: “Tips and Tools.” It seemed like a great idea for our newsletter to provide a platform for us to share our favorite clinical tools; the ones we find ourselves using over and over because they are so effective, intuitive, and engaging. One of my favorite “go-to” tools that I’d like to share with you is Self-Compassion.

I first learned about Self-Compassion at a 4-day workshop in 2010, that focused on helping clinicians to “Build Compassionate Presence.” During the workshop, I reflected on my training and work thus far, and realized that I had seldom heard that word used. Empathy, yes, positive regard, sure (thank you Carl Rogers), but up to that point, not compassion. My experience with the power of compassion and the compelling research for how impactful, necessary, and universal it is, sparked a deep interest that endures to this day, and I began to explore on my own the many lines of research that contribute to our knowledge about compassion: what it is, how it works, why it’s helpful, and how to develop it as a “skill.” This research has exploded over the past decade, and spans multiple disciplines and interest areas.

Research on the benefits of mindfulness (which started way back in the 1960s with Herbert Benson and Jon Kabat-Zinn with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction protocol and has ballooned ever since) indicate that compassion is increased through mindfulness exercises, and enhanced even further by techniques focused on others, such as “Loving Kindness Meditation.” The field of interpersonal neurobiology, including the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, uses practical skills linked to brain science to help the public understand that integration leads to compassion and is an essential
component of connection and attachment. Paul Gilbert is a British psychologist who compiled an amazing wealth of compassion research and skills based in neuroscience in his book The
Compassionate Mind (2009). And of course, Kristen Neff, at UT Austin has been researching Self Compassion specifically for over a decade, and based on her findings has developed a protocol and exercises for developing this beneficial skill.

I frequently use Self-Compassion in my practice and find that it allows people to step back from their own self-judgment and criticism to find a kinder, more helpful response to their emotional, and even physical, pain. Often, I put it at the end of mindful awareness exercises to help clients respond to difficult sensations or feelings they may have encountered. I usually combine it with the option of using self-touch to deepen the experience of self-care (hand on heart, on belly, on parts of their body that are in pain).

One of the reasons I teach clients this skill is because it can be such a game-changer: it gives clients something “to do” even when they are in situations that may be out of their control or beyond their capacity to change in the moment. Since a large portion of my patients are coping with chronic pain or other medical issues, they often feel helpless and frustrated in moments of pain. Using Self Compassion can help them to shift the focus from their hurt and hopelessness, to consciously seeking ways to be more compassionate, caring, kind and nurturing to themselves in those moments of suffering.

I’d like to share two basic elements from Kristen Neff’s work, developed from her research. I also encourage you to read her book Self-Compassion (2011) or visit her website https://selfcompassion.org/ for more information about this helpful and important skill. I’d welcome your thoughts, questions, and experiences with Self-Compassion.

Components of Self-Compassion:
• Kindness: Choose to be intentionally kind to yourself, especially in times of struggle.
• Common Humanity: Recognize that suffering is part of being human.
• Mindful Awareness: Mindfully hold your emotions in balanced awareness: Neither ignoring them
nor exaggerating them.

Create a Self-Compassion Break / Mantra (For this, it is important that clients find the language that
fits best for them, which may take a bit of exploration and experimentation).

1. Recognize that this is a moment of suffering
This hurts
This is stressful
I am struggling

2. Acknowledge that everyone struggles
I’m not alone
Others have felt this way
This is part of being human

3. Set the intention to be kind to yourself
I will give myself the compassion I need
I will forgive myself
I can be strong/patient/caring