Practicing Self-Compassion as a Therapist

It’s an unusual job we’ve chosen for ourselves as helping professionals. Each day, we open our ears to our clients’ stories of distress, suffering, and unsolved problems. We hold space to help them process these wounds and keep the secrets safe of those willing to share their most intimate details with us. 

Through these darkened moments it’s us, the clinicians, who are called upon to navigate the way through clouds of suffering to a place of hope, safety, and solutions. And though many of us consider this work to be our calling, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, or that we always are certain of the right course of action. Practicing self-compassion is a key part of helping us avoid burnout and continue to offer the care our clients deserve. 

The Importance of Practicing Self-Compassion

We’ve learned about compassion fatigue, and we’ve been warned about countertransference. But what about the days when our hope is shaken not because of the stories we hear in our sessions, but because of the intricate weave of our own lives outside the therapy room? 

Young therapists often feel the urge to be the keeper of solutions—to show up with a bright readiness, jump right in, and lead our clients from despair to relief. As we become more seasoned, we start to give ourselves permission to not have all the answers. In time, those moments where we don’t have all the answers become less of a deficit on our parts, and more of a freeing awareness that preserves our curiosity and alignment with our clients. 

Once we acknowledge the parallel learning that takes place alongside our clients, we might also consider how the relationship to our own story evolves. Do we, the seasoned therapist, feel pressured to have it all figured out? Are we expected to have the secrets to healing and ceaselessly apply them to our own lives? How can we be more intentional about practicing self-compassion, and give ourselves the grace to learn and grow as our clients do?

Or perhaps, can we acknowledge that there’s incredible value in acknowledging our own unfinished healing journey. We, too, are navigating complicated family dynamics, emotional tolls, and the ever-challenging hurdles to maintaining self-care. 

Receiving What We Give

On the days when our own hope is shaken and our unresolved wounds become exposed, this doesn’t mean we’re ill-equipped to be therapists. It simply reinforces that we are also embarking on an unfinished healing journey. We are human, too. Our imperfections allow us to connect to, understand, and empathize with the healing journeys we create space for each day. 

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, there are three elements of practicing self-compassion: Self-kindness vs. self-judgement, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification. The principles she describes here are likely similar to ones that you have urged your clients to use themselves time and again. 

We encourage our clients to apply principles of self-compassion, and we listen with empathy and compassion as they tell their stories. In my experience, even when I hang my hat for the day, I have a tendency to review the memories of each of my sessions, allowing the remaining well of my compassion to dry out until fatigue sets in. 

What do we do on the days our own worlds feel a bit shaky? When our hearts ache and hope is nowhere to be found? Are we practicing self-compassion on those days? Or does the quick transition out of the work day to our home lives mean that we neglect to pause and reflect on everything we’ve been given that day? 

While it’s tempting to put our own needs on the backburner, may we instead take a moment to reflect, and invite a space to honor our own common humanity. May we ask ourselves, “How am I?” 

My hope is we can ask this question not in response to the stories and experiences we’ve heard all day, but in relation to our own inner worlds. What do I need? Am I tending to my own wounds? 

As clinicians we’re taught to monitor countertransference, and there’s more emphasis now on managing compassion fatigue and burnout. Some clinicians are quite good at this, and are able to maintain professional boundaries. But there’s a gap in these teachings. We must also learn the balancing act of instilling hope in others, even when our own is shaken. 

Honoring the Inner Wounded Healer 

The concept of a wounded healer, introduced by Carl Jung, suggests that as therapists, we’re compelled to do this work because we were also wounded at some point. This implies a painfully relatable and complex challenge. We’re guiding others out of their own suffering, while simultaneously managing our own wounds. Perhaps, then, it’s our own unfinished journey that serves as a guiding light for navigating our way through the stories our clients tell us. And what a glaring reminder that we, too, are human. 

As we acknowledge this simultaneous healing, practicing self-compassion means we can begin to confront the expectations we set for ourselves in our role as a therapist. It’s possible to unearth layers of shame and an exhausting drive to have it all together. What if instead we invited permission to be imperfect, and not have it all together? 

Consider the three elements of practicing self-compassion, particularly common humanity. There is immense pressure in our role to present as well-spoken, grounded, and clear-minded professionals. The reality, however, is that despite our training as therapists, we don’t always apply 100 percent of our teachings to our own life. This doesn’t imply professional inadequacy. Rather, it’s evidence of our common humanity with our clients. We are allowed to be imperfect, just as they are. 

Freedom to Be Imperfect

We can’t do it all. And thank goodness for that! Because it’s our imperfections and our unfinished healing journeys that equip us to be wholehearted healers. We’ll never fully understand each and every tragedy our clients face, but we do understand what it’s like to be wounded. 

And when we hang our hats for the day, may we wrap our arms around ourselves, sigh a breath of relief, and know that we’re not alone. We’re also imperfect and on our own unfinished healing journey. As therapists, we’re the ones who speak of and promote the concept of common humanity to our clients. Practicing self-compassion means recognizing that we also deserve to receive the same application. Our wounds don’t suggest a professional flaw. They might even be our greatest teachers to help us recognize that in the very same place as suffering, inspiration and healing can also grow. 

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