A Buddhist Approach to Helping Low Self-Esteem: Teaching Self-Compassion in Therapy
By Tim Desmond
Q: I’m working with a client who suffers from low self-esteem, and I feel like I’ve tried everything. Are there any Buddhist practices that might help?
A: While many therapists have begun to incorporate mindfulness into their work, additional Buddhist practices hold potential for helping clients, particularly those suffering from low self-esteem. One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is cultivating compassion and love, and several techniques focus on developing these qualities toward oneself.
For example, Joseph, a young software engineer, came to see me to work on disarming his fierce inner critic. As he and I entered the resource-building phase of therapy, I taught him a form of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This practice dates back more than 2,500 years, and, next to mindfulness, it’s one of the most commonly taught forms of Buddhist meditation.
When I use metta practice with clients, I generally begin by asking them to identify an image that easily inspires feelings of love, compassion, and warmth in them. Traditionally, this practice begins with using oneself as the first object of compassion, but for clients with low self-esteem, that can sometimes be too difficult. Many clients have an easier time picturing a baby, an animal, a religious figure, or a benefactor for this first step. The important thing is finding someone or something that naturally inspires uncomplicated and unambivalent feelings of compassion and love. With help, most clients can find an image that works, and can engage with the process.
Joseph chose his 1-year-old niece, and I asked him to picture her and allow feelings of love and compassion to arise naturally. I had him remain focused on this step for about three minutes, encouraging him to deepen into the experience by repeating the phrases “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe.” The purpose of these phrases, which are integral to the way metta practice is traditionally taught, is to help the client connect with an experience of a specific form of unselfish love. Love and compassion can mean many different things in our culture, but the type of love this exercise aims at is a deep feeling of acceptance and support.
After some practice, Joseph was able to get in touch with strong feelings of warmth and care toward his niece. Once we’d accomplished this, the next step was to help him direct some of those positive feelings inward. I sometimes think of this practice in terms of fighting a fire: at this point, the client knows how to open the faucet; now it’s time to learn how to aim the hose.
Helping clients with low self-esteem direct warmth and compassion inward is often a tricky process. I’ve found that different interventions work for different clients. For Joseph, we began by having him get in touch with strong feelings of love toward his niece and then turn that love toward himself while saying the phrases, “May I be happy,” and so forth. As soon as we started this, however, he was immediately overwhelmed by his inner critic. This is a common occurrence with clients who suffer from low self-esteem.