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Recognizing Our Barriers to Self-Compassion

Personal Perspective: Reflections on My Challenges to Self-Compassion

Key points

  • Challenges to self-compassion are often associated with an insecure attachment pattern.
  • At its core, shame and a sense of being undeserving can inhibit openness to self-compassion.
  • Overcoming such challenges can be achieved through mindful self-compassion.
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Word cloud with compassion
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“Taking this program will be transformative.” That’s what I was told when I registered for Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy (SCIP), a 10-month program offered to psychotherapists by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, which was founded by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. I had previously become acquainted with their work through reading their books and attending a conference they led in Portland in 2015 (Neff, 2009; Germer, 2010).

Their ideas powerfully resonated with me, as helping clients cultivate self-compassion had been a meaningful component of my clinical work for many years. While life interfered with my desire to learn more about their work, when their programs were offered virtually, I immediately enrolled.

Being a lifelong learner, I sought more information and skills to help me with my clients Additionally, I sought connection with clinicians who were similarly interested in self-compassion. Further, while I had practiced mindfulness meditation and some self-compassion skills, I was not doing so as consistently as I wanted to in my practice.

I had first enrolled in The Mindful Self-Compassion, the 10-week prerequisite to the SCIP program in which we were introduced to exercises presented in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Germer and Neff (Germer & Neff, 2014). It consisted of exercises intended to promote grounding, dealing with uncomfortable emotions (including shame), breathing exercises, and a broad variety of skills in self-compassion.

The book also addressed the concept of backdraft, a term Germer has used to describe the arousal of uncomfortable emotions, sensations, or thoughts that might emerge in the practice of self-compassion. It parallels the reaction firefighters experience when opening a door to a fire-filled room, only to have the flames jump out, as they are fueled by oxygen made available in the air outside the room. When we practice self-compassion, we open our hearts. As we welcome compassion in, we are once again opening our heart—to the suffering of past wounds that may not have been fully grieved or mourned.

When I began the program, I believed I was compassionate with others and myself. After all, clients and colleagues had told me so. Readers of my books said the same. However, I soon recognized discomfort with self-compassion, both due to some medical issues in recent years and failure to more consistently practice self-compassion exercises.

A triggering interaction

As such, it was quite humbling when I quickly became aware that I was not as self-compassionate as I believed. I became acutely aware of this discomfort when interacting with another participant in a Zoom break-out group. Three of us met in order to practice several therapeutic skills, including providing compassionate responses. We took turns, each of us having the opportunity to take on the role of therapist and client.

Toward the end of the session, a participant who had just taken the role of therapist asked for feedback. I’m usually quite thoughtful before providing feedback. However, on this occasion I responded too quickly, without taking the time to express it in a more compassionate way. I blurted out, “I felt what you said was too wordy.” The participant who had played her “client” was quick to state, “Oh, no. I felt she was fully present with me, extremely empathic with me, and very compassionate.” And, in that instant, the Zoom clock ran down to zero and we were no longer in the breakout room. I didn’t have the opportunity to soften or explain my feedback. I felt terrible.

Truth be told, I quickly recognized a certain degree of shame regarding what I had said. I believe her facial expression of surprise and dismay contributed to this experience. I’m usually more compassionate, as I do not wish to offend people. However, it seemed overly intense for the situation. Worse, I was unable to contact this participant until the following week.

Taking time for reflection

I used this time to reflect upon my response and what I experienced in my body that contributed to that reaction. Revisiting the interaction in my mind, I initially recognized vague discomfort surrounding the shame. While I have certainly spent time dealing with shame in the past, it apparently was again being triggered.

Upon further reflection, it became apparent that I believed the comments she made were somehow “excessively compassionate"; just too “sweet." But I also acknowledged a sense of irritation and leeriness. I soon recognized that I had internally experienced a low degree of threat, with feelings of distrust regarding the sincerity of her comments.

I soon recognized that I had had these reactions in the past. And then it suddenly made perfect sense: In recent years, I’ve come to recognize the influence of an insecure attachment style that has influenced my trust, and my ability to be more fully present and vulnerable (in spite of my share of therapy). I had read about it and now I felt it: how an insecure attachment style is associated with discomfort with self-compassion.

Contributions to my reaction

By temperament, I am slow to warm up. As I shared in one of our small group sessions, at times it feels like I’m at a party just warmed up and being more authentic—but just when the party is over. This attachment style leaves me at times vulnerable to trust, both wanting connection and fearing it won’t happen—as well as, when connected, fearing it will end. Additionally, I’m sure I’ve internalized to some extent the “rule” that real men shouldn’t be vulnerable; they should not need compassion.

However, I believe the major contribution to my reaction was my relationship with my parents. While they provided many loving moments, neither was very communicative about their feelings or sufficiently validating of mine. More important, I often observed my mother sounding very sincere to others in public, but privately criticizing them in an angry tone. Furthermore, when I was a child, there were several times when my father picked up the phone, started dialing, and threatened to call “them” to take me away if I did not stop misbehaving. Their lack of authenticity, and these mentioned behaviors, certainly impacted me, contributing to my being hyper-vigilant to detect authenticity and even doubting it when it occurred.

Perhaps most importantly, these interactions led me to experience shame, with overwhelming feelings that I could not understand or manage. As such, it was very meaningful to hear Germer state, “Behind the experience of shame is simply the desire to be loved, included, and accepted."

The following week I contacted the participant through a chat and both apologized and shared my self-reflection. And, of course, she responded in a way that reflected pure compassion. I then took a deep breath and did all I could to savor it, and to let it support my self-compassion for how I had responded. This experience contributed to a shift in my awareness that helped me to become more present and open to self-compassion. So yes, it really was transformative.


The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. New York: The Guilford Press

Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York: The Guilford Press

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