Exploring self-compassion: an action research study with women who have been sexually abused as children #wearenotalone

Barker, Jane (2020) Exploring self-compassion: an action research study with women who have been sexually abused as children #wearenotalone. DCPsych thesis, Middlesex University / Metanoia Institute.


This research brought together eight women survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) to explore together, as co-researchers, the concept of self-compassion. CSA is recognised to provoke feelings of intense shame (Negrao, Bonanno, Noll, Putman, & Trickett, 2005) leading to feelings of worthlessness and self-condemnation which impacts on psychological well-being (Coffey, Leitenberg, Henning, Turner & Bennett, 1996).

Action research was chosen - an approach of researching with rather than on people - with a focus on human flourishing and with the participants being the beneficiaries of the research (MacDonald, 2012). This was also an opportunity for avoiding the ‘doer done-to’ (Benjamin, 2004) dynamic, instead empowering women whose will has been subjugated in the past.

Eight women from a Rape and Sexual Agency met weekly over a period of five months to discuss and explore different psychological approaches and theories to see what was helpful in engaging with self-compassion, what were their barriers and, importantly - when a relational trauma is the cause - what was the impact of doing this in a group format?

Exploring this in a group was felt by all the women to be the most important element, as they experienced empathy and compassion for each other’s critical and condemning self which, they recognised, mirrored their own experiences. The flattened hierarchy of action research with peers also fostered a developing sense of trust in each other’s expressions of empathy and compassion and multiple therapeutic alliances.

In addition, psycho-education around the impact of trauma and developing an ‘observing self’ (Deikman, 1982) were helpful in bringing acceptance to the self, a pre-requisite before self-compassion could be applied.

The results were related to Neff’s three components of self-compassion (Neff, 2008) - selfkindness, common humanity and mindfulness - and can be conceptualised as a movement from a deficit position of self-condemnation, isolation and experiential avoidance towards at least a neutral position from which to develop these three components.

It is argued that the content of theories and models introduced during the research were less important than the process of action research within a therapeutic group, and that this process has potential to be applied to different client groups.

JBarker thesis.pdf - Accepted Version

Download (3MB) | Preview
View Item