“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
— Jack Kornfield

My therapist was attuned to me. She was speaking, I thought, "eloquently like poetry,” as I sat across from her, feeling held, listening to her, reflecting her own authentic experience of being with me.

I was in a good place in my life with a stable, happy family—my husband and I filled with pride and happiness at seeing the joy in our toddler's life. I was saying how much I treasured what I had built with my husband; a close and loving family, and celebrating and creating family traditions, especially as I had not known that warmth and security as a child. Receiving a gift one has never had makes it so much more precious.

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As I continued talking, I noticed my therapist's face fill with sadness and tears forming around her eyes. I thought to myself "Oh, she must have had a very hard time as a child" and I blurted out to her, "I hope this doesn't remind you of your own pain and what you did not have as a child.” Then I quickly added, "Anyway, I don't want to hear about that!” This was my therapy, after all! As someone who is well attuned to the other’s emotional state, I didn’t want to be burdened with the responsibility of having to take care of my therapist and her feelings in these sessions.

My therapist's face softened as she explained that she was merely reflecting what she was feeling, listening to MY story, and that although I was in a happy place in my life now, my story was tinged with sadness and loss for what I had missed as a child, and that was the reason for her tears. I allowed what she had just said to sink in and inhaled long and deep.

I have always been critical of that unhappy child (the younger me), holding her responsible for the unhappiness of those around her, and fervently refusing to feel compassion for her own suffering. Connecting with the genuine compassion that my therapist felt for the younger me, I began to feel compassion for the little girl (or rather me in my tweens, with the unhappy, angry face, the dark and clouded me) and I allowed myself to feel the grief and sadness that came along with it.

This was a pivotal experience for me, both in my personal growth and in my growth as a psychotherapist, for this is when I learned experientially that it is only by cultivating self-compassion that one can find true healing—and it was my therapist's own authentic and compassionate stance towards me that helped me find my way back to it.

In my role as a psychotherapist, I am now better able to help my clients, especially those who carry the burdens of childhood emotional neglect, by seeing beyond their fierce independence, their overly self-reliant front, to their core empathic selves that deeply cares about others—helping them to experience that their feelings matter, and more importantly that they matter. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy