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How to Aid Client Self-Compassion

5 truths to remember when treating the self-critical client

When our clients learn to make allowances for failings, they can be happier and fit more harmoniously into their own relationships.

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

– Oscar Wilde

You’ve probably heard this:

“In order to love someone else, you have to love yourself first!”

It’s a cliché trotted out as an unthinking truism. Truisms, platitudes, glib statements of any kind, effectively block further thought. We nod wisely and move on and don’t glance back, content in the happy surety that we’ve said something unequivocally true.

But there’s no evidence that those with low self-esteem can’t love or esteem others until their own self-esteem rises.

Some people who hate themselves still find it in their hearts to love others intensely.

But, like most clichés, the “love yourself first before you can love others” platitude contains, I think, a grain of truth.

“I don’t deserve to be loved!”

Those with low self-esteem can and do love others. But at the same time, feeling you are terrible or unlovable can prevent the formation of high-quality relationships.

The low self-esteemer may feel they don’t ‘deserve’ the love of another person. Or they may only be attracted to those who treat them as badly as they treat themselves. And they may genuinely love the person who treats them roughly.

Being on the receiving end of unconditional love can feel like kryptonite to someone with low self-esteem. When you sharply disapprove of yourself, being suddenly showered with approval from someone else may be too sharp a clash with your self-deprecating belief system.

We’re often encouraged to love ourselves, but we need to be careful as to what this actually means.

Loving ourselves isn’t, of course, the same thing as the self-aggrandizement of narcissism. Loving ourselves narcissistically, assuming that we know more and are better in all ways than all others, and that our own needs take precedence over others all the time, is not the same as true self-respect or self-compassion.


A lifelong affair

Because our relationship with ourselves is a lifelong relationship.

It needs to be not the febrile infatuation of a passionate dalliance in which no one else matters, but rather the committed and steady relationship of a lifelong partner.

When we value, respect, and are patiently well disposed to ourselves, we avoid the dizzy heights of self-adulation and overriding selfish entitlement but also the lacerating self-despisement of the low self-esteemer.

We want our clients to form a decent and respectful self-regard, a form of self-acceptance that will help improve relationships, not damage them as both narcissism1 and chronic low self-esteem do.

So what are the benefits of self-compassion, and why do we need to enable some of our clients to develop more of it?

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Treating yourself as someone you care about

Self-compassion means thinking about ourselves without unkind judgement but rather with understanding. It includes having an accepting and caring orientation towards ourselves.

This doesn’t necessarily mean continual self-approval no matter what we do, but it means if we screw up we can understand why we did and seek to improve with tolerant self-understanding.

“Yes, I lost my temper and I feel bad about that. I guess everyone does sometimes. It may have been because I was tired and still angry about what happened earlier. I shouldn’t have shouted, but I understand why I did it.”

Compare that to:

“I lost my temper and shouted. I’m just a disgusting person!”

We might assume that self-compassion is a quality we either possess or don’t, but on that score there’s good news.

Self-compassion is learnable

Research has found that self-compassion can be learned.2 Participants were taught self-compassion meditation exercises and reported feeling happier, more resilient, and, interestingly, more compassionate to other people. Moreover, participants’ brains were found to be activated in areas associated with love and positive affiliation, and positive emotion generally.

Other research has found that self-compassion makes us happier,3 boosts our immune response,4 and makes us more empathetic.5 Self-compassion isn’t just about accepting ourselves and others – it makes us more likely to act positively, too.6

So why are some people more prone to low self-compassion than others?

Causes of low self-compassion

Perfectionism may produce self-opprobrium, as perfectionists may become their own worst critics.

Heavy criticism and belittlement by others and/or a tendency to ‘comparanoia’ – compulsively comparing ourselves unfavourably with others – can contribute to low self-compassion and high self-intolerance.

Some research has found that those with social anxiety tend to be lower in self-compassion and suggests that raising self-compassion may help decrease social anxiety.7 Certainly, if we are low in self-compassion and judge ourselves poorly, we might assume that others will inevitably view us just as poorly. No wonder that can lead to a fear of social situations. It may feel akin to being on trial when we feel we are guilty of some terrible inadequacy.

Research has found that those with social anxiety tend to be lower in self-compassion. Certainly if we judge ourselves poorly, we might assume that others will view us just as poorly. No wonder that can lead to a fear of social situations. Click to Tweet

Here I want to suggest five ways to help enhance your clients’ self-compassion and self-acceptance.

