Doris Pakozdi is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist who received her Master’s Degree at California State University Dominguez Hills. Her passion for helping women through their trauma was sparked while facilitating the Domestic Violence Women’s Empowerment Group from 2018-2019 at 1736 Family Crisis Center. She hopes to continue to empower children and their families through her work as a clinical therapist at The Guidance Center and during October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Last year I had the opportunity to facilitate a women’s empowerment group for women who have endured domestic violence. Each week a group of women ranging from 25 to 55 years old would gather together- laughing, crying, and sharing some of the most vulnerable parts of their lives, including traumatic experiences of domestic abuse. As the group facilitator, I was in a unique and honored position that allowed me to lead, listen and learn from these resilient women. Some topics discussed each week included: Defining Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence Warning Signs, Self Esteem, Boundary Setting, Rights, Gender Stereotypes, Needs within a Relationship, Anger, Grief and Fear. Although every topic was empowering, encouraging and provided its own deep discussion, there was one topic that the group members would circle back to time and time again: self-compassion. Many of the women had never even heard of the term before, and to be honest, I had to do my own research to discover what exactly self-compassion was and why it was so important to acknowledge in a domestic violence women’s empowerment group.
Finding a definition for self-compassion seemed like a good place to start in order to have a foundation for a discussion on the topic. Dr. Kristin Neff has researched and defined self-compassion as, “treating yourself just as you would treat a loved one in times of need: with kindness, warmth, and acceptance.” As Neff puts it, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.” This practice of self-love and forgiveness is especially important for women who have experienced the trauma of domestic violence. Many domestic violence survivors have gone through years of experiencing power and control behaviors. Many have endured the cycle of abuse and manipulation, which often leaves women feeling shame and blaming themselves for being battered. The shame associated with a victim may stem from the concealment of the physical abuse and the psychological trauma. This ultimately gives them the belief that they are responsible for what is happening to them. Self-compassion gives domestic violence survivors the opportunity to feel worthy of love and respect for themselves all while preparing them for healthy relationships. Emotional abuse consumes a person by engraining negative and hurtful feelings into a person which they begin believing as truth. It takes self-compassion to be able to repair those negative feelings about oneself.
Once diving into self-compassion in the women’s empowerment group, it became clear that not only was this a foreign idea to these women, but it was an uncomfortable concept to even attempt to put into action. One activity asked the women to identify a time that a friend was struggling or feeling bad about themselves. How did they comfort them? What did they say to put them at ease and lift them up? Each woman was able to tell a detailed story about a time that they offered support and words of encouragement to a friend. I then instructed each woman to say those very same responses to themselves by using “I” statements. This task proved to be much more difficult, leaving some women in tears when they finally spoke the words aloud. This very first activity was profound and showed me just how valuable self-compassion truly is.
Once the foundation for self-compassion was established and the importance of it was realized, the group members were beginning to experience its healing abilities and equipping themselves with compassionate words and actions that would soon outlast the self-blaming ones. I continued to build on the topic and as the weeks went by each woman was able to more genuinely and confidently declare their self-compassion. Some women began reciting daily positive affirmations and leaving self-affirming notes for themselves, while others practiced self-compassion meditations. By the end of my time leading the women’s empowerment group all of the women shared a new common experience. They had broken the cycle of abuse, its self-criticizing effects and embarked on the most loving and respectful relationship they had ever experienced-a relationship with themselves.
Doris Pakozdi, AMFT is a Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center’s San Pedro Clinic.