The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion is introduced as an “un-self-help book” in that it is not based on the notion that there is something wrong about us that needs to be fixed. This is a book about self-acceptance rather than self-improvement; it’s a guide to learning to befriend ourselves and cultivating skills to “bear witness to our own pain and respond with kindness and understanding”.

The author, Christopher Germer, begins by exploring how, when it comes to pain (such as chronic back pain, insomnia, fear of public speaking and relationship conflict), our instinctive attempts to try to avoid and fix things often end up adding further layers to our suffering. Germer refers to research on the mechanisms of change in successful therapy which suggests that the key to emotional healing is in establishing a new relationship to our internal experiences, one that is “less avoidant, less entangled, more accepting, more compassionate and more aware”.

The first chapter clarifies what acceptance really means and how the process of accepting opens up possibilities for change. He identifies the stages of acceptance as aversion (resistance, avoidance and rumination), curiosity (turning toward discomfort with interest), tolerance (safely enduring), allowing (letting feelings come and go) and friendship (embracing, seeing hidden value). In linking acceptance with self-compassion, the author offers this insight: “Self-compassion is a form of acceptance. Whereas acceptance usually refers to what’s happening to us- accepting a feeling or a thought – self-compassion is acceptance of the person to whom it’s happening. It’s acceptance of ourselves while we’re in pain”.

Early chapters of this book are devoted to the skill and practice of mindfulness – nonjudgmental, kindly awareness – beginning with mindfulness of the body. We are guided in ways to ground ourselves in the body and in finding a safe anchor for our attention, such as resting our attention with the physical sensations of the breath. Anchoring our attention calms and settles the mind and also allows us to discover how it is that our minds work. The practice of anchoring can protect us from being overwhelmed by emotions and encourages turning towards and exploring our internal experiences. While this is not a book written for people who want to become meditators, the author provides guidance in a range of meditation practices to experience mindfulness and self-compassion. There is also a good explanation of the differences between formal and informal mindfulness practice.

Chapter 3 provides a very helpful guide to learning ways to respond skillfully to difficult emotions. Using an example from his own experience, Germer illustrates how when we are distressed there is often a chain of internal events that result in an escalation of disturbing thoughts and emotions. Mindful awareness can enable us to interrupt and release ourselves from this escalation. Germer takes us through the practice of mindfulness of emotions involving a kind of dance of anchoring attention with mindfulness, locating the felt sense of the emotion in the body, gently inclining towards the emotion and returning to the anchor of the breath. We are guided to allow the gentle rhythm of the breath to be a source of soothing. The skills of labeling and noting feelings help us to stay present with our emotions without being overwhelmed by them. The chapter includes a meditation called “soften, soothe, love” which encourages the cultivation of a softer, friendlier relationship with the physical discomfort of difficult emotions.

After exploring mindfulness skills, the book goes further into understanding and practising self-compassion. Germer draws on scientific research to describe what self-compassion is and how it is related to wellbeing. He identifies some common barriers to self-compassion, such as ideas of not deserving or the fear of being selfish of self-indulgent. He argues that self-compassion is the foundation of connection and kindness towards others; “the more open hearted we are to ourselves, the closer we feel toward the rest of life” (p. 87). The latter stages of the book explores a range of practical ways that we can cultivate self-compassion and generate positive emotions for wellbeing.

From the outset, Germer reassures us that this book will not be hard work, he encourages us to “let it be easy” and to approach the exercises with the same qualities that we are cultivating. His writing is infused with warmth and encouragement. Throughout there is an emphasis on approaching difficulties gently, kindly and safely, and with respect to our intuition and individual personalities. There is sensitivity to the needs of readers who have experienced trauma and guidance for this context. Germer explains the concepts with great clarity, bringing them to life by using examples from his own and others’ experiences and by weaving in findings from neuroscience and the research literature in psychology. In addition to the book, Christopher Germer has created a Mindful Self-Compassion website with meditation downloads and other resources that would be helpful to use in conjunction with reading the book.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion is a wise guide to powerful skills for alleviating suffering, emotional healing and nurturing wellbeing, and makes an important contribution to the growing field of compassion in modern psychology.

This blog has been written by Helen Shepherd, who is a clinical psychologist at Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology. Helen has a particular interest in self-compassion and draws on these principles in her work with clients. If you would like to learn more about Helen, contact us on 9376 1958 or to make an appointment with her.