As ART delivers results in a shorter amount of time with less verbal discussion around traumatic stories, therapists often experience less compassion fatigue than in other therapies. However, as you hold space for the suffering of others in any capacity, it is still possible to feel burned out from time to time. For this reason and others, practicing self-compassion is of utmost importance. As someone who frequently occupies the role of a calm presence offering unconditional positive regard, it is crucial to show up similarly in your own life.
What is self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, pioneer and author of the book “Self-Compassion” defines the practice as treating ourselves as warmly and forgiving as we would a beloved friend, family member, or any person in our lives. Through self-compassion, we are able to recognize that to be human is to understand suffering as a shared bond with the rest of humanity. As we realize that suffering is universal, we permit ourselves to be gentle and kind in the face of hardships.
Frequently we are culturally conditioned to think of self-compassion as self-indulgent or self-pitying. A typical upbringing may tell us that ignoring the pain and “pushing through” demonstrates toughness. Self-Compassion is an act of strength that acknowledges suffering and realizes the type of care needed to move forward.
Dr. Kristin Neff breaks down self-compassion into three components:
- Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
Practicing self-kindness means treating yourself with warmth, forgiveness, and compassion when you fail or undergo any hardship. When you practice self-compassion, you witness life’s challenges, recognizing your humanity and imperfections. When you push away these realities, you experience self-criticism instead of emotional equanimity. Treat yourself with the same understanding you would exhibit toward a loved one, loving yourself similarly.
- Common Humanity vs. Isolation
When you experience frustration over life’s setbacks, this can be a very lonely process. Thought distortions may have you believe that you are the only one who experiences suffering or makes mistakes. As you realize that being human means to be imperfect, you understand that suffering is common to the human condition, making you feel less alone.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
Self-compassion means treating all of your emotions with equanimity, which means “mental calmness and evenness of temper”. You may feel the urge to exaggerate or push them away as feelings arise. As you exercise emotional regulation, you recognize, feel, and validate your suffering and put it into a larger perspective. As you practice mindfulness, you become a non-judgemental observer. Practicing mindfulness in this way distances you from becoming over-identified in your emotions.
Why it is essential to practice self-compassion as a caregiver?
In her new book “Come Passion: The Soulful ART of Healing Trauma,” Colleen Clark illustrates the importance of practicing self-compassion as a trauma-informed therapist.
“YOU ARE A LONG-TERM CAREGIVER FOR YOURSELF
Self-compassion involves self-care; engage in your expertise and bring it to yourself. There is such a thing as the thriving therapist. You can thrive and make a difference in the lives of others who have great suffering. You have the key to help them through ART. So, how do we teach ourself compassion, and how do we accept that compassion when we need to? Here’s how: develop a secure attachment with yourself and within yourself. No matter where you are and what might be going on in your life, you have the ability and capacity to self-soothe and not to numb out. To self-soothe is to example secure attachment.” p.115
Helper, healer, and caretaker roles require an extra amount of care as you are what Colleen refers to as a “specialized population in the helping community.”
As a caregiver, practicing self-compassion is essential to:
- Preventing burnout
Therapists serve as space holders and sounding boards for the challenging thoughts and emotions of others. Being in this role for an extended period can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. Self-compassion means recognizing feelings of emotional exhaustion and your own trauma triggers and asking yourself, “In this moment, what do I need?”
- Developing Emotional Resilience
As you develop mindfulness and awareness, you become more resilient to challenging emotions. Watching, observing, and holding compassionate feelings makes you more equanimous. When difficult emotions present themselves, you can remain present for clients.
- Assisting with healthy emotional and professional boundaries
As you are an empathetic ear for your clients, becoming emotionally involved in their hardships may be tempting. Self-compassion recognizes the need for boundaries, empathizing while maintaining a professional distance, and maintaining your emotional well-being.
- Presenting a positive model for clients
Self-compassion is a much-needed lifestyle tool. In practice, you may have witnessed trauma sufferers come up against self-blame, self-judgment, overwhelm, and heavy emotions. As you experience the challenges of wrestling with difficult moments, you can offer empathy and tips and tricks for dealing with hardship from a first-hand perspective. Modeling this behavior allows the practice of self-compassion to be more approachable and achievable.
- Helping meet your needs
Practicing self-compassion means becoming familiar with our feelings, pains, and hardships. When we practice self-compassion, we gently ask ourselves, “What do you need?” much like speaking to a distressed child. As you get in touch with your emotions and fulfill your needs, you enter a more emotionally balanced place to help others.
How to exercise self-compassion
Practicing self-compassion is an ongoing process, as we are pre-conditioned with a negativity bias; a harsh self-critic is often our most frequent voice. In Come Passion, Colleen Clark recommends keeping a journal to create awareness around times when you have been self-critical:
What kind of language did you use when speaking to yourself?
What words or phrases were recurring?
Next, soften your internal conversation with compassion. Even though a self- critic’s role is to keep you safe, you may ask it to use gentler, more helpful language.
Finally, practice reframing the situation, using “comfort words,” speaking to yourself with kindness, and offering solutions based on your deepest inner needs. As an ART therapist, self-compassion takes time and awareness, yet it is vital to maintaining emotional well-being. As you use this tool in your own life, you can show up more fully in alignment with your own needs, providing care and empathy for your clients.
To learn more about developing self-compassion as an ART-trained practitioner, grab a copy of Colleen’s book Come Passion: The Soulful ART of Healing Trauma.