Facing Our Dark Side

Some Forms of Self-Compassion Are Harder than Others

Magazine Issue
September/October 2015
Two faces facing each other

Compassion is one of those warm, fuzzy words referring to qualities that often seems in short supply in the ever-accelerating rough and tumble of daily life today. Basically, it means actually applying the golden rule and putting into practice the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”—something that most of us have had at least a nodding acquaintance with since our earliest exposure to religious training. In contrast, self-compassion is a much less familiar notion and not so easily grasped. It can even seem opposed to compassion for others, as if being kind to ourselves precluded being kind to others. In fact, the idea of self-compassion—reminiscent of the treacly uplift of the self-help industry at its worst—can make many of us a bit queasy. Think of the mantra of Stewart Smalley, the character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Isn’t this just another expression of the narcissistic self-indulgence that already pervades our society?

Although it’s true that self-compassion may begin in a simple, generic stroking of our wounded selves—there, there, you’re not so bad—achieving a genuine state of self-compassion is a more challenging undertaking than many realize. More than the comforting phrases you offer yourself when stressed, genuine self-compassion is a journey into the multiple parts of yourself—the good, the bad, the ugly, the confused, the frightened, the abandoned—so as to make friends with those parts on the deepest level.

The primary obstacle to treating ourselves more kindly is the fact that most of us are addicted to self-criticism. Who among us hasn’t had the experience of learning to be judgmental of ourselves as a teenager, when we’re so worried about how we’re going to appear to others? At that stage, the stakes seem so high that if someone is critical of us, we’re likely to start picking ourselves apart, trying to look or act perfectly so we won’t become a social pariah. And, as is well known, for people who’ve been abused—who’ve perhaps been abusers themselves—this vigilant self-criticism can easily turn into self-hatred. This self-directed animus serves no good social purpose: the dark, hidden places inside don’t generally make people better or nicer to others; just the reverse. But getting to know, understand, and forgive these dark selves can have deeply transformative healing powers for the whole person, making us better, kinder, more compassionate to others than before.

Making Peace with Our Inner Critic

What’s known as the inner critic, what Freud called the superego, is but one of many parts of the personality responsible for keeping you safe. Most often it’s criticizing you to motivate you to achieve, look good, be tough, and so forth, so you won’t be hurt or rejected. In our culture, it makes sense to have a drill sergeant in there goading us to compete. So how do we Stuart Smalleys of the world make it in such a cutthroat society, where the strong are glorified and the weak are considered losers? Don’t we need to be hard on ourselves to have the discipline to ascend the ladder of success that, from an early age, we’re taught we need to climb in order to survive in a dog-eat-dog world?

Like many people, I emerged from my family with a brutal and relentless inner critic. As the oldest of six boys born to a high-achieving academic physician, I rebelled against my father’s expectations by taking a lackadaisical approach to school. But as much as I tried to ignore it, my exasperated father’s voice echoed inside, warning me that I’d never amount to anything and was squandering my potential. I could tune out the harshness of the criticism much of the time, but with each bad grade or forgotten chore, it would emerge anew. It was only after I’d left home and no longer needed to protect myself by rebelling against what I saw as my father’s attempt to control me that my own critical voice of achievement replaced his within me.

I became determined to prove my father wrong and used my own version of his harshness to push myself. As my own inner critic came to dominate my life and I achieved some degree of professional status, a new, grandiose voice even popped up, letting me know what a great thinker I was. But that feeling of achievement was tentative, fragile, and conditional, dependent on a steady stream of accolades that kept the sense of worthlessness it was countering at bay. In other words, I had moments of heady self-esteem, but no real self-compassion. And the way I related to those around me was a reflection of this. I was critical of students who didn’t meet my standards, and condescending to colleagues who challenged my ideas. In fact, I felt dependent on that inner critic, fearing that if it ever let up, I’d return to my ne’er-do-well ways. I had no source of inner direction that I thought was competent enough to take the driver’s seat from that critic, and because so many of my other qualities had been viewed by my father with contempt, that’s the way I saw much of the rest of me.

