February 2016 Tool of the Month

Each month we highlight some practical resources for therapists interested in compassion. Our aim here is to provide a brief overview and offer you a few resources where you can find out more information if these ideas are of interest to you.

This month’s tool: Compassionate letter writing exercise

Writing a letter to one’s self can be a powerful tool that utilizes perspective taking strategies in order to help an individual gain distance from themselves and to see themselves as an individual with whom they have a relationship. There are many different versions of compassionate letter writing exercises including ones by Kristin Neff, Christopher Germer, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action team, and many others. The one we’d like to highlight here comes from Paul Gilbert’s work at the Compassionate Mind Foundation. In this version of the exercise, there is an emphasis on the importance of helping an individual tap into what is referred to in the Compassion-Focused Therapy model as the third of the emotion regulation systems, the “soothing system” (the other two being the “threat system” and the “drive system”). In the exercise, the client is guided through a process where they imagine themselves embodying their compassionate self, what they talk like, look like, and feel like when they are treating others with kindness and compassion. Then, from standing in that position, they are asked to look at the part of themselves that is in distress or suffering in some way and asked how it feels, from the perspective of that kind, compassionate self, to look witness the suffering of this other person. What do they want for this person who is suffering? What would they say to this person? How would they treat that person who is struggling? And then the client is guided to write a letter from the perspective of their compassionate self to this person who is suffering. There are many ways to use these letters including having the therapist read them back to the client or even sending the letter to the client at some point in the future when the client is in a time of suffering. And even the act of writing the letter itself, regardless of what is done with it, can be a powerful tool.

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