The Compassionate Encounter with the Self

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
elizabeth dickson

“I am here to remind you that it is not the absence of darkness

that gives us access to our light but rather our ability to bring

   our light to the darkness that pervades our human experience.”


Debbie Ford



“The unfaced and unfelt parts of our psyche

    are the source of all neurosis and suffering.”


Carl Jung


Accessing Our Light by Exposing Our Darkness


The above quote about bringing our light to our darkness provides a poetic description of what we encourage many of our clients to do in psychotherapy, particularly those who tend to avoid or compensate for their pain or vulnerability, leaving them out of touch with aspects of who they are. It illustrates the dimension of our work that is the most counter-intuitive; rather than attempting to eliminate what feels dark in our lives, we purposely seek out that darkness and look directly at it. In doing so, we have the ability to reclaim aspects of ourselves that have been ignored, exiled or shamed.


An “encounter with the self” is not just an encounter with the parts of the self that we feel comfortable with, but an encounter with the unknown, unexpressed, or banished aspects as well. Therapists often refer to these unacknowledged parts as the “not me.” Maybe the encounter is with something we dislike about ourselves. Or maybe it involves tapping into deeper emotions that we felt lurking down there but were not willing to expose before. The client may encounter a more vulnerable self, possibly what we refer to as the “inner child” that had been wounded, but whose deepest feelings have long since been covered over.


Why the Journey is Worthwhile


Why would anyone want to embark on this kind of journey when it feels  more natural to sweep all the unpleasant thoughts and feelings under the rug and just move on with our lives?  The answer is that psychotherapy is not a kind of torture where we dredge up old wounds, acknowledge our frailty and vulnerability, bring out the deepest levels of our pain and just suffer with it and let it fester. Quite the contrary; we are bringing our light to the darkness. Bringing our light to the darkness is not just a metaphor for looking at our darkness; we are talking about much more than just neutrally examining what is there. This is where compassion comes in.


When we as clients are able to own and acknowledge that which had previously been exiled, it is as if we are reunited with parts of ourselves that had been lost. In the presence of an empathic and accepting therapist, the client and the therapist together can bring loving compassion to just those parts that appear to get in the way the most or that seem the most frightening. The banished or neglected parts are now given a home, and by admitting to and expressing these thoughts and feelings, we are in fact embracing that part of the self that had previously been banished.


It often happens that finding a place of belonging for that wounded, suffering or vulnerable part of ourselves naturally brings forth feelings of loving compassion, and both clients and therapists share in the power and tenderness of these moments. When we take the risk to speak from a deeper place within us, the pain or sadness that is revealed can be transformed in the presence of the love that is released, and what had felt frightening or dark or heavy turns to relief and a sense of comfort. The tears and sadness may still be there, but the experience feels safe and loving.


I want to emphasize that it is not just accepting ourselves, but embracing ourselves. It is a homecoming. I believe that, for many of us, undertaking some version of this type of encounter with the self is ultimately what gives us access to our light and opens up the possibility for finding the most happiness and joy. But the process of exposing our vulnerability in safe circumstances is not a one-time occurrence. We continue in therapy to allow these “not me” parts to find expression. And long after our psychotherapy experience is over, life gives us many opportunities to successfully integrate this “not me” into our lives in ways that make us both happier and stronger.


Finding the Courage to Take the Journey


“The forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day

after day, the dark richer than the light and more blessed,

provided we stay brave enough to keep going in.”


Wendell Berry


In some respects, it is a luxury to go to therapy and have a therapist serving as a compassionate guide, helping us to orchestrate a loving encounter with ourselves. Yet the choice to embark upon this journey is not an easy one. Encountering the self feels frightening; it is human nature to attempt to disown those parts of ourselves that hold our vulnerability, that feel too emotional, or the parts that are not “winning” in the world.


So rather than face them, we avoid them. If we keep busy in life and compensate for our pain. longings or feelings of inadequacy by being even more successful in our careers or our athletic prowess or our accumulation of wealth, then we can often get by, at least most of the time. If we can manage our lives in such a way that we have more successes than failures then, when we occasionally stumble, we nurse our wounds, push the unpleasant experience out of our awareness and go back to feeling OK about ourselves.


After all, avoidance and compensation are often healthy defenses and are there for a reason. As we say to our clients, our defensive systems serve an important purpose; we have needed them, particularly when we were young, just to help us survive and feel strong and cohesive. But as we get older, these same defenses that worked so well in our lives can sometimes become counterproductive. While our coping strategies can work to some degree, they can also leave us with precarious self-esteem and can limit our ability to flourish. In the words of Unitarian minister Forrest Church:


“So long as we don’t think much about these things, letting life live us,

burying our deepest feelings in sand running out unwatched through the

funnel of our glass, this is tolerable. We insulate ourselves, build walls,

block out the sun, rarely get burned. We aren’t lost, not exactly, for we fit

in a tight, if slightly uncomfortable frame. But we aren’t saved either.

