A wealth of research has shown the benefits of self-compassion with several clinical issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, and addiction. Being able to cultivate self-compassion can be a stand-alone tool that might address your mental health needs, or it may be a helpful starting point to then tackle more specific issues.
Despite self-compassion is becoming increasingly important in numerous models of therapy, many people are still skeptical about it, perhaps because for centuries the word “compassion” was mainly used in religious and spiritual practices.
We have put together some info and tools inspired by two of the therapy approaches we are passionate about and practice at RISE: Compassion Focus Therapy (CFT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
If you find yourself being your own harshest critic, then join us on the journey from self-criticism to self-kindness!
Being self-compassionate is a skill that initially takes effort, so before we get to the ‘nuts and bolts of how to be more self-compassionate, let’s first think about why it would be worth the effort.
Mental Health and Well Being Benefits
Research has shown that self-compassion is linked to our mental health and well-being. Studies have found that those who are more compassionate towards themselves tend to have fewer mental health problems, like depression, anxiety and stress.
These people also tend to have a better quality of life, a greater sense of well-being, and fewer problems in relationships.
Compassion is linked to the hormone oxytocin, often called the “love” hormone. This is a hormone that promotes bonding and closeness and therefore is particularly active during physical affection, during sex, when parents play with their children, when people play with their pets, etc. It is suggested that directing compassion inwards can equally trigger the release of oxytocin and the calming benefits it brings. In essence, self-compassion goes hand in hand with general life contentment, something we could all do with a dose of.
Balancing Our Emotions
The reason why self-compassion might bring us such wonderful benefits is via its vital role in helping to balance our emotions. Paul Gilbert -clinical psychologist and the founder of compassion focused therapy- has written extensively about the idea that our emotions are governed by three systems known as the threat, drive and soothe systems, with each playing an important role in regulating our emotions.
EMOTION REGULATION: THE THREE SYSTEMS
Let's look at these three systems and what they do for us!
Threat system: all living creatures are good at anticipating and avoiding threats to survive. This protective mechanism is hardwired within us all. Couple this with the human ability to think a lot, and we find that the human mind seems to have a default setting to look for, pay attention to and repetitively think about the bad stuff. This results in our threat system are active and in overdrive a lot.
In today’s society, small mistakes or perceived flaws in our abilities, appearance, social skills, etc, are all perceived as threats to our reputation, social status, relationships, career, finances, health, future, or happiness.
Basically, our threat system seems to be on high alert for many of us most of the time, always on the lookout for potential dangers to protect ourselves.
When active the threat system leads to emotional responses such as anxiety, anger, or depression. These emotions are all about motivating us to protect ourselves, with anger prompting us to confront and defeat danger, anxiety prompting us to shy away from danger, and depression prompting us to shut down from danger.
Now, the threat system is not a bad thing. Remember, its purpose is to keep us safe from legitimate threats (e.g., getting out of the way of a moving car). However, many of our mental health problems related to the threat system being active too much when there is no real danger.
Drive system: The drive system pushes us to try new things, achieve things, set and work towards goals, and feel those ecstatic ‘high five moments’ when we have those ‘wins’ in life. The drive system is what energises us to get things done and be active in life. Having ‘drive’ is great because it keeps us progressing in life. Without our drive system being active some of the time, we would be rather lifeless and directionless, a problem that can occur when we feel depressed.
The problem is that this system, like the threat system, can also kick into overdrive. This particularly happens if we live in a society that is highly competitive and gives us the message that we always need to do more and be better, and if we don’t achieve this then there is something wrong with us.
What can happen is that when we don’t succeed in our goals, which understandably is not always possible to do, then we can quickly flip from the drive system into the threat system.
And so, we can become trapped in an unhealthy pattern of... drive, drive, drive (e.g., “I must achieve, achieve, achieve”), and when we hit a barrier then it is a threat, threat, threat (e.g., “I’ve failed and so now lots of bad stuff is going to happen to me”).
Soothe system: The soothing system is very different and has a calming influence on both the threat and drive systems, helping to quieten them down when they are overactive.
