Imagine my surprise when my patient said, “STOP THAT!” “Stop what?” I wondered. I was listening to my patient talk about something very painful and had responded with a gentle mmmm. At first it was hard to understand what was happening; yet, it happened more than once and with more than one patient. Some of my patients were actually bothered by a compassionate response from me. The heartbreaking part of this is that these were people who had been so deprived of compassion. They were in desperate need of compassion, yet they spoke to themselves in a very critical way and could not tolerate receiving compassion from others.
Other patients soaked up the compassion from me like drops of rain in the desert. They needed compassion desperately; much more than I could give in a session a week, or even two sessions a week. They left my office feeling better for having been compassionately met, but then white-knuckled the time between our sessions.
I was already teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and practicing mindfulness, loving-kindness and self-compassion in my own life when I learned that Drs. Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff had developed an 8-week course in Mindful Self-Compassion. I was delighted! From my own personal practice and from my professional experience I was deeply aware this was the missing puzzle piece. “This is the salve the world needs” were the words that expressed my delight at finding this program. That was over a year and a half ago. Drs. Neff and Germer invited me to begin teaching Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and I’ve been teaching it continuously ever since, all over the US, Canada and Europe. To say it has been well received would be an understatement. Even participants with a 20-30 year meditation practice have remarked that it was the “missing piece” for them. MSC explicitly teaches us to pay kind and warm attention to what arises for us. In March of 2014, we launched our teacher training; in that short year we have had about 300 people go through the teacher training.
The patients I referred to above? Both groups have gone through the program with tremendous results. One patient came into a session saying, “It’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t deserve it” in reference to her painful childhood. Her harsh critical voice was replaced with a kinder and gentler one. It was the turning point in her treatment. Imagine, she was no longer beating herself up for her misfortune and could actually receive compassion. Her mood became more stable, she was happier, more engaged with life, and her relationships with others improved markedly.
For other patients, the times between sessions became much easier, and as they learned to comfort and soothe themselves they were no longer so overwhelmed with life. They reported feeling less “needy” and more satisfied with life in general. For both groups, an increase in mindful awareness and a kinder, wiser, more balanced way of being has developed.
Indeed, this does seem to be the salve the world needs. Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional well-being. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help people stick to their diet and exercise routine. And it’s easier than you think. Most of us feel compassion when a close friend is struggling. What would it be like to receive the same caring attention whenever you needed it most? All that’s required is shift in the direction of our attention—recognizing that as a human being, you too, are a worthy recipient of compassion.
Previously published in The Center for Integrative Psychology Newsletter (Fall 2013). Published here with permission of the author.
Michelle Becker, M.A., LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in San Diego, CA utilizing mindfulness and compassion based psychotherapy. She is Director of Compassion Programs at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness where she teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Self-Compassion. She is co-founder, along with Drs. Germer, Neff and Hickman, of the MSC Teacher Training.
We're excited to have Michelle in Edmonton this August to co-lead Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive!