The power of self-compassion & self-care for loved ones of trauma survivors

Last week, I attended a one-day workshop with Kristin Neff, Ph.D. For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Neff’s work, she is a self-compassion researcher and the co-founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion program with Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

Prior to the workshop, I had been reading Dr. Neff’s book and implementing short mediations into my day. Attendance at this event confirmed the importance of self-compassion in deepening support for myself as a partner to a survivor.

Self-care, self-compassion, and burnout

Before I get into the reasons why I will state that self-compassion is not a replacement for self-care. However, as anyone who lives with or supports someone with a chronic mental health issue, finding the time, the energy and the resources for self-care can be a challenge. Self-care is not always convenient. When there’s a crisis or a prolonged period of high demands, it can be difficult to step away.

The workshop also helped clarify the important difference between empathy and compassion. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but to do so is inaccurate.

According to Dr. Neff:

Empathy can be defined as emotional resonance — feeling what others are feeling. Our brains actually have specialized mirror neurons designed for this purpose. Mirror neurons evolved to help us quickly know if someone is friend or foe by registering feelings such as anger or friendliness in our own bodies.

Why Caregivers Need Self-Compassion.

Dr. Neff further explains, “When you are in the presence of someone experiencing pain, it resonates as your own.”

On the other hand, compassion, notably self-compassion, is about offering ourselves the support, comfort, and care we need so that we can offer more support to others. In fact, self-compassion activates the body’s caregiving system leading to the release of oxytocin and opiates. (Kristin Neff, Ph.D. The Science of Self-compassion.)

Why this is relevant for supporters

The risk for those of us in supportive roles is burnout. This is not anyone’s fault. Simply, it is a hazard of exposure to prolonged stress and suffering.

Burnout is ‘a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.’ – Charles R. Figley, Ph.D. Burnout in Families.

Self-compassion and self-care can help to mitigate the impact of exposure.

What if you tried self-care and self-compassion?

This is what I am doing. Here are a few things I like about it so far:

1. Self-compassion is convenient and quick.

You don’t have to stop to do it. It’s an internal practice with subtle gestures that can be done at any time, in any place, and in only a few moments. Of course, you can also do longer meditations to practice.

2. Although it is frequently paired with breathing, you can adapt it to suit you.

I find the breathing a useful prompt to remember to speak supportive phrases to myself. However, breathing does not work for everyone. You can adapt the practices as you like.

3. It provides an internal stress buffer.

This was an immediate benefit for me. I don’t know how this works, but the intentional act of speaking and showing myself kindness provided internal space.

4. It activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System and disengages the threat defense system.

The PNS helps the body slow down while disengagement of the threat defense system helps the mind think clearly. Self-compassion promotes wellbeing, internal sense of calm, and gratitude.

The brain on compassion activates the reward centres. – Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

5. It allows those of us in supportive roles to receive compassionate support no matter the circumstances.

For me, the experience of self-support is huge. I have always advocated for self-support, but I believe self-compassion helps strengthen this capacity. According to Dr. Neff, there are over 2000 research papers on self-compassion, many of which highlight how the practice disengages our minds and bodies from rumination, comparison, criticism, and negativity. Of course, it won’t completely take away the pain, but it can help you to feel comforted and soothed in the midst of suffering.

We give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad. – Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

I am looking forward to utilizing this practice for myself and eventually with clients. In the meantime, I invite you to explore the many free online resources. I’d love to know what you think.


Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion website

Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (includes links to online and in-person courses)

Brene Brown and Kristin Neff video clips

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Kristin Neff. (book)

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