Accessing your Compassionate Voice – Three Chairs Exercise
A few months ago I attended a Self-Compassion Workshop based on the work of Dr. Kristin Neff. One of the exercises I was guided through was called The Three Chairs, or, The Criticizer, The Criticized, and The Compassionate Observer. While this work is usually done by one person, with one facilitator, and three actual chairs, during the workshop we were asked to stay seated, closing our eyes to visualize the chairs, then writing down our observations.
The first step was to think of a issue which causes self-criticism. No problem! I chose my constant struggle to get my house clean. I was guided into the first chair- The Criticizer, and I was welcomed to let loose the name-calling. I saw myself sitting tall and straight, with hateful eyes, and heard such things as “you’re a domestic failure,” my pointed finger jabbing out each syllable. I wrote down my observations.
Next I was moved into the chair of The Criticized, to let the judgment fall upon me. I saw myself so small in that chair. And I was crying. And shaking. And feeling each finger jab viscerally. I believed every word. I embodied failure. I felt sadness and shame. I felt afraid. I wrote down my observations.
Then it was time to construct a dialogue between these two chairs. Each voice said how they felt, and why they behaved as they did. This part of the exercise shocked me! Would you believe The Criticizer and The Criticized BOTH felt fear? The Criticizer wanted me to get my house clean and was afraid I never would, and was trying to motivate me to protect me from the judgement of others. The Criticized felt afraid of never getting the house clean too, but sure wasn’t feeling motivated!
Finally it was time to sit in the third chair- The Compassionate Observer. From this seat, I was able to empathize with both voices. I spoke first to The Criticizer-
I know you are afraid of failure, and you’re trying to help me get my house clean.
And then to The Criticized-
I know you feel shame when you’re called a failure, and that you feel frozen under judgement. I know you’re afraid you’ll never be good enough. This is a really hard chair to sit in, a hard space to hold. Being criticized hurts.
I was able to empathize with the part of me who hates me, and the part of me who feels hated. Listening to both voices allowed me to access compassion.
The Three Chairs exercise is empowering, especially as someone recovering from self-harm behaviors. It’s important to know we can treat ourselves kindly even if our starting point is self-loathing. It is never too late to try loving ourselves. It takes a commitment to laying down self-harm behaviors, and learning new behaviors, like the practice of self-compassion.
Have some time this weekend for a little self-healing? Here’s a link to The Three Chairs Self-Compassion Exercise. Keep on, Resilient Rock Stars!