Teaching clients to “VOUCH” for themselves: Using perspective taking to facilitate learning in those who are highly self-critical and shame-prone

Last month we wrote about the importance of helping clients identify trustworthy others. How others respond to an individual’s disclosure of feeling shame or self-criticism can have a profound impact on the likelihood that that individual will continue to disclose content they often keep hidden. In that post we mentioned Brene Brown’s BRAVING framework as one way to help clients determine who to trust when disclosing their vulnerabilities.

We don’t just need trustworthy others, we need to be trustworthy for ourselves

trustworthy_350.jpgHowever, the person who knows our vulnerabilities most intimately and with whom we share all of our self-doubts is ourselves. For those who are highly self-critical and shame-prone this presents a significant problem because they often respond to their shame and self-criticism in a way that is punishing and rejecting. They can be critical of their own self-criticism. Essentially, the person to whom they disclose their vulnerabilities (themselves) would likely NOT pass the BRAVING muster!

Before your clients take this on as another thing that they are not doing well enough, you may want to remind them that this is a normal element of being highly self-critical and shame-prone. This might be a moment for your client to catch their mind wanting to criticize the self-criticism of the self-criticism, and notice how very human that is!

Moving from discloser to listener to observer

We at Team Compassion have been using various perspective taking strategies to help clients learn new skills for how to respond to themselves when they are exploring their own self-criticism and shame. Using perspective taking interventions, clients can be taught to see themselves in these moments as both a “discloser” and a “listener”, as well as an “observer” of the interaction. They can then learn to help the “listener” become more trustworthy of the “discloser’s” vulnerability. And one framework we are using to do this is what we are referring to as the “VOUCH for yourself” framework.

VOUCH stands for:

V – Vulnerability.  Ask yourself, “What is the vulnerability that the discloser is feeling?”.

O – Open.  Are you, as the listener, open to listening to and learning from this part of you that feels shameful and worthy of criticism (the discloser)?   

U – Understanding. Can you, as the listener, be understanding of this part that feels ashamed (the discloser)? Can you take his/her perspective of what it feels like to be suffering in this way?

C – Compassion.  Can you, as the listener, offer compassion to the discloser - that part that feels so shameful and criticized? What would be the compassionate thing to do for the listener in this moment?

H – Honor.  How can you, as the listener, honor your values in this moment? How would you choose to respond to one who is suffering in this way that the discloser is suffering with shame and self-criticism?

Guiding clients to use perspective taking strategies

When using the VOUCH framework, it can be helpful to first introduce your client to some basic perspective taking ideas. Clients will need to be able to identify that in times when self-criticism and shame show up, they are both the “discloser” (i.e. the one whose vulnerabilities are being revealed) and the “listener” (i.e. the one who is listening and responding to the vulnerable disclosures). In addition, you can also help them notice that they can also stand from the place of curious “observer” who is able to observe and explore the interactions of the “discloser” and “listener” from a more distanced vantage point. For clients who have already done some perspective taking work (e.g. self-as-context work in ACT or chair work from an emotion-focused therapy perspective) this move from “discloser” to “listener” to “observer” will likely be relatively easy. For clients who aren’t already familiar with perspective taking ideas, you may need to start with by teaching some more basic perspective taking strategies. You can find a few simple perspective taking exercises for clients on our Portland Psychotherapy website here.

Once you have introduced these basic perspective taking ideas, you can start practicing the VOUCH  framework with in-session behaviors. For example, when a client is discussing something about which they feel highly self-critical and ashamed, the therapist can pause the discussion to ask the client if the “listener” part of themselves can VOUCH for the “discloser” part of themselves in this moment. The therapist asks various questions, such as:

  • “What is the discloser’s vulnerability?”
  • “Are you open to learning from this other part of you right now?”
  • “Can you express an understanding of what it feels like to feel ashamed and self-criticized?”
  • “What is the compassionate thing to do in this moment?”
  • “How can you honor your values in how you respond to this side of you that is suffering?” 


Client handout

We’ve also created a client handout that can be given to clients to practice this at home after first exploring the “VOUCH” framework in session.

We hope this is another tool that can be useful in helping clients become more trustworthy listeners to their own vulnerabilities.

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