The soothing system is at work when we are just chilling out, feeling safe, calm, and content. You can’t be in threat and soothe mode at the same time, and you can’t be in drive and soothe mood at the same time
Experiences of kindness and care tend to stimulate the soothing system. Whilst receiving compassion from others is one way to unlock the soothing system, self-compassion is another key.
We want to help you finding this key and using it whenever you need to calm the threat and drive systems, by bringing the soothing system to balance your emotions.
COMMON BARRIERS TO SELF-COMPASSION
In our experience, using self-compassion is particularly difficult especially for people who have suffered from complex trauma, or who have no personal experience of a kind and caring relationship with others.
Here are some of the most common barriers to self-compassion:
Fusion with unworthiness: buying into self-narratives such as “I’m bad”. “I’m unworthy” or “I don’t deserve kindness”.
Pointlessness: struggling in seeing the point of self-compassion: “How’s this going to help me?”.
Prejudice: misjudging the process by thinking of self-compassion as a ‘new age’ thing or something ‘religious’; as a sign of weakness; or in men, as something ‘for girls’.
IDENTIFY YOUR ENEMY: SELF-CRITICISM
Self-criticism is a thinking style that involves our internal self-talk being highly negative, disparaging, and berating. Self-criticism can therefore activate the threat system and/or keep the threat system alive.
This thinking style occurs within us all to varying degrees and is very common in our society.
Some common examples of self-critical statements might sound something like:
“I am an idiot...what a moron...you are useless and pathetic...I am so hopeless... You shouldn’t have done that....why did I do that... you should have known better... I never get it right... you may as well give up now...there is no point, why bother...”
You will notice that some self-critics refer to themselves in the first person (I am...), whilst others may refer to themselves using a second-person perspective (you are...). You will also notice that self-criticism often involves the following unhelpful thinking styles:
Labeling: making global and derogatory statements about ourselves based on our behaviour in a specific situation.
Overusing Should sentences: using "should" statements to put unreasonable demands or pressure on ourselves.
Overgeneralising: taking one negative instance and concluding that this applies to everything.
Let's get practical!
Get to know your critical self
To gain more awareness of your self-critical thinking style, we suggest you a very simple exercise: grab a pen and a paper and try answering the following questions:
What do you typically criticise yourself for?
What sorts of things do you typically say to yourself/about yourself?
How do you say these things? What does your internal voice sound like? Does it remind you of anyone?
When you criticise yourself, how does it make you feel?
What do you think the negative consequences are of speaking to yourself like this?
How you might have noticed by answering to these questions, self-criticism doesn’t make you feel very good, and usually leads to feelings like anxiety, sadness, depression, guilt, shame, or anger. Self-criticism is common across lots of mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body image issues, low self-esteem, etc), and can contribute to staying stuck in these problems. Therefore, addressing self-criticism by building the ability to instead be self-compassionate, may play a role in improving some of these difficulties.
2. How self-compassionate am I?
To help you make the decision about whether you want to proceed further into this journey, have a go at the following statements to get a sense of how self-compassionate you are. The more items from the list below you tick, the more self-critical you are inclined to be, indicating that you could benefit from implementing self-compassion in your life.
I find it hard to be kind to myself
If something goes wrong I automatically blame myself
I don’t deserve to do nice things for myself
I am very critical of myself when things aren’t going well
I am very critical of myself even when things are going well
When I am having a hard time, I wouldn’t even think to look after myself like I would a friend I focus a lot on my faults and flaws and can’t let them go
If I make a mistake I give myself a really hard time
When I am struggling, I don’t treat myself with much care
I can’t accept mistakes I’ve made or things I haven’t done well
I think over and over about things I don’t like about myself
I am not very gentle with myself when I am suffering emotionally
If I make a mistake I feel like I should be punished
I feel like I’m the only one who struggles or fails at things
If you have ticked many of these statements, self-criticism may be your way of trying to deal with problems for a variety of reasons, including a lack of awareness of your struggle and your self-critical way of dealing with things, holding positive beliefs about self-criticism as being a helpful thing to do, as well as holding negative beliefs about self-compassion.
