Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD – Self-Compassion vs. Self-Criticism

Stress responses feel a lot like trauma responses- therefore, those of us with accumulated trauma in our life history can be easily tricked by stress into feeling that we are back in the days of trauma again. What can be done in times and situations when it is difficult or impossible to do self-care on a regular basis?

Recognize and lower the volume of self-criticism

A common response when we go into distress is criticism of self: I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that, etc…  “Shoulda’, woulda’, coulda” are early signs of distress that often results in getting stuck in withdrawal. Joeng & Turner found “an undeniable link between self-criticism and depression… The more people criticized themselves the more they got depressed.” Self-criticism adds an internal burden to the external challenges that are stressing us. The result is a feeling that we are squeezed from all sides, all doors to change are closed and that we are forever stuck.

Karina Hean, "WONDER WANDER I"
Karina Hean, “WONDER WANDER I”

Activate self-compassion

Neff describes self-compassion as “an emotionally positive self attitude that [can] protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination (such as depression).”

He suggests a three-fold strategy to activate self compassion:

(a) self-kindness—being kind toward oneself instead of self-judging

(b) focusing on common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than as separating and isolating

(c) mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them (Neff).

My own self-compassion

I learned about self-compassion as a concept in my early twenties. A nice idea, I thought.  But truthfully, I wasn’t able to practice it effectively at that time. Years later, in the safety of a good trainer using psychodrama role-reversal, I experienced the power of self-compassion. It was very different than self-pity and was the beginning of my journey to identify and work on mindful expansion.

In times of high stress, when predictability and day-to-day comforts are not accessible, self-compassion remains the one thing I keep on practicing when it is too hard to maintain my day-to-day self care regime. I remind myself over and over again that I do the best that I can at every given moment. Most of the time I find that within minutes I feel reconnected to my inner resources and able to manage whatever I am facing, including painful thoughts and feelings.

Expressive self-compassion

When I introduce clients to self-compassion enhancement activities I often use psychodrama. There are wonderful techniques to speak to different inner voices, connect to selected moments in the past, and examine self-judgment using imaginal space (surplus reality). Usually, we try to identify where the self-judgmental internalized voices come from, and then begin to explore how the client  responds to messages of self-compassion.

Rephrase your inner messages

Like many other therapists, I consider an ongoing self-care plan essential after trauma. A key part of this is examination of ones inner messages. I work with clients to identify and rephrase the messages that seem to work best for them, using their inner sense of expansion/contraction as a guide.

Three steps to enhance your self-compassion now:

  • Write down on several post-its: I do/did the best that I can/could at every given moment. Post them in places you will see them often.

  • Write down your ‘should, could and would’ sentences and rephrase them in a self-compassionate manner.

  • Use the expansion/contraction exercise to evaluate the impact of 1 or 2 above, or something else you use to enhance self-compassion.

Your goal: to strengthen your ability to notice what builds self-compassion and what does not.


Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD

Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, has worked as a consultant, trauma specialist and expressive therapist for the UN and NGOs in the US, Europe, Middle-East, Africa and Asia. Her dissertation research evaluated the efficacy of experiencial training for reducing secondary stress in caregivers working with traumatized populations.   

Odelya has recently resided in the Philippines where she assisted the Department of Health to develop a trauma response module.  She also trained groups of caregivers in the Philippines, Japan, China, and S. Korea in expressive psychosocial support, and provided expressive eTherapy to a clientele of development workers from around the world.  

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