Building self-compassion.

Jason brien.

What is self-compassion? 

It is easy to fall into the trap of self-criticism and self-hatred when we ‘fail’ or when we are faced with adversity. Self-compassion is therefore the antidote to self-criticism and self-hatred. Self-compassion is self-explanatory. It involves being compassionate towards yourself. It involves treating yourself with warmth, kindness, empathy and understanding at all times but especially during hard times. Self-compassion relies upon four key elements. AWARENESS which allows us to recognise that we are suffering. The ability to NORMALISE our suffering (suffering is inevitable for all people – we are not unique in that sense). The ability to treat ourselves with KINDNESS and the willingness to engage in positive, life affirming actions to ALLEVIATE our suffering.

Why is self-compassion important? 

Self-compassion is extremely important in maintaining positive and functional mental health and well-being. Many studies have demonstrated the link between self-compassion and self-reports of positive self-regard and mental health. Compassion releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin. This hormone is partly responsible for prompting social bonds and attachments and therefore, if self-directed, can enhance the bond and attachment experienced and felt with oneself. Self-compassion can enhance our lives and our ability to interact positively with ourselves.

What are some barriers to developing self-compassion?

1. Awareness: Without awareness of our internal world (and its thoughts & feelings) and our overt behaviours, we are unable to begin building self-compassion. 

2. Self-criticism: We cannot be compassionate towards ourselves if we are constantly berating ourselves and putting ourselves down. We must learn to identity our negative self-talk and thoughts which again is linked to awareness. 

3. Education: If you want to understand something better and have any realistic chance of improving circumstances, learning as much as you can is vital. Reading one post about self-compassion is rarely enough. The information within one post alone may not ‘resonate’ with you and therefore the more you read and learn, the more chances you have of finding that which does resonate with you.

How can I improve self-awareness? 

Learning how to slow down your mind is usually the first step. If your thoughts and self-dialogue are racing around your mind at a hundred miles per hour, you must find a way to slow them down so that you can begin to notice and analyse their content. There are many techniques to help you with this such as breathing exercises, meditation, hypnotherapy, journaling, progressive muscle relaxation, attention and focus retraining and, potentially, medication aimed at reducing anxiety, etc. You can also improve your self-awareness by engaging in activities aimed at assessing your character strengths/weaknesses and personality manifestations (self-reported and other-reported).

How can I challenge and change my negative and unproductive self-talk and thoughts? 

1. Cognitive reframing: If you are biased towards perceiving and evaluating everything using negative infused language, cognitive reframing can help you to find more positive and neutral alternatives. 

2. Positive thought replacement: Again, by making a conscious effort to engage in positive (and neutral) self-talk and thoughts, you can begin to disempower your negativity bias. 

3. Pros and cons/evidence for, evidence against analysis: When you are experiencing negative thoughts or you are engaging in negative self-talk, assess the pros and cons or validity of such thoughts. For example, if you are having thoughts that you are a ‘loser’, ask yourself “what are the pros and cons of thinking this way”? “Where is the evidence for such thoughts”?

How can I directly improve self-compassion? 

1. Self-compassionate imagery: Images have a powerful influence over how we think. This is because images are often associated with certain thoughts, emotions and memories. For example, you look at a picture of a beach scene and you may start reliving happy childhood memories at the beach or may start thinking of words and phrases related to the beach (e.g., relaxing, sun, day off, etc.). Self-compassionate imagery involves you imagining yourself behaving and acting compassionately towards yourself and others. The idea is to ‘produce’ self-compassion images in order to intentionally and consciously ‘provoke’ oxytocin release. 

2. Self-reflection exercises: By reflecting (not hyper focusing) upon past experiences, we can begin to identify times when we could have displayed self or other compassion but we did not. Through self-reflection we can learn from our past and we can proactively plan our future behaviours – “The next time I encounter a similar situation, I am going to treat my self or the other more compassionately by doing…”.

3. Empathy building exercises: By putting yourself in other people’s shoes, you can begin to understand their perspective which can help you to become more compassionate. For example, understanding or thinking about the underlying causes of a person’s inappropriate behaviours (low intelligence, poor executive functioning, trauma, etc) you can feel more compassionate towards their circumstances and their behaviours. You don’t necessarily have to condone their behaviour but simply be compassionate towards it and them. Understanding that other people also suffer helps you to normalise your own suffering which, as mentioned earlier, can help you enhance self-compassion.

4. Self-compassion journal: Keeping track of your positive self-directed behaviours can help you to notice how often (or how little) you are being compassionate towards yourself and others.

5. How would you treat a friend? Thinking of how you would respond to a friend who is suffering or struggling can really help you to think of ways to respond compassionately towards yourself. What is good for them is good for you too right?

6. Enjoy some ‘me’ time: Focusing on your own needs and self-prioritizing is not a ‘bad’ thing. Looking after yourself does not make you selfish. Ideally, you would want to limit or minimise potential ‘failures’ at least at the start of your journey. What is mean by this is, don’t engage in activities if it is going to lead to high competitiveness (sporting events for example) or activities which are ‘performance’ based and judged. Give yourself a fighting chance as the whole idea of ‘me’ time is giving yourself a break from negative self-talk and thoughts. You really don’t want to be putting yourself in situations in which these types of thoughts and emotions are going to be easily triggered.