However, the consequence of all of this, is that self-criticism only serves to keep the threat system active, and so are uncomfortable emotional, behavioural, and physical responses continue. In essence, self-criticism prolongs our pain and suffering, keeping us stuck and unable to move forward from the struggle we are facing.
The solution to this unhelpful cycle is to step out of self-criticism and calm the threat system, by stimulating the soothing system. Self-compassion is a key way of activating the soothing system and its calming influence.
There are many ways of building self-compassion. We invite you to try the various tools with an open and curious mind, to discover which works well for you, as everyone is different. The aim here is to stimulate the soothe system and elicit an attitude of kindness, warmth, concern, understanding, and strength within, and then use this attitude to respond to your struggles, rather than reverting to your usual self-critical habits.
SELF-COMPASSION IN PRACTICE
Russ Harris, a world-renowned trainer of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, often mentions this powerful tool - and also the core ACT process from acceptance & commitment therapy - ‘contacting the present moment'. Flexibly noticing, with an attitude of curiosity and openness, what is present: right here, right now.
This process plays an essential first step in self-compassion. We consciously and intentionally notice and acknowledge our pain. We notice, with openness and curiosity, the painful thoughts, feelings, emotions, images, sensations, urges, memories, etc. that are present within us at this moment.
This is very different from our ‘default mode’ of turning away from our pain as fast as possible – trying to suppress it, avoid it, deny it, escape it, or distract from it.
Often, it’s useful to express what we have noticed (in non-judgmental language). For example, we may say, “I’m noticing painful feelings of rejection” or “I’m noticing thoughts about being a loser” or “I’m noticing sadness and anxiety”.
DEFUSION FROM SELF-JUDGMENT
Another core ACT process is called ‘defusion’ – i.e. learning to separate/unhook/ detach from our thoughts and beliefs and see them for what they are: nothing more or less than strings of words and pictures.
An essential aspect of self-compassion is learning how to defuse all that harsh self-talk. We can’t magically train our minds to stop speaking to us that way. Sure, you can learn to think more positively, and practice non-judgmental awareness - but that won’t stop your mind from judging and criticising you.
But we can learn to defuse those harsh self-judgments and ‘not good enough’ stories. We can notice, name, and unhook from those cognitions. We can learn how to see them as nothing more or less than words and pictures, without getting into debates about whether they are true or false. And we can let them come and stay and go in their own good time, without getting caught up in them or pushed around by them.
ACTING WITH KINDNESS
Another two of the core ACT processes are ‘values’ and ‘committed action’. ‘Values’ are our heart's deepest desires for how we want to behave on an ongoing basis; how we want to treat ourselves, others, and the world around us. ‘Committed action’ means skillful flexible action, guided by our core values.
The value that forms the foundation of self-compassion is ‘kindness’. All types of self-compassion practice – wherever they may have originated from – revolve around this powerful core value. We can think of kindness as the glue that holds together all the other elements of self-compassion. For example, when we consciously acknowledge our pain, this is an act of kindness. And when we defuse harsh self-criticism, this too is an act of kindness.
So once we acknowledge our pain, the aim is to treat ourselves with kindness. And there are many, many ways in which we can act kindly towards ourselves.
We can use kind self-talk, such as reminding ourselves that we are human, that we are fallible, that everyone makes mistakes, that no one is perfect.
We can talk to ourselves in a caring and gentle and understanding way, as we would speak to a loved one in similar pain.
We can use kind imagery, such as ‘loving-kindness meditation’ or ‘inner child re- scripting’ or numerous other practices where we create powerful images to tap into self-kindness.
We can use kind self-touch, such as placing a hand gently on our heart or top of a painful feeling, and sending warmth and caring inwards through the palm.
And we can do kind deeds, such as self-soothing rituals, or self-care activities, or spending quality time with people who treat us well.
Very often, when we are in great pain, we invalidate our own emotional experiences. We don’t acknowledge our pain as a valid experience – as a normal and natural part of being human.
Our minds tell us that we shouldn’t feel like this, we shouldn’t react like this, we should be able to handle it better, we shouldn’t have these thoughts and feelings. Often, our minds belittle us – tell us that we are over-reacting, or we’re weak. Obviously, this type of harsh, critical, invalidating attitude is the very opposite of kindness.