We aren’t even close to being saved.”


When Our Defenses Become Counterproductive


What touches me the most as a therapist is when I see how our efforts to banish or ignore the wounded parts of ourselves end up repeating the original damage. If we had a parent who was critical or shaming, for example, we end up shunning this same part of ourselves and trying to hide that “inadequate” or “defective” child from ourselves and from others, including our romantic partners. We may convince ourselves that our self-esteem is finally solid, only to be toppled over once again when our insecurities are exposed.


Or if a parent was cold or did not understand us, spend time with us, make us feel special or valued, or connect with us emotionally, then we may end up repeating the deprivation by ignoring our wounded or lonely child that was deprived in childhood. We might feel angry about our deprivation or, alternatively, we may deny that anything was wrong. But without the ability to face the pain of what we missed, we are clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to creating our own intimate relationships.


Owning and Presenting Our Full Selves to Our Partners


That same place that holds our pain, where our hearts have been broken, is often where we find our greatest sweetness and innocence. If we can reclaim our broken hearts, including all the sadness that is there, we are in a better position to create a healing experience of love in our lives. If we have come to know ourselves fully, we can show this formerly buried part of ourselves to our partners (or guide them to it). Without our help, how can they find us, love us and help us heal at this most profound level?


For many people, love is not just the result of shared interests, mutual respect, or admiration for our strengths and successes. It is difficult to imagine a deep love that it not based, to some degree, on the ability to recognize and appreciate the most profound vulnerability of the other, and to respond to that vulnerability, at least on occasion, with so much compassion that it is felt by the other as a heartfelt embrace. If  compassion contains an element of love, then our ability to bring compassion into our relationships can only enhance our loving connections.


And if we have found compassion for our formerly exiled parts, we are much less likely to make what can be tragic mistakes in relationships.  Rather than act out our disowned feelings or insecurities in some unconscious or inappropriate way, we can introduce these exiled parts of ourselves to our partners–not as something monstrous, but rather as aspects of ourselves that may need some healing, but that are ultimately worthy of love.


While there is never any guarantee that our partners will accept all that we are, we are in a much better position to find a partner who truly loves us when we are conscious of and at least somewhat accepting of our full selves. Ironically, it is often the parts of ourselves that we disapprove of or fear the most that turn out to be the most loveable and also the most capable of returning love. If intimacy is defined as the ability to connect through our vulnerability, then the compassionate encounter with the self is often a necessary first step.


Conclusions: Helping Clients Find Self-Compassion


“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”


Carl Jung


In looking at the role of compassion in psychotherapy, it is important to clarify that our intention as therapists is not to help a client to be a kinder or more compassionate person in the sense of how they relate to the world. But one thing that we generally do want to accomplish is to help clients find more self-compassion. The process of psychotherapy is well suited for this challenge, since we ask clients to open up and express parts of themselves that they normally do not reveal. And if we as therapists are successful in maintaining a compassionate and welcoming stance, our clients are more inclined, over time, to learn to do the same for themselves.


Yet most clients do not mention self-compassion as a goal, and some question whether having greater compassion for oneself is even a good thing. While everyone would like to have improved self-esteem, or to find a way to think more highly of themselves, the notion of having compassion for oneself is somewhat more complex. Some people react to the idea of compassion or forgiveness toward oneself in a negative way, as if there were something self-indulgent about it. (This word “self-indulgent” is frequently heard as a criticism of psychotherapy in general.) I often have clients tell me that they do not want to end up like the Stuart Smalley character on Saturday Night Live who looks into the mirror and repeats positive affirmations.


It is easy to make fun of Stuart Smalley’s version of “self-acceptance”, but as clients begin to understand what self-compassion actually entails, many come to see it in the opposite way, not as a cop-out or as something pathetic, but as a life journey that requires considerable courage and that helps us to be stronger, not weaker. With greater self-exploration and compassion for what we discover, we stand more solidly grounded in the full truth of who we are and can better tap the potentials inherent in our more complete selves. And having compassion for ourselves does not mean that we become complacent and avoid making changes or taking risks. Quite the contrary, we are less likely to make healthy changes and move forward if we are hiding from or not acknowledging essential aspects of ourselves or our emotional life, or if we are weighed down by criticisms of ourselves or what we consider our failings.