Of course, my story is far from unique. Most of us depend on a harsh inner voice to get us to do the things we need but don’t want to do. We’ve never learned any other way to improve our performance or look right or avoid rejection. We may feel that if we took the steering wheel away from that inner critic, we’d risk devolving into impulsive hedonism or a constant state of mushy vulnerability.

Going back at least to Walt Whitman’s famous line from Songs of Myself— “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)”—artists and philosophers have long observed that we regularly encounter many different selves within our inner world. In a recent blog, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert put it this way: “None of us are really an ‘individual,’ per se, but rather we are each a teeming multitude of contradictory selves. There are parts of ourselves who are strong, parts of us who are vulnerable, parts of us who are angry, parts of us who are entitled. . . . This is what we mean when we say, ‘Part of me is really angry at you right now, even though another part of me completely understands the situation.’”

What most of us are less familiar with is that an essence exists within us that can embrace the full range of all our parts and help us achieve an inner harmony by recognizing the positive intentions of even the most critical and seemingly troublesome of these inner selves. This innate core within us is what some people call our Buddha nature, soul, atman, and so forth. The problem is that too often this essence—what I call the Self—has been obscured by the protective parts of us that try to keep our lives on track in the mistaken belief that they know best. Thus, the process of coming to a fuller experience of self-compassion typically begins with creating open space for this Self to come forward. As a therapist, I’ve found that when I help clients access that core essence, they begin to feel compassion for parts that, even moments earlier, they were totally disdainful of.

Accessing the Self

One of the main obstacles to self-compassion is that, by itself, the idea is too vague. It’s not enough just to be “nicer” to yourself. You need to ask the question “Who’s being compassionate to whom?” This involves actually being able to picture or sense the different parts inside us and develop concrete, ongoing relationships with them. For example, let’s say I have a client focus on a reactive, anxious feeling inside himself and he sees an image of a boy being bullied by other kids in the neighborhood. Now I can say, “For an hour every day this week, I’d like you to get to know that little boy. Listen to him and be kind to him.” Now the client has a clear, specific target for his self-compassion.

The problem is that many clients dislike the anxious parts of themselves, so they have trouble following through with instructions like that. Many spiritual and psychotherapeutic systems have taken such an absence of inner caring to mean that the person needs to learn to have compassion himself—that it’s not innate. These systems rely on various techniques and contemplative practices to build up the inner “muscles” of compassion that can then, through discipline and repetition, drown out critical tendencies. Yet the difference between learning how to have self-compassion and releasing the self-compassion already there has implications not only for how we respond to our inner critics, but also for their willingness to step back from being in charge. To make such a perilous shift in our inner identity, we need to convince our inner drill sergeant that we can access a core Self that knows better. The key to that process is actively accessing (not developing) this Self, which inherently knows how to create that kind of relationship based on patience, kindness, and compassion, rather than criticism and coercion.

Part of the popularity of mindfulness mediation is that it offers many people a pathway to discovering how to notice their everyday inner clamor and keep it from dominating their lives without awareness. Meditation enables you to find that the you that remains separate from your roiling thoughts and emotions is inherently peaceful and accepting. Meditation typically evokes a sense of inner spaciousness, as if a crowd of blaring, anxious, and often hostile inner voices has just left the room. But remaining in this separated state of peace and passively observing your thinking mind is limited as a means of actually changing relationships among one’s inner parts and allowing the Self to assume a position of inner leadership. To achieve a deeper level of self-compassion, it’s important to encourage the Self to step forward and interact with the various inner personalities, including our inner critics, that comprise our internal family.

How do you first access your compassionate Self? Mindfulness practice is one way, but some people, hard as they try, can’t distance themselves from their busy minds. So Internal Family Systems (IFS), the model of therapy I’ve developed over the past 30 years, involves the process of not merely separating from the chatter of our usual protective defenses, but of conducting an ongoing negotiation among our parts so the Self can begin to emerge. Often the process begins with helping people notice from where in their body their inner critics seem to be broadcasting. This initial experience of noticing the source of sensations within the body can begin to create separation from the clamor of parts. The next step is to ask people how they feel toward the part that’s the source of the thoughts and feelings they find disturbing. This question creates further separation and helps people realize they have a relationship with a part. Often a person will say, “I hate that critic. I feel oppressed by it. I know I can never please it.” In these dialogues, the therapist’s first job in IFS is simply validating these negative feelings of the parts who hate the critic and expressing an understanding of why they might react that way. The next step is to have the client ask those parts to step back or relax inside, so he can get to know the critic with an open mind. The goal is to see whether it’s possible to listen to it in a way that makes that part let go of the need to be so aggressively critical.

