As a therapist who works with children and adolescents, approaching families with compassion is a mandatory part of my job. Compassion is a very powerful thing, and through my work I can see that it is even more powerful when we display it to others who may be struggling or suffering.
That’s why I found Tim Desmond’s new book, Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy: Mindfulness-Based Practices for Healing and Transformation, quite interesting.
If you look up the term “compassion” in the dictionary you are likely to find the following definition: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another that is stricken by misfortune.” But if you delve a little deeper, you come across other definitions. For example, the New International Version of the Bible contains a number of teachings, with one verse encouraging readers to “wear compassion” in the way we wear clothing: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). Compassion has also been spoken about throughout the years by philosophers, mental health professionals, and theologians who recognize its power.
Desmond, a psychotherapist who also studies Zen Buddhism, writes that “self-compassion is about relating to oneself with a kind and forgiving attitude.” It is very different, he makes clear, from self-esteem.
Self-esteem is built on the idea that we are better than others, or that we supersede perfection or “average people.” It involves comparing ourselves to others. It can be built on lies that we tell ourselves or that others may tell us about ourselves. Self-esteem can also be fluid and depend a great deal on how we view our success/lack of success and/or our abilities at certain points in our lives.
Desmond argues that self-compassion is not a value judgment about ourselves but a state of mind that allows us to show ourselves kindness. It also, he writes, allows us to forgive ourselves and see ourselves more authentically as human beings with flaws and needs.
And, for mental health professionals who are likely to feel burnout at some point in our careers, self-compassion may be particularly important. Desmond discusses a concept known as compassion fatigue, which the American Institute of Stress defines as the “emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” It is likely to occur when we as mental health practitioners lack self-compassion or fail to show compassion to our clients.
Meaning, self-compassion and compassion toward others allows us to strategically empower our clients — and it also allows us to help ourselves cope with the stressors and duties of the profession. In other words, self-compassion and compassion toward others has a bi-directional influence.
It wasn’t until I began practicing psychotherapy as a professional that I finally understood the importance of compassion and self-compassion in clinical settings. My first client, a twelve-year-old girl, suffered from bipolar disorder, major depression, and anxiety. She also struggled with identity issues (and, as I saw it, was pressured into believing she was transgender by her family and peers). When she came to my office, she was a sweet and innocent looking young lady who was confused about her identity, traumatized by her step-father, and molested several times over the course of twelve years. As our sessions progressed, my ultimate goal was to build a compassionate alliance that she could cherish and feel good about. She was able to resolve some of her identity issues, process her trauma, and treat her mood disorder(s).
But if I were to look back and try to identify a specific technique I used, it would be very difficult. No specific trauma intervention, CBT activity, or DBT manual could help me pull this young lady to safety. What was most helpful was compassion, and teaching this client self-compassion.
The author, too, finds that not everything has to be a specific technique: “the core message of this chapter,” Desmond writes in chapter three, “is that all self-compassion practices can arise naturally out of the therapeutic relationship, rather than from rigidly following a script.” This alliance, he continues, “becomes the foundation for everything that follows.”
Desmond also highlights the use of mindfulness in affective regulation or emotion management. Mindfulness, he explains, is not just paying attention to the present moment, but also fostering a loving, open acceptance that is nonjudgmental.
Despite that not everything requires rigidly following a script, as Desmond puts it, the book does include example scripts for therapists to see how they can transmit theory into practice. But while the book provides wonderful examples of how to use techniques based in mindfulness and self-compassion, some readers might find it a bit dry and boring at times. In particular, therapists who subscribe to a different religion, such as Christianity, may find Desmond overly focused on Buddhism-based theories. That said, he does a good job of providing general tools that therapists can easily incorporate into their sessions.
Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy: Mindfulness-Based Practices for Healing and Transformation
W. W. Norton & Company, November 2015
Hardcover, 256 pages