Working with Clients to Identify Personalized Lovingkindness Phrases

In addition to the sequence of lovingkindness meditations we have created for use with highly self-critical clients, we have found that it is often powerful for the phrases used in lovingkindness meditations to be customized for a particular person. The goal is to identify personalized lovingkindness phrases based on the client’s own idiosyncratic experience that are responsive to their emotional needs. The goal of this is to enhance the activation of the social safety system by making the phrase more personally relevant.

heart_in_hand_200.jpgOne of the most powerful ways to identify more evocative lovingkindness phrases is to have the client imagine what they need to hear from a caring or supportive person during emotionally difficult moments, including times when they are stuck in self-criticism or shame. This can be worked into sessions in response to difficult moments that arise in the course of therapy or in the form of a structured exercise, like we outline below (this is what we do in our groups).

You can also help clients identify customized phrases by having them look at lists of potential phrases and identify ones that they think might be meaningful to them. These can then be worked into in-session lovingkindess meditations or for them to practice with as homework. We offer a list of potential lovingkindness phrases for download here.

Below is a script for a meditation exercise that you can use to guide your clients to identify their own personalized lovingkindness phrases. This exercise was inspired by an exercise we first encountered at a Mindful Self-Compassion workshop. The one below is intended for use in a group setting, but can be easily adapted to an individual therapy context or portions of it used as a client imagines a difficult moment from their life.

Identifying your personal lovingkindness phrase:

Take a moment to find a comfortable position in your chair and just get settled into the room.

You might put a hand over your heart as a reminder to be present with whatever is happening right now with kindness.

Turning your attention to the wavelike sensation of breath, wherever you can feel that the most easily… chest, belly, nostrils, or the body as a whole sitting here breathing.

See if you can notice any physical sensations of tension, tightness or discomfort your body may be carrying for you at the end of a long day, and as you are arriving in this class.

And notice any difficult emotions that are with you right now. Do you sense any nervousness or apprehension, shame or self-consciousness, fear or frustration? Any other difficult emotions?

See if you can turn toward the tension or the difficult emotions as you would turn toward a beloved friend. See if you can turn toward yourself because of the tension or difficult emotions if they are there.

And now, dropping into the sensations and the emotions and just listening… Experiencing whatever is happening right now in your heart center… ask yourself this question and really listen for an answer… What is one thing I long to hear right now? If I could have a good or loving friend whisper something into my ear during moments like this, what would I long to hear? See if you can imagine what that would be. [pause to give them space to imagine what the phrase would be]

This is a practice of lovingkindness. You are identifying what is it that you might wish for yourself. It can take the form of words or an image. Take a few moments to offer yourself the words you long to hear. [pause] If you long to hear, “I love you,” you can give yourself the words, “May you be loved,” or even the words, “I love you.” If you long to hear that you are doing a good job at something, you may give yourself the words, “May you know your worth.” Experiment for a few moments with letting your own words or image arrive.

If you don’t arrive at any words or images, just ask yourself, “What do I long to hear,” which is a lovingkindness practice in itself…

And now taking another moment to bring your awareness back to your breath… the sensation of your body sitting in a chair… and taking your time to return your attention to the room when you are ready

After the exercise is complete it’s important to debrief it with the client, first in terms of what the phrase was that they imagined and also the effects of the phrase. When doing this, you should listen carefully to make sure the phrase that they imagined actually is connected to the social safety system and isn’t yet another form of self-criticism or self-invalidation. This can often be identified by asking about the tone of the voice that they imagined hearing and whether it was cold or harsh. Finally, clients often need some help turning the thing they imagined hearing into a phrase that can be incorporated into lovingkindness. For example, if they heard the phrase “It’s OK” you might see if the phrase, “May you accept yourself as you are” or “You’re good enough as you are” might work as phrase or even if the phrase “It’s OK” would be able to be incorporated into a lovingkindess practice.

Written by Melissa Platt, PhD, and Jason Luoma, PhD

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