When the parts who hate the critic separate within the client’s inner world, the person will often spontaneously say some version of “Now I’m curious about why it’s calling me names.” As they follow that innate curiosity, they learn that the part is trying its best to protect them. At this point, just separating from these inner sources of self-criticisms releases the Self’s innate curiosity and natural capacity for compassion. Along the way, clients discover that even their most seemingly unsavory parts are almost always trying to provide buffering from some perceived threat, however misguided or childish their perspective may be. To open up space for the Self to come forward, it’s usually helpful to give the critic a chance to make clear what its positive, protective intent might be and whether the client might have other ways to achieve it. Helping clients listen to their inner critics in this way can dissolve the inner mood of apprehension and encourage a sense of curiosity about discovering new ways to move past the emotional roadblocks in their inner world.

A question I often have clients ask of their troubling parts is “What do you want me to know?” When the part is addressed in this way, it usually begins to talk about how tired it is of playing the role it’s been playing and assuming the protective responsibility it’s been shouldering. Clients then experience an intense feeling of compassion for the previously unrecognized suffering of this part. At those moments, they might spontaneously move toward this long-suffering part and embrace it without any instruction from the therapist. And once someone accesses the Self, it feels natural to relate to all of his or her parts in a loving way.

Burt, for example, a stocky businessman in his early 40’s, came to me because his pattern in intimate relationships was to become wildly infatuated with women and then grow so possessive and jealous that they’d feel trapped and leave. Try as he might, he couldn’t control that jealous impulse. When I asked him to focus on that jealous part of him and find it in his body, he sensed a tightness in his throat.

“How do you feel toward that jealous part of you?” I asked.

“I hate it. I wish I could get rid of it,” he responded.

“It makes sense that you’d hate it because it’s screwed up so many relationships,” I said. “But if the part of you that hates it would be willing to relax in there and separate from you for a little while, would you be willing to get to know that jealousy and help it change?”

Burt furrowed his brow. “I’m afraid that if I don’t hate it, it’ll get stronger,” he said.

“I understand that logic, but the reverse is true, actually,” I told him. “If the part of you that hates your jealousy would give us some space in there, I can prove it to you.”

When Burt agreed to begin his dialogue with that jealous part of him, he asked it why it so adamantly dominated his relationships. It told him that if it didn’t, women would walk all over him and leave him feeling ashamed, weak, and worthless. But as he talked further with this jealous part, managing to get the other parts of himself that hated it to step aside, he realized that it was trying to protect him from the hurt and shame he’d felt as a teenager when a girl he’d fallen deeply in love with had cheated on him with another boy. As this inner conversation continued, Burt began to feel a growing compassion for this jealous part, and as he felt increasingly fortified with an awareness of his Self, he experienced a visceral sense that he no longer needed to let this episode of teenage heartbreak govern his romantic relationships as an adult.

Of course, critical parts aren’t always willing to stand down so easily. Sometimes they need to do more work around their fears about giving up control before they’ll unblend from the Self. This unblending requires the therapist guiding the process to be grounded in his or her own Self, and to convey confidence, calm, and compassion. If the therapist can genuinely reassure clients through this congruence of his or her own presence that the process can be trusted, the clients can begin to experience themselves, often for the first time, as being calm and compassionate toward themselves. In my own work with clients, this is a moment when I love to say, “Take a second to lean into this experience because this is who you really are. This is your Self.” For many, this creates a reference experience that they can come back to, over and over again, feeling a shift in their intrapsychic center of gravity. Helping people have this kind of inner experience is a goal that IFS shares with many meditative traditions.

