Friday, October 31, 2014


"Be gentle with yourself" is the phrase that I most frequently say to my patients. It is my intention to counteract what, decades ago, Karen Horney called the "tyranny of the shoulds." They are those inner self-critical and judgmental voices that are so deeply engrained in so many of us that we think that they are simply aspects of human nature.
One of the initial steps of the psychotherapy process is to help our clients become more consciously aware how pervasive and insidious these inner critical voices are. And then begin to explore what are their roots. If you observe young children - in recent years I've had more opportunity to this by interacting with my grandchildren - you will witness that this criticalness is not present. How, then, did our clients inner critical "measuring stick" get internalized?
What life experiences with parents, teachers, coaches, and other significant adults in his/her early life contributed to the formation of this "measuring stick"? Answering this questions common background material that most psychotherapists and counsellors explore. It is also important to consider what are the cultural and sub-cultural influences that have contributed to the inner criticalness? The American culture is a very judgmental one and our clients, often without awareness, have internalized its standards. For example, one of the axioms of American culture is that,"You can do anything that you want to do as long as you put your mind to it and work hard." That notion is absurd nonsense, and is a source of feelings of failure and inferiority for many people. The truth is that we all are profoundly limited by our genetics. One small personal example - it exploring its sources how can we as psychotherapists and counselorswould have been impossible for me with very minimal musical ability to have become a cellist in a classical orchestra. No matter how much I practiced. It is then important for all of us to be gentle with ourselves and to come to a place of loving acceptance of our limitations. This will also help us to be more accepting of the limitations of others.
Some of our clients have inner standards that are idiosyncratic. One of my patients has an internalized image of being a generous person. Whenever he fails to live up to that image he chastises himself as "selfish." I often say to him,"Be gentle with yourself" as I gradually get him to look at the impossibility of living up to that standard. No human being could do it - not even the saints.
Within the limitations of a brief blog it is not possible to discuss in depth all the contributors to this "tyranny of the shoulds."
In addition to exploring its sources how can we as psychotherapists and counselors help our clients to counteract this self-criticalness? One pathway is for us to say,"Be gentle with yourself" whenever this voice shows up in sessions. Initially our clients will struggle with being able to take that in. Gradually what happens ,though, is a kind of 'transmission" wherein they internalize that phrase accompanied by the energy of our compassionate presence.
I also write on an index card,"Be gentle with yourself" and encourage my patients to put that in some place where they will see it often. I recommend that they periodically look at it saying the phrase either out loud or to themselves coupled with some relaxational breathing, imagining with the out breath that they are releasing some of the inner judgment or criticalness.
In addition, I suggest that they consider that the source of their own inner voice saying,Be gentle with yourself" is their own Higher Self or personal Higher Power. For some patients that notion does not fit with their worldview. for them I say,"Imagine that the source is some benevolent relative, or teacher. It may either be someone you personally know or some historical figure. Trust whoever comes into your consciousness at this time. Also the image may change over time." Gradually the potency of the inner critical,judgmental voices diminishes and my patients become more compassionate and loving towards themselves.