Tip one: Teach them to challenge their ‘inner critic’

Low self-compassion and high self-criticism can be likened, metaphorically, to an inner critic. Clients don’t (unless they are psychotic) literally hear a voice, but there is a sense that one part of their inner reality is undermining and belittling who they are.

“Whose voice is that really?” I might ask a self-belittling client. It might be a parent or a critical partner or co-worker, someone else’s voice, that your client has internalized.

Next, we can take this idea further.

Tip two: Reframe the inner critic

I might suggest to a client they imagine what that inner critic might look like and sound like, and the words it might use.

One client described his anxiety as being like the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, another described her self-criticism as being like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.

We might ask them to describe how they can stand up to these characters. I might help them visualize shrinking those characters down to almost nothing, making them seem little, inconsequential, even laughable. We might make the voices of the characters squeaky or turn down the volume down until it is barely audible.

Tip three: Build a defence strategy

I’ll also sometimes use the analogy of a ‘defence lawyer’ in a court of law, defending against the inner critic’s ‘charges’.

In that way my client can develop greater self-objectivity, look at the ‘evidence’ of the accusation more fairly, and practise finding ‘counterevidence’.

One client, John, would tell himself he was stupid and unable to learn anything. I had him picture being in a court of law and asked him what evidence a decent defence lawyer could produce to counter those accusations. He eventually came up with:

  • “I was able to learn knot tying when I was in the boy scouts, and I was one of the best at it.”
  • “I can speak some Spanish.”
  • “I can learn and remember facts about baseball.”

I set him the task of:

  1. Catching his inner critic in the act of self-criticism.
  2. Verbalizing the bad feeling: “I am stupid/unpopular/etc.”
  3. Finding three pieces of counterevidence in response to each accusation.

Now this is not to say that self-criticisms never contain any truth. But it is also true to say that the inner critic will often overlook positives, leaving a person feeling totally useless or entirely unlikable.

The inner defence counsel can be developed to bring balance to the proceedings of the emotional mind. But we can work directly with the emotional mind, too.

Tip four: Help them develop meditative, mindful self-compassion

Some of the research into the benefits of self-compassion I cited above used meditative techniques to improve their self-compassion.8

We can gently relax our clients using hypnotic language or perhaps record an audio for them, like the one I’ve prepared here, that they can listen to whenever they need to relax, mindfully observe the inner critic, and reframe self-damaging ideas to really begin to feel, not just think, differently.

This guided meditation hypnosis session can include suggestions to:

  • Recognize the humanity of everyone, that everyone makes mistakes and to err is human
  • Detach from the inner critic
  • Develop a sense of kindness towards others
  • Direct that kindness and care towards ourselves
  • See ourselves as someone we deeply care about and want to encourage
  • Experience positive emotions such as joy, curiosity, and love.

Using hypnosis, we can also help our clients develop self-compassion towards who they were in the past.

Tip five: Help them care for their past selves

I will sometimes help a client develop a sense of self-compassion for themselves in a past situation by using the Helping Hand technique, an alternative to the Rewind technique for dealing with painful memories.

In this technique, I will ask a client to focus on all the ways they have developed since the painful time. I will then have them hypnotically travel back to the situation, but as they are now, with a great sense of resourcefulness and calm.

Once there, I’ll suggest they can support the child or person they were back then, even hug them and tell them they’re going to be fine and are not alone and so forth. In this way we can both help a person feel better about a painful memory and reframe themselves in that past time.

Ultimately, greater self-compassion is about tolerance.

The need for tolerance

In some ways we live in intolerant times, in which opposing opinions have become not simply alternative points of view but ‘sins’ in a simplistic battle of good and evil. This is a hotbed for the cultivation and growth of intolerance.

We need to be tolerant of ourselves, especially when we are trying to do the right thing.

Perfectionists are often their own worst critics, and may also tend to compulsively criticize others. Sure, we can have high standards for ourselves, but we also need to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that we can encourage ourselves as we would a dear friend.

When our clients learn to make allowances for failings, they can both be happier and fit more harmoniously into their own relationships.

We are all ‘works in progress’ and therefore need to be patient, compassionate, and decent towards ourselves as well as other people.

When our clients can be their own cheerleaders rather than detractors, life feels transformed as one more block to self-fulfilment bites the dust.

How to Lift Low Self-Esteem in Your Clients

Mark has trained more than 20,000 health professionals face-to-face in how to lift low self-esteem. Now you can learn with him online in our state-of-the-art eLearning platform Uncommon U. Read more about the course here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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