Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 10: Using Self-Compassion


Last week we looked at the motivating effect of self-compassion and this week we take a peek on how we go about using self-compassion in our coaching practice

Using self-compassion exercises can be a very effective way of increasing both motivation and wellbeing.

Many self-compassion exercises are mindfulness-based, that is they are carried out in a meditative way. Others can be written down or practiced mentally without meditating. If you and/or your client isn’t familiar with mindfulness techniques then it would probably be best to use the non-meditative exercises, at least at first.

How would you treat a friend?

Before using self-compassion exercises it is important to spot when your client is being particularly self-critical. The ‘danger’ words can be things like ‘should,’ must,’ and ‘ought.’ Having spotted the self-critical talk start by asking your client how they would treat a close friend if they reported the same problem and used the same language.

At this point it can be useful to get your client to write down what they might do or say to their friend and to note the tone that they use. It is likely that the words and tone they use with their friend are very different to the ones they use with themselves. Having noticed and explored the difference ask your client what difference it would make if they used the same words and tone with themselves.

Some (perhaps most) of your clients may not have ever considered that being kind to themselves was an option. The effect it has will differ from person to person. Some will find it very liberating and motivating having shed the burden of shame induced by harsh self-criticism.

It won’t work for everyone

On the other end of the spectrum you will find that some clients simply don’t respond in a kind way towards their friends and, especially, themselves. In our busy, rushed, pressurised world kindness can be alien to some people. When it is something that is rarely experienced it can be scary. It was once described to me as a ‘backdraft’ scenario. When a fire in a room is starved of oxygen it explodes when the door is opened. If someone has locked-away emotions kindness can be the force that opens the door.

If your client is evasive and avoids being kind to themselves then tread very carefully and be prepared to abandon using self-compassion exercises, at least for the time being. It probably wouldn’t be productive if you burst open the door and provoked a firestorm of emotions. However, it doesn’t stop you from being kind to your client in subtle ways and that can simply boil down to empathy, rapport and the quality of the coaching relationship.

I would love to take credit for the exercises that I’m talking about in this post but, alas, ‘tis not the case. The reference I am using is a website published by Dr Kristin Neff, one of the leading researchers of self-compassion. I recommend that you visit her website at www.self-compassion.org where there are many other resources and even a questionnaire where you can assess your own levels of self-compassion. Let’s have a look now at a mental exercise.

Have you ever wondered why people are critical?

Sometimes people are critical because they want to upset you; to get one over you; to be the boss. When that happens what’s called for is ‘Resilience’. (See our Blog: Testing Out Resilience >>) Sometimes though, other people are critical because they care. They don’t want you to make the same mistakes as they did and they might want you to be better.

Parents are often critical towards their children

This second type of criticism is very often the basis of self-criticism. We want ourselves to do better, be more resilient and be more successful. In reality self-criticism doesn’t work without a huge cost to our wellbeing and self-esteem and using self-compassion to achieve these things can sometimes be discounted.

The following is an exercise that can be introduced in a coaching session and then practiced in-between sessions . . .

When self-critical language becomes entrenched in our thoughts it can be difficult to counter and the risk is that we just end up have an internal argument. When this happens, it may be best to respond to harsh thoughts with kindness. ‘I know that you are trying to keep me safe, but your words are hurtful,’ is a phrase that could be used to quiet a harsh critical voice. You could explore with your client and come up with other phrases that they could use to quieten their inner critic.

This is the last post in our current series of Psychology and Coaching,
we hope that you have enjoyed them!

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