A second major identity shift comes as clients get to know their parts more fully. Invariably, they learn that the parts that they most feared or mistrusted aren’t at all what they thought them to be. In my work with my own parts, I discovered that the rage I’d struggled to control when growing up was more than a dangerous bundle of explosive anger: I realized it was protecting a deeply insecure young boy inside me, who was stuck in scenes when it felt as if my very survival was being threatened by my father’s expressions of contempt for me. As I got to know it, I came to see this part not as a threat, but as a noble defender—the part of me that struggled with my inner critic and was ready to come to my aid in any situation in which I felt endangered by being criticized. Once I could recognize that and embrace this part of myself, I could release the rage I’d carried all through my life. Again and again in my years of being a therapist, I’ve found that as soon as people get to know even the most seemingly destructive or even evil part within them and learn the secret history of how it was forced into its protective role, a sense of deep compassion and gratitude enters into their awareness.

The Filthy Reptiles Within

When you think of yourself as being psychosocially monolithic, instead of comprising a range of different parts, having self-compassion seems simple: you just relate to the self you happen to identify with at the moment with warmth, rather than harshness. But once you recognize that you’ve got many selves in there, things become more complicated, and it becomes crucial to recognize that there are levels of self-compassion, some of which need much more effort, awareness, and emotional resilience than others. It’s one thing to learn to speak a bit more gently to yourself and open your heart a bit more to a vulnerable inner child, or even to give well-meaning inner critics the benefit of the doubt; however, it’s quite another to do so with the parts of you that you find truly terrifying or repulsive. How can you love a part of you that gives you sadistic fantasies or that wants to manipulate and exploit other people?

We all have inner voices, impulses, fantasies that we’re ashamed of. Some of us work hard to counter them or compensate for them. Some of us have so successfully locked them away that we don’t experience them as being part of us at all. But the more time you spend inside yourself, perhaps in meditation or any other kind of inner work, the more you begin turning on the lights in dark abysses of your psyche. As the 17th-century Christian mystic François Fenelon observed, “As light increases, we see ourselves to be worse than we thought. We’re amazed at our former blindness as we see issuing forth from the depths of our heart a whole swarm of shameful feelings, like filthy reptiles from a hidden cave. We never could have believed that we had harbored such things, and we stand aghast as we watch them gradually appear.” The question is, then, can you really have compassion for what you consider to be your most repulsive inner shadows?

There are people for whom even the idea of liking themselves feels dangerous. They may have brutal inner persecutors that spew extreme self-hatred, resembling not just overly critical voices, but torturers who seem to want to inflict deep suffering. I learned this lesson the hard way during the 1980s, as I initially experimented with ways to help people contact threatening parts of themselves they hadn’t yet recognized. Some clients reported having dreadful backlash reactions, including excruciating headaches and intense shame attacks. When I explored the secret emotional logic of their inner worlds, I encountered parts of them that would express how much they despised themselves and how evil they felt themselves to be. But if I succeeded in helping clients stay curious about even the most unsavory elements of inner life—what the filthy reptiles within were trying to achieve, however misguided—more of the story always turned up.

If I myself could remain calm, curious, and nonjudgmental while I asked these persecutors within why they’d taken on their roles, I learned that some were furious about something the client had done in the past that seemed unforgivable. Others were afraid that if they didn’t make the client feel worthless, she’d be likelier to engage in behaviors that would endanger herself or others. Still others turned out to be internalized versions of the people who’d abused them. Needless to say, most of these clients had had terrible childhoods, filled with abuse, betrayal, and neglect, and in many ways, they had parts that were still frozen at early stages of psychological development.

Often, working with these clients meant helping them return to the scene of early traumatic experiences while guiding them to envision a different outcome using the safety and support of the therapy relationship and the healing power of accessing their own Self. Maria, for example, seethed with a deep self-hatred for having had an abortion when she was a teenager. Her inner persecutor regularly tortured her, using her mother’s words (“you’re nothing but a whore”) and the church’s dogma (“you’ll burn in hell”). Further exploration revealed that this inner persecutor feared that if it didn’t make her feel dirty and irredeemably whorish, she’d become promiscuous again, ultimately hurting herself and others.

