Compassion for ourselves

 A client comes to you. She explains that she was seeing another therapist, but dropped out since the therapist was ‘not ideal’.

‘In what way?’ you ask.

‘Well,’ she replies, ‘if I made a mistake when speaking she’d get annoyed with me – even if I got just one word wrong. And when I talked about my weaknesses she would mock me.’

You wonder if the client is exaggerating. ‘Anything else?’

‘She even threatened to make my life a misery if I continued to be anxious.’

Your client says that she feels angry at the treatment she had from this ‘therapist’. At first she thought the therapist was joking, but then when she realised that this really was the ‘treatment’, she left.

You’re a bit stunned. What kind of therapist would behave like that? You wonder whether you should report her. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to encourage the client to do so.

But... how could a therapist behave like that? We all know that treating clients with respect, allowing them to talk freely, and supporting their desire to change is the best way, don’t we? We know we need to be accepting, non-judgemental, compassionate...Or maybe not...

What about us

...because if we truly believe this we would also be doing this to ourselves, wouldn’t we?

What do you say to yourself when you get things wrong? Is it possible that at times you are treating yourself in the same way that the therapist treated this client? 

Many of us do this. We berate ourselves, demanding standards of behaviour and achievement that we cannot hope to manage all the time; we insult ourselves ('What a fool I’ve been’); we become angry at our inability to succeed; we even threaten ourselves.

Yet we treat clients with respect, understanding, compassion. There seems to be two ‘laws’ – one for others and one for us.

But maybe it’s okay. We can argue that we have a right to treat ourselves as we wish – we aren’t harming anyone else. Are we?

What if we are, though? There is the well-known saying, ‘You can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself.’ And maybe we cannot act non-judgmentally and compassionately towards others if we cannot do this satisfactorily with ourselves

Further, if we truly believe in treating people in an understanding manner, then this must apply to us as well – we are people too!

But to overcome our negative treatment of ourselves we need to begin by understanding its roots.

So why do we often treat ourselves so poorly?

We are used to being treated in a negative way. When we were very young our parents will have had to control our behaviour through negatives: ‘Don’t go into the road or else...’ ‘Leave those matches alone or I’ll....’ We wouldn’t have understood explanations as to the risks, so our parents had to use this approach.

We should have got over this as we grew up, but this approach is endemic in our culture, too, and so affects us in adulthood.

Which politician, for example, wants to be seen advocating that young people who get into trouble be encouraged to do something more positive, when instead he can be howling for longer youth detention programmes?

In popular perception the way to drive behaviour change is through negatives – whether they take the form of criticisms or threats of imprisonment. And clearly there are plenty of occasions in which this may be the best, or even the only, way.

Our clients and us

But with our clients this negative approach is not going to work. They want to find ways of achieving change in an environment that allows them to be fallible, imperfect humans - as we all are – without condemnation or criticism.

If they are faced with a negative approach from us, clients will almost certainly do as the client above did – go elsewhere.

So we need to treat our clients in a positive, accepting manner. But why not do the same for ourselves?

After all, as Carl Rogers said, ‘When I accept myself as I am I’m then free to change.’ We want to be accepted, understood, respected by others – and that must surely also apply to how we want to be treated by ourselves.

But how do we do this? How can we treat ourselves in a way that encourages change rather than holds us back and leaves us feeling bad about ourselves?


There has recently been a strong movement in psychotherapy towards the employment of many of the practices and techniques of Buddhism. ‘Mindfulness’, for example, has now become widely-used – as a therapy in its own right and as part of a number of mainstream therapies, including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

‘Self-Compassion’ also originates from Buddhist psychology. It is shown in research not only to facilitate self-change, but also to counteract low self-esteem.

Further, the studies by Leary et al. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol.92[5] May 2007, 887-904) showed that those using Self-Compassion have far weaker negative self-feelings when imagining distressing social events; while in another study by the same researchers, those with strong Self-Compassion could acknowledge their role in a negative event without being overwhelmed by negative emotions.

So what is Self-Compassion?

It comprises three elements:

• Being understanding and kind towards ourselves rather than being harshly self-critical    
• Recognising when problems occur that we are going through similar experiences to those of others and thus not allowing such events to isolate us
• Holding painful feelings and thoughts in Mindful Awareness rather than becoming too caught up in them

The first two elements are easy to understand. But you may be unfamiliar with the term ‘Mindful Awareness’. I shall define this as:

‘Being aware of something in a particular way - this awareness is: purposeful, present-focused, and non-judgemental.’

For our purposes the most important part of this is ‘non-judgemental’. If we can experience something as it is – without our imposing a judgement of ‘good’ or ‘painful’ or whatever – then we can deal with it more effectively.

Mindfulness requires practise. To acquire this ability you can spend some time each day working on it – even if you have a busy life. It can be done, for example, as you walk, when you wait in the GP’s surgery, and when you drift off to sleep.

With a good deal of practise you can start to think of things without automatically leaping to judgements about them – they can just be themselves.

I find the work of Jon Kabat Zinn on Mindfulness Meditation very helpful but there are plenty of other writers who provide good material. The basic ideas are very simple, so the main challenge is one of persisting in your practise.

By combining Mindfulness with the other two elements listed above you will develop Self-Compassion, so that when you get things ‘right’ you treat yourself well; and when you get things ‘wrong’ treat yourself well.

You will also feel reassured that you are simply another member of the human race dealing with life as best you can and appreciate that many others have gone down the same path. Moreover, you can detach from thoughts and feelings enough to handle them more objectively.

These ways of thinking and feeling will give you the ability to make personal changes more easily. So that when you have made mistakes, for instance, instead of condemning yourself for not being perfect, you can decide how you would like things to have gone, and use this new strategy next time so that you are more likely to get it right.

And if that particular solution doesn’t work you repeat the process again - and again until something does work (as the Native Americans say, ‘Knocked down a hundred times, got up a hundred times’).

You probably wouldn’t want, say, to go to a swimming coach who couldn’t swim, and your clients will have a similar concern – they may not want compassion from a therapist who doesn’t practice it on him/herself...

Be nice to yourself – it could be the start of a life-long love affair.

Other pages that might interest you:

Why you don't want money next year

Do you need to be talented to do well?

The case for hypnosis as a state

A successful practice - and lightbulbs

Alan Davidson:

UK:  01202 423111   (Outside UK: 44 1202 423111)