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  • Delanie Woodlock

Self-compassion and vicarious trauma

There is emerging evidence that being kinder to ourselves and recognising our feelings as being part of the human experience, can help alleviate some of the impacts of stress on practitioners (Finlay-Jones, Rees & Kane, 2015). Known as mindful self-compassion, a construct from Buddhist thought, the practice consists of three primary actions:

  1. Being aware of your own suffering

  2. Treating yourself with kindness during these times of difficulty

  3. Relating your experiences of suffering to the wider perspective of human experience (Neff, 2003).


A pioneer in the area of self-compassion, Neff (2003) developed the Self-Compassion Scale, which has been used to build evidence of the connection between self-compassion and psychological health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that self-compassion may help to protect against anxiety and depression (Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007) and can promote resilience during times of stress (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007; Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitthirat, 2005).


In studies on the use of self-compassion for therapists and other mental health professionals, the practice has shown to assist in recognising signs of being burned out, as well as bringing clarity to ethical dilemmas (Patsiopoulos & Buchanan, 2011). A participant in research by Patsiopoulos & Buchanan (2011, p. 305) summed up the benefits of self-compassion as being “Three words: Avoidance of burnout”. Similarly, a study by Finlay-Jones, Rees & Kane (2015) found that therapists who utilise self-compassion are:


… likely to be more mindful of stressful work-related experiences and difficult emotional states, kinder to themselves when they receive negative or ambiguous feedback, and more likely to utilize adaptive emotion regulation strategies and self-care strategies during or following stressful encounters.

Ana Gooden, in her call for Black self-compassion has added vital political context to self-compassion through her conceptualisation of how and why Black people need self-compassion. In this form of self-compassion, Gooden moves beyond the step of a common humanity that all people experience pain, to relate the pain that Black people feel to the systemic and societal causes of this pain, racism. Gooden then includes the step of transforming this pain into self-expression, creativity and action. By doing this, Gooden calls for a practice of self-compassion that is personal, political, and ultimately transformative.


You can informally practice self-compassion during your work, and include formal practices outside of the workplace so you become more familiar with the steps. During your workday you can take a quick informal self-compassion break that may only take a minute but can potentially have a large impact on your approach to your work. Here is an example:


  • Bring to mind the issue that is causing you stress or discomfort. This can be in your mind or body, or both.

  • Recognise that what you are feeling is hard. Say to yourself this is suffering, this hurts, this is painful.

  • Relate this pain to a shared suffering. This can be with humanity, all living beings, or how Gooden suggests, bring a political context to your pain. For example, “I’m not alone in feeling this way, other women feel fear of men’s violence”.

  • Bring kindness to yourself. Neff suggests asking “what do I need to do right now to express kindness to myself?”. This could be saying to yourself “may I be gentle with myself” or may include supportive touch, such as putting your hand over your heart.


Of course, self-compassion practices alone will not protect DVSA researchers and practitioners from vicarious trauma. There needs to be comprehensive organisational and structural practices in place to support you with your work. Self-compassion is one tool that is emerging as useful to assist in your personal practices of self-care, and could be worth experimenting with to see if it can benefit you.



References


Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT (2015) Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation and Stress among Australian Psychologists: Testing an Emotion Regulation Model of Self-Compassion Using Structural Equation Modeling. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0133481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133481


Neff K. D. (2003) The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2:223–50.


Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and identity, 4(3), 263-287.


Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality, 41(1), 139-154.


Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(5), 887.


Patsiopoulos, A. T., & Buchanan, M. J. (2011). The practice of self-compassion in counseling: A narrative inquiry. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(4), 301.