Mapping the Journey Into Love, Part 1: What is the “Self” in Self-Compassion?

Complementing Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy with Mindful Self-Compassion Training, A Three-Part Series

Over the past several years, I have been focusing my growth as a psychologist on training in two areas: 1) Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and 2) Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). At first glance, these two approaches might seem to have little to do with one another, or even seem to be at odds in their basic assumptions about healing human suffering. One positions us to turn toward our romantic partners for security and support, while the other focuses on tending to ourselves with kindness and compassion.

In the EFT community, I have experienced a healthy mistrust of practices aimed at building more self-reliance. In North America, where EFT was born, we live in a culture dominated by narratives of rugged individualism. The founder of EFT, Sue Johnson, has led a difficult fight to assert that there is such a thing as “healthy dependency.” At this point, the results are in, and it’s becoming clear that those who oppose this basic premise are on the wrong side of history. In a particularly persuasive recent study, Johnson, along with Jim Coan, showed through fMRI research that simply holding a partner’s hand (under conditions of secure attachment) leads to profound positive changes in how the brain responds to threats. This study is part of an increasingly robust literature that points to one conclusion: we are wired to connect.

Given the compelling nature of these findings, shouldn’t those of us interested in promoting human wellness be focusing our efforts on healing relationships rather than focusing on the individual as the object and location of change? Mindful Self-Compassion has “self” right in the name. Shouldn’t this be a red flag? I believe the answer is “no.” I believe contemporary neuroscience points us toward the critical importance of the human attachment system, and I would assert that both MSC and EFT work within and on this system.

I believe both approaches are part of a movement that proposes to change the way we understand the construct of “self.” Daniel Siegel, founder of the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, has suggested that we replace the word “me” with the word “MWe” as a way of capturing the degree to which we are interconnected, or as he writes, “the self is not defined by the boundaries of our skin.” With Social Baseline Theory, Jim Coan has suggested that the human brain is designed to assume that it is embedded in an interactive network of other brains. Following this theory, we can think of the self as being distributed across this network. These ideas will of course sound familiar to Buddhist practitioners familiar with the concept of anatta, which asserts that there is no separate, unchanging, permanent self.

I believe MSC and EFT both operate in a way that is consistent with the idea of “MWe.” Although MSC is oriented toward caring for ourselves, it does not reify an illusory and fragile “self” that must be maintained through denial, suppression, and relational withdrawal. It offers an experience of a self-in-relation—a self in relation to others who suffer, a self in relation to a culture that teaches us to ceaselessly compare, a self in relation to an inner critic, and, through practice, a self in relation to an inner friend. I believe this relationship to an inner friend can be a lifeline to couples drowning in the stormy waters of insecure attachment. I have personally found the practices of self-compassion to be helpful in my own marital relationship and I have found that sharing them with my couples during EFT often supports the process. I’d like to invite other EFT practitioners to explore integrating MSC into their work and/or to refer with confidence to local MSC courses. To that end, I have endeavored, in the second installment in this series, to debunk four myths that might keep attachment-based practitioners from embracing MSC.

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