For many clients who come into therapy with low self-esteem, shame, or self-blame, the practice of self-compassion is the missing piece in the therapeutic puzzle.
But it’s not that straightforward for all clients. To learn more about the barriers to self-compassion and how to overcome them, we turned to Tim Desmond, clinical psychologist and author of Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy.
Tim explained that there are many obstacles to self-compassion. Sometimes it’s an internal voice that’s shaming, critical, or self-blaming. Other times it’s an internal part that sabotages efforts at forward movement or undermines important relationships. Whatever the cause, the key to overcoming the resistance is helping your client bring compassion to the part that doesn’t want any compassion.
In this video, Tim walks us through his process for engaging a client who’s resistant to self-compassion. It’s a great step-by-step example that will give you new insights for your own clinical work with self-critical clients.
Tim sees the work he does with clients who show a resistance to self-compassion as falling into four stages:
First, he helps the client get in touch with compassion in general by feeling love and kindness for someone or something external.
Second, he works with the client to bring compassion to present-day suffering—a difficult experience at work, for example. In this stage, Tim supports the client in answering this question—How do I relate to myself with kindness and acceptance in the face of this specific incident?
Third, Tim helps the client explore how self-compassion can heal suffering from the past. He starts by helping the client identify a past source of current suffering and then creating a new compassionate narrative that embraces the past cause.
Fourth, Tim helps the client embrace the actual obstacles to self-compassion as they arise. He often uses this example from his own life to illustrate:
So, I sit down for a meditation in the morning and my first thought is that I have too much to do today and meditating is a waste of time. I’ve found that I actually do best to embrace that thought with compassion. It’s okay not to want to practice right now. It’s okay to hate meditating. And what ends up happening is that I keep taking a step back in terms of what I’m sending compassion to until whatever arises— regardless of what it looks like—I’m able to greet that with compassion.
According to Tim, that ability to step back and embrace whatever arises internally with compassion is the foundation of a therapeutic self-compassion practice.
Tim Desmond, L.M.F.T., is a clinical psychologist, co-founder of Morning Sun Mindfulness Center in Alstead, New Hampshire and author of Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy. He offers training and consultation on positive psychology and mindfulness practices to therapists around the world.