Individuals who were maltreated as children may be very critical and blame themselves for a long time afterwards for having been maltreated1 ,2 , thus unconsciously adopting a similar attitude to that of the individuals who maltreated them. Among other things, learning self-compassion could help to reverse this tendency.
- 1Dugal, C., Bigras, N., Godbout, N., & Bélanger, C. (2016). Childhood interpersonal trauma and its repercussions in adulthood: An analysis of psychological and interpersonal sequelae. In G. El-Baalbaki & C. Fortin (eds.), A multidimensional approach to post-traumatic stress disorder - from theory to practice (p. 71-107). IntechOpen. DOI: 10.5772/64476
- 2Lassri, D., & Gewirtz-Meydan, A. (2021). Self-compassion moderates the mediating effect of self-criticism in the link between childhood maltreatment and psychopathology. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 08862605211062994. doi: 10.1177/08862605211062994.
Childhood maltreatment (abuse, neglect) leads to various long-term negative consequences for survivors (post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms including hyperreactivity, avoidance, and flashbacks or re-experiencing3 ,4 ; complex trauma and other mental health disorders; difficulties with attachment, etc.)1 . One of the consequences associated with maltreatment is the adoption of avoidance strategies. Such strategies include avoiding people or situations that may remind an individual of the traumatic events, or avoiding thinking about these events or feeling the emotions associated with them. These strategies are adopted to manage the unpleasant emotions, body sensations and thoughts associated with trauma1 . This strategy is helpful in the short term, but then becomes a barrier to recovery. In addition, trauma survivors often experience relationship difficulties such as challenges in resolving conflicts, a tendency to try to dominate or control relationships, or distancing themselves from others. These difficulties also include negative beliefs about others not being trustworthy or supportive1 . As a result of these difficulties and beliefs, survivors have less social support and are more isolated1 .
Self-compassion has been shown to have positive effects on mental health, particularly in people with eating disorders, stress, anxiety, or depression5 ,6 . Self-compassion could help to alleviate the consequences of maltreatment experienced in childhood. This concept is defined by an attitude of openness and kindness towards one's suffering, with a desire to relieve it3 ,7 , treating oneself with the same caring attitude with which one would treat a friend in the same situation8 .
The capacity for self-compassion develops during childhood. Parents' empathy, their ability to feel and understand their children's emotions, enable children to learn to recognize and welcome their own emotions7 . Thus, individuals whose parents were warm, empathetic, and supportive have more self-compassion than those whose parents were cold, critical, or even abusive7 . This has been suggested as several studies have demonstrated that people who were maltreated as children exhibit less self-compassion compared to non-maltreated individuals8 ,9 . Thus, people who were maltreated as children learned to associate needing or receiving care with difficult emotions such as shame, anger, loneliness, or vulnerability5 . Therefore, receiving compassion can be stressful for these individuals, particularly because of the emotions with which the act of receiving care and compassion may be associated, such as sadness or anger5 . Thus, it is recommended that programs be developed and offered to teach self-compassion practices to those maltreated as children9 .
How can self-compassion help people who were maltreated as children?
Self-compassion, as conceived in the literature, comprises three components: 1) mindfulness, which involves feeling and understanding one's suffering without judgment, 2) common humanity, which involves seeing one's suffering as part of the human condition, and 3) self-kindness, which involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding7 . Each of these components could provide positive implications for adult survivors of maltreatment.
Mindfulness is considered to be the foundation of self-compassion and involves remaining present and open to one's experience, with an attitude of acceptance towards what is being experienced during every moment3 ,5 . Conversely, self-compassion implies that a person accepts themselves, in addition to accepting the experience they are living. This acceptance is at the heart of mindfulness3 . Mindfulness allows one to feel one's suffering while maintaining distance from the thoughts, emotions, and memories associated with traumatic events, thus helping to differentiate oneself from them (e.g., "I am separate from my suffering")3 ,5 . When applied to the aftermath of maltreatment, mindfulness can help decrease avoidance of painful memories and emotions associated with the events and their involuntary intrusions into consciousness (e.g., reliving, flashbacks). It can also decrease excessive enmeshment with one's traumatic memories and history, such as learning to define oneself by something other than one's trauma3 ,5 .
