Psychotherapists are some of the most compassionate people I know. Many of us are temperamentally sensitive and predisposed to caregiving. By the time we hit graduate school and our professional training, we have already learned how to attend to the needs of others in many ways. Learning the skill of compassion, or the ability to feel with another often comes quite naturally to those who have chosen this career path.
But are therapists able to harness that same whole-hearted approach when it comes to themselves?Not always.
There is an old saying “the cobblers children have no shoes.” The sentiment offers the insight that one does not always benefit from the product of their craft. For therapists, compassion and empathy are the tools of our trade. But when we use them only for our clients and fail to use them personally we are depriving ourselves of the healing salve that we may be needing the most.
But why wouldn’t we be self-compassionate?
Perfectionism, Hard Lessons and Inner Critics
Perfectionism runs rampant. It predates COVID as a pandemic. If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, you likely know someone who is. And therapists are no exception. We are in a line of work where, once we leave the nest of our graduate institution, few of us ever get direct feedback from peers or supervisors about our work in action. To some degree, we are operating in a vacuum with no real sense of if we are truly good therapists or only mediocre ones. Perfectionism and being hard on ourselves is often an effort to keep us aiming to reach higher standards.
A mistake with a client can result in dire consequences. Depending on the severity of the mistake we may lose the chance to repair the rupture with the client, or we may lose a sense of ourselves as competent. Do we forget about these folks? Rarely. More often, they become the ghosts that haunt us as they continue to teach us in absentia. I’ve learned some of my toughest lessons in private practice from the clients I couldn’t help, or the sessions that I failed to provide what the client most needed. Choosing whether to beat myself up for those missteps or to take them in stride, as the lessons they were meant to be, is sometimes a case-by-case process as they arise in my memory.
Some of the people we work with may experience high-reactivity, narcissism, chronic rage or possess other qualities that can make us feel insignificant, inept, or like complete imposters from the moment they walk into the room. (Thanks mirror neurons!) When the clients we see have an unconscious way of undermining our confidence we can find ourselves disconnected from the skillful professional persona we’ve worked so hard to curate.
I teach my perfectionistic clients self-compassion as an alternative way of relating to themselves. First, we allow ourselves to get really curious about the inner critic that drives the perfectionism and explore it’s main desire: to protect the client from embarrassment, failure, shame, etc. Then we move into the lengthy process of cultivating self-compassion. This happens over time, with my both directly teaching positive self-talk and meditative techniques that promote self-acceptance and non-judgment and my expressing and role modeling my own compassion for them. I know things are working when they report back to me “I could hear your voice inside my head, it said to be gentle/to be kind to myself, etc.”
The Revelation and The Practice of Self-Compassion
Learning to be compassionate with oneself is often a revelation. When we start treating ourselves like someone we love and admire, like we’d treat our own best friend, we start to feel better. It is also a practice. And, like anything else we practice, if we stop practicing, we regress to an earlier, more primitive or unconscious state of being.
Meditation teacher, writer, and psychotherapist Jack Kornfield says that as therapists “we are together in holding the heart of the culture and the possibility of human wellbeing and transformation.”
This is tremendous work we’ve undertaken.
Let’s take care to remember the wisdom and beauty in the practice of self-compassion and to hold our own selves in the light of this love and kindness. If you forget how, or get overwhelmed in the process of living in these crazy and uncertain times, call a fellow therapist for a gentle reminder.
If you are a therapist looking for a therapist’s therapist, drop me a line. I’d love to support you.