Friday, September 17, 2010

How do you help someone who doesn't believe he/she deserves self-compassion?

I wrote recently about self-compassion, which is also sometimes referred to as self empathy.  Someone asked me what techniques a person might use to help someone develop self compassion when that person is particularly sutck in his negative way of thinking or when she truly believes that she does not deserve to be treated kindly.  I've given some thought to this and wanted to share my ideas.

Most depressed people enter therapy because they want to feel better.  Thus, they would likely agree that "treating myself kindly" and "believing that I am worthwhile" are valid treatment goals.  Trying to convince the person that she deserves to be treated kindly is probably futile.  If he were that easily convinced he wouldn't need therapy.  So how do you convince this person to start being kind to herself when she doesn't believe that she deserves it?

One way is a cognitive behavioral technique called "acting as-if."  You explain to the person that it's not particularly important whether or not he believes he deserves to be treated kindly.  (To really drive this point home ask if he's ever been polite to someone he really didn't like.  Most people have.  Point out that he didn't believe that the person in question deserved kind treatment and yet he managed to be polite to him anyway.  The way you treat someone - including yourself - does not necessarily depend upon how you feel about that person).  You explain to the person that in order to reach the goal of "believing I am worthwhile" she has to start by pretending she already believes it.  You work with her to identify specific ways a person with a strong sense of self-worth might behave (to include self talk).  You ask the person to practice doing these things.  You can frame it as an experiment -- try it and see what happens.  It certaintly can't hurt anything.  What the person will likely discover is that simply by being kind to herself she feels better and starts to believe in herself more.

The other possibility depends upon use of the therapeutic relationship.  If a therapist has a strong rapport with a client the therapist can use this to help the client make progress.  Because the client trusts the therapist he might be willing to try a particular therapeutic technique simply because the therapist expresses a strong belief that it will be helpful.  Essentially, you ask the client to borrow your hope or your belief, to take a "leap of faith" and try something you believe will be helpful, even if he doesn't believe it himself.

No one technique works for everyone but it never hurts to try.  It is also important as a therapist to keep in mind that, despite your best efforts, no one can help everyone.


  1. Great article, I can relate to so much of what you write.

    For me, acting 'as-if' can help a lot. I tend to repeat phrases of loving kindness to myself. Sometimes I feel numb, as though the words are completely fake, but eventually they will puncture the outer-layer of numbness and I will start to feel the effect of the words on my body and spirit.

  2. Fake it till you make it!

    Great post.

    Rapport is crucial when creating trust and that bond that's needed. They need to know that YOU KNOW! If they believe you, they'll do anything for you.


My Favorites