Common humanity consists in recognizing that suffering, imperfection, and difficulties are part of the human condition. It allows individuals to conceptualize their suffering in this context by telling themselves that suffering is normal and part of life, or by thinking of others who are experiencing similar difficulty or suffering3 ,5 . This can help traumatized people feel less isolated by fostering a sense of connection to others (e.g., "I am not alone in my difficulties")3 ,5 ,8 . This connection to others may in turn help to decrease avoidance of others3 and facilitate seeking social support, which promotes post-traumatic resilience8 .
Self-kindness involves responding to oneself with warmth and kindness when experiencing problems or suffering3 , as one would with a close friend5 . Thus, instead of resisting one's suffering (e.g., by denying it, avoiding it through distracting activities that can lead to addiction, trying to repress it, or projecting it onto others) or criticizing oneself (e.g., "I am good for nothing”), we respond by taking care of ourself, offering ourself support and encouragement (e.g., through words, gestures, or actions), and even protecting ourself if necessary (e.g., by stating our boundaries more clearly and strongly)5 . The calming and soothing effect of self-compassion can thus help decrease self-criticism and reactivity in traumatized individuals3 ,10 .
- reducing avoidance, and the tendency to ruminate and feel shame;
- favoring emotional regulation;
- helping people change their perspective on their suffering: by perceiving it as an inevitable condition of life, rather than experiencing it as a punishment, as some people who were maltreated as children may have internalized;
- increasing social support, and
- providing an inner space of safety to which the person can return when needed.
In conclusion, self-compassion appears to be a promising avenue for relieving trauma resulting from childhood maltreatment. However, more research is needed on this topic, as most studies regarding the effects of self-compassion programs on trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder have been conducted with war veterans and not with adult survivors of childhood maltreatment.
*This article was written as part of the Adult Victims of Childhood Abuse course taught by the TRACE Director Natacha Godbout in the Fall 2021.
For further information:
- Center for Mindful Self-Compassion;
- Dr. Kristin Neff’s website;
- Dr. Christopher Germer’s website;
- Article: Healing the Shame of Childhood Abuse Through Self-Compassion;
- Books: The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, and The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Recovering from Trauma and PTSD. Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Overcome Flashbacks, Shame, Guilt, and Fear by Deborah A. Lee and Sophie James.
- 3 a b c d e f g h i j k l Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2015). Cultivating self-compassion in trauma survivors. In V.M., Folette, J. Briere, D. Rozelle, J.W. Hopper, & D.I. Rome (eds.) Mindfulness-oriented interventions for trauma: Integrating contemplative practices. (p. 43-58). The Guilford Press.
- 4Psychomédia (2013,13 mars). Définition: Stress post-traumatique . http://www.psychomedia.qc.ca/lexique/definition/stress-post-traumatique.
- 1 a b c d Dugal, C., Bigras, N., Godbout, N., & Bélanger, C. (2016). Childhood interpersonal trauma and its repercussions in adulthood: An analysis of psychological and interpersonal sequelae. In G. El-Baalbaki & C. Fortin (eds.), A multidimensional approach to post-traumatic stress disorder - from theory to practice (p. 71-107). IntechOpen. DOI: 10.5772/64476
- 5 a b c d e f g h i j k Braehler, C., & Neff, K. (2020). Self-compassion in PTSD. In M. T. Tull, & N. A. Kimbrel (eds.), Emotion in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (p. 567-596). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-816022-0.00020-X.
- 6Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis of RCTs. Mindfulness, 10(8), 1455-1473. doi: 10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6.
- 7 a b c d Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101. doi: 10.1080/15298860309032.
- 8 a b c d e Winders, S.-J., Murphy, O., Looney, K., & O'Reilly, G. (2020). Self-compassion, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 27(3), 300-329. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2429.
- 9 a b Zhang, H., Li, J., Sun, B., & Wei, Q. (2021, en ligne). Effects of childhood maltreatment on self-compassion: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1177/15248380211043825.
- 10 a b Westerman, G., McCann, E., & Sparkes, E. (2020). Evaluating the effectiveness of mindfulness and compassion-based programs on shame and associated psychological distress with potential issues of salience for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 11(8), 1827-1847. doi: 10.1007/s12671-020-01340-7.
Christophe Bedeaux, B.A., M.Eng., is interested in mental health, complex and developmental trauma treatment, and self-compassion. These interests have led him to various training on this subject, notably by taking the Adult Victims of Childhood Violence course at UQAM, where he wrote this article. His interest in self-compassion first arose from a personal meditation practice, after which he took an eight-week course on mindfulness-based self-compassion. Christophe plans to continue his training to teach this program.