Self-compassion is great. It feels all nice and warm and fuzzy, right? Actually, maybe not, at least not for everyone. In fact, for a lot of folks, particularly those who struggle with chronic shame and self-criticism, compassion can actually be pretty scary! In fact, we know from research that highly self-critical clients tend to find compassion-related cues to be anxiety provoking.
Even for folks who are relatively comfortable with expressing compassion to others, the idea of expressing compassion to oneself can be a foreign concept. Most of us find it easier to be kinder and more compassionate to others than to ourselves. For individuals who struggle with high self-criticism or shame, attempts to engage in self-compassion may also bring up feelings of self-disgust, sadness, disappointment, anxiety, or even anger. In addition, these individuals may feel increased self-criticism or shame if they feel they aren’t “good” at being self-compassionate.
For this reason, it can be helpful to assess any fears or discomfort an individual may have with the concept of self-compassion before asking clients to start engaging in self-compassion exercises. A great tool for exploring an individual’s reaction to expressing compassion to themselves is Gilbert and colleagues’ Fears of Compassion Scale. This scale has three subscales, including a 15-item scale on “expressing kindness and compassion toward yourself” which measures fears related specifically to self-compassion. This subscale can be used on its own or included as part of the complete scale.
We recommend having the client complete the Fears of Compassion Scale and then, if you want to focus on self-compassion, review the items that make up that subscale together to get a better understanding of the kinds of barriers that might show up as the client practice compassion-related imagery exercises like lovingkindness meditation. These barriers can then become part of the case conceptualization in terms of how to practice being more compassionate with oneself.
For individuals who are relatively comfortable with and effective in expressing compassion towards others, but who have significant difficulty extending that compassion towards themselves, it may be helpful to use perspective taking strategies (also here) that could help the individual begin to see themselves as a part of the common humanity that is deserving of compassion. These perspective taking strategies can also harness already existing compassion repertoires and facilitate expanding when those repertoires get activated to include contexts where self-compassion may be helpful.