I had Maria ask this unforgivingly moralistic part of her for permission to work with the part of her that it feared would take over if it ever let up its attacks. After several sessions, it reluctantly gave her temporary permission to become curious about what was behind her intense, seemingly uncontrollable sexual yearnings. Once this sexualized part was allowed to speak, it revealed a desperate childlike need to find a man who’d make her feel genuinely loved. But to understand that deeper need, I had to get Maria to access the parts that feared that she’d be overwhelmed if she ever opened the door to that desperate yearning. With my help, she reassured the fearful part that she could handle whatever came.

As so often happens when clients are encouraged to play out the scenarios that underlie their most self-destructive or unsavory behavior, the path eventually led to an early traumatic experience. Maria immediately saw an image of herself as an 8-year-old with one of her mother’s boyfriends. He’d entered her bedroom and was fondling her while her mother was drunk in the next room. Maria watched this scene in tears. When she felt ready, I asked her to enter it and be with the younger version of herself in the way that the child needed. As she imagined playing out the scene in the present, she came to the little girl’s defense and forcefully told the man never to touch her again. When the frightened 8-year-old Maria inside felt ready, Maria accompanied the girl out of the scene from the past in which she’d felt so helpless to experience being protected in the present. When the time was right, Maria helped the girl unload the emotions and beliefs that she carried from that experience. She could then address the parts that had emerged back then to protect her and let them know that she no longer needed them to manage her behavior and emotions.

For people like Maria, there’s no shortcut to self-compassion. It’s a tangled journey, with many twists and turns. Such clients must explore the past, access resources unavailable to them when they were younger, and honor the parts that tried to protect them at the time. It’s only then that they can move beyond the past into a new awareness of themselves. It’s in those profoundly moving moments that clients often experience the deepest healing that self-compassion can bring.

Self-Compassion in the Therapist

Like me, many therapists I know are wounded healers. Some were led to be therapists after learning to be ever-vigilant, overly responsible caretakers in their families of origin. But while we therapists are sometimes capable of behaving in enlightened, selfless ways, we have the normal human tendency to get tired of worrying about everyone else and occasionally wanting people to quit sniveling and leave us alone. We can’t expect ourselves to be therapeutic Buddhas, always calm and caring. Pretending to be usually makes clients lose trust in us. What we can do is recognize that how we feel toward our own parts will determine how we feel toward our clients’ parts that resemble our own. That’s what countertransference is all about, and all of us know that when our clients inadvertently walk into the middle of one of our own inner crossfires, our clinical wisdom and capacity for compassion can quickly go out the window.

For years, I specialized in treating survivors of severe trauma and abuse. At moments of crisis, many of them would engage in extreme behaviors, like bingeing on alcohol and cutting their arms or torsos. Some formed a childlike dependence on me, demanding special treatment and stalking me between sessions. Some told me I was a terrible therapist, who didn’t care about them. Some used the threat of suicide to manipulate or punish me. Some alternately idealized and devalued me with a sudden volatility that could make my head spin. Again and again in the face of that kind of provocation, I’d find that my Self could quickly disappear, leaving my clients in a face-off with one of my own childlike inner protectors, which in turn would make their own protectors more extreme.

Now, after decades of learning about my own triggers and how easily I can trigger my clients, I’ve become less likely to pathologize both myself and them. I’ve become quite familiar with the parts within me that need the most compassion: the impatient part, who wants people to heal quickly and sessions to not drag along; the distractor, who can make me think about what I’ll have for lunch while a client’s weeping; the hard-ass part, who wishes some of these people would just suck it up; and many more. I greet them fondly before sessions, especially when I suspect they’ll be triggered, and ask that they leave the office until the session is over. Then I check with myself frequently during the session to ensure I’m present and my heart is open.

If I’d had a microphone in my head while I was treating certain challenging clients, you’d have heard me repeatedly saying to myself things like I know you’re upset, but just let me stay and handle this. Remember, it always goes better if you let me keep my heart open. Just relax and trust me, and I’ll talk to you after the session. Between sessions, I’ll follow up by bringing the parts that my client aroused in me to my own therapy to give them the compassionate attention they need. In this way, our clients become our tor-mentors—by tormenting us, they mentor us, making us aware of the parts in us that most need our own loving compassion.


Photo © Getty Images / Ryan Mcvay

Richard Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, PhD, is co-author, with Michael Nichols, of Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts–many extreme–within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.