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Offering Ourselves Exquisite Self Compassion as a Tool for Self-Care

Wednesday, June 13, 2018   (1 Comments)
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Written by: Howard R. Fradkin, PhD

How often have you heard “we are all our own worst enemy…our worst critic?” How much is this true for you? Have you thought about how you learned to be your own worst enemy? What are the rewards for you, and what might be the costs? 

How often have you heard how important it is to love yourself? Probably, like me, enough times, that it sounds so trite that such advice is practically useless.

I have spent my 37-year career as a psychologist focused primarily on helping survivors of trauma of all kinds learn how to thrive. What I came to understand in the past decade is that our job as psychologists is very emotionally challenging, and that each of us can suffer from offering so much compassion on a daily basis, especially when what we are witnessing is various degrees of great trauma and suffering. I have also come to understand that psychotherapy is very much a spiritual relationship, a bond of sacred trust that requires us to be as present as possible, as open as possible, and as loving and nurturing as possible.  That also can take a toll on us, what my colleague Richard Gartner calls “countertrauma.” (1)  

One of my mantras I have used with myself and with clients is that “recovery is the process of learning to be disloyal to dysfunction and loyal to functionality.” Unfortunately, many of us have learned just the opposite, to be loyal to dysfunction and disloyal to functionality.  People told us they cared about us, but in their caring, they actually hurt us and acted in very hurtful, dysfunctional ways. We developed a sense of loyalty to them and their messages because of their caring, and even when they hurt us, we held onto the loyalty struggling to believe we are still worthy of being loved. This directly impacts our ability to offer ourselves compassion, if we have learned that all we are worthy of is disrespect and betrayal of our trust. We can become so loyal to dysfunction that we stop risking reaching out for support, fearing we will be met with more rejection and pain.  

With all this in mind, I developed a tool I call “exquisite self compassion (ESC),” a tool I use for myself and have taught to my clients to use in their every day lives. I define exquisite self compassion as the practice of offering oneself self love “kicked up a notch,” as chef Emerald Lagasse would say. It is a practice of recognizing when we need help and support and giving ourselves permission to reach out for it, without guilt or shame, and instead, with confidence and relief and a sense of worthiness. I call it “exquisite” to help people acknowledge to themselves they are worthy of every bit of support and help that is in the universe. Many survivors of trauma, especially, and unfortunately, many of us, have the tendency to deny or minimize that we need help when faced with challenges. While it is great to do it on your own, sometimes having that exquisite extra support enhances our quality of life and our ability to thrive. I believe that exquisite self compassion is a necessity, not a luxury in the work we do.   

Before I tell you more, I invite you to check-in to see what blocks you are already aware of that could stop you right now in your tracks as you ponder whether you want to learn more about ESC.  Common blocks for therapists are: I don’t have time for this; I have a client who needs me; I’m fine just as I am; I have all the tools I need; I have to cook dinner/clean the office/write notes; I don’t need it now, so I’ll put this idea on the back shelf; it’s not that bad-I can handle whatever is stressing me. What others are coming up for you? Are shame and guilt, or false pride, connected to your blocks?  

What is included in the practice are essentially four steps:

  1. Identifying and reminding ourselves daily about our own personal strengths, the strengths we have used in any time of stress or challenge;
  2. Identifying an interpersonal strength guide or mentor, someone who is living or deceased who stood beside you in tough times; 
  3. Identifying a transpersonal/spiritual guide- something greater than yourself, a force, an entity, a presence, something outside of yourself that you have turned to in the past when you have needed extra loving, caring, and protection; and lastly
  4. Identifying three messages-one from each of these sources- that we would want and need to hear in a time of stress or challenge. These may be the messages these sources offered us in the past, or they may be new messages based on the situation at hand, grounded in our knowing these resources inside of our souls.  

I invite you to consider that all of us are worthy of offering ourselves ESC.  Be aware of the self-talk you use when you believe you are worthy of ESC.  And be aware of what self-talk impedes your ability to offer yourself this essential gift.  Once a week, several times a week, even daily you can use this tool. Once you learn the skill, it can take only a few minutes of your time, and you are worth that degree of self care!  And the best part is, offering yourself ESC will help you transform “countertrauma” into “countergrowth” and “counterresilience,” (1) great tools to use very day of your life. 

Click here for a helpful worksheet. You or your client can do this alone, or after you’ve written your answers, you can use the format of psychodrama or a role-play if you can do this with another person, or with your client in a session. I’ve also used this format in a large group or experiential workshop.

(1) Gartner, R.B. (2017) Trauma and countertrauma, resilience and counterresilience: Insights from psychoanalysts and trauma experts. New York: Routledge. 


About the Author:
Howard Fradkin, PhD retired from private practice at Affirmations in Columbus, in December.  He recently joined the OPA Colleague Assistance Program committee, and offers this column as one more tool the committee would like you to utilize as needed.  



Jane M. Hellwig PhD says...
Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Lovely. Beautifully conceptualized and marvelously written. Thank you so very much, Howard. My best to you in your retirement and as you help us to be the best we can be.