We can actively validate our experience through self-talk. We can remind ourselves, in a warm, caring inner voice, that it is normal and natural for humans to have painful thoughts and feelings when life is difficult, when we make mistakes, when we get rejected, or when we experience any kind of reality gap (a gap between the reality you want and the reality you’ve got).
Another way is to spend time with people who care about you and treat you kindly, and actively engage with them; be fully present with them. Often, it’s useful to let these people know that you are in pain and to accept their kindness.
For some people, being more compassionate towards themselves can be a frightening experience, often because of past traumatic experiences. If this is the case for you, and you are struggling to put into practice some of the strategies, then we would recommend being supported by a mental health professional as you work your way through this journey.
Here is some homework :)
Compassionate letter writing
The idea of compassionate letter writing is to help you refocus your thoughts and feelings on being supportive, helpful, and caring of yourself. In practicing doing this it can help you access an aspect of yourself that can help tone down more negative feelings and thoughts.
To start your letter, try to feel that part of you that can be kind and understanding of others; how you would be if caring for someone you like. Consider your general manner, facial expressions, voice tone, and feelings that come with your caring self. Think about that part of you as the type of self you would like to be. Think about the qualities you would like your compassionate self to have. It does not matter if you feel you are like this – but focus on the ideal you would like to be. Spend a few moments thinking about this and trying to feel in contact with that ‘kind’ part of you.
As you write your letter, try to allow yourself to understand and accept your distress. For example, your letter might start with: ‘I am sad. I feel distressed; my distress is understandable because.....’ Note the reasons. Realising your distress makes sense. Then, perhaps you could continue with: ‘I would like me to know that......’
A second way of doing this is to imagine your compassionate image writing to you, imagining a dialogue with them, and what they will say to you. So, for example, my compassionate image might say something like: ‘Hi Sarah, An example Gosh, the last few days have been tough. Isn’t it typical of life that problems arrive in groups rather than individually. It’s understandable why you’re feeling a bit down because . . . Hang in there because you are good at seeing these as the ups and downs of life. There have been times before when things have seemed dark but they pass and you have shown a lot of courage in dealing with this very tricky brain that is so tough at times. So you have developed abilities for getting through this and tolerating the painful things.’ You will note that the letter points to strengths and abilities. It doesn’t issue instructions such as: ‘You must see these things as the ups and downs of life’. This is important in compassionate writing.
You don’t want your compassionate letters to seem as if they are written by some smart bod who is giving you lots of advice. There has to be a real appreciation for your suffering, a real appreciation for your struggle and a real appreciation for your efforts at getting through. The compassion is a kind arm round your shoulders, as well as re-focusing your attention on what is helpful for you.
Ideas for your compassionate letter writing:
There are some ideas that you might consider in your letter. Do not feel you have to cover them all. You might want to try different things in different letters to yourself. With all of these ideas, although it can be difficult, try to avoid telling yourself what you should or should not think, feel or do. There is no right or wrong, it is the process of trying to think differently and importantly.
Standing Back: Once you have acknowledged your distress and not blamed yourself for it, it is useful if your letter can help you stand back from the distress of your situation for a moment. If you could do that, what would be helpful for you to focus on and attend to? For example, you might think about how you would feel about the situation in a couple of days, weeks, or months, or you might recall that the depression can lift at certain times and remember how you feel then. It can be helpful to recall in your letter, and bring to your attention, times that you have coped with difficulties before; bring those to mind. If there are any tendencies to dismiss them, note them, but try to hold your focus on your letter. Your letter can focus on your efforts and on what you can do.
Your compassionate side might gently help you see things in a less black and white way. Your compassionate side is never condemning and will help you reduce selfblaming.
Remember your compassionate side will help you with kindness and understanding. Here are some examples: If someone has shunned you and you are upset by that, your compassionate side will help you recognise your upset but also that thoughts such as ‘the person doesn’t like me, or that I am therefore unlikeable,’ maybe very unfair. Perhaps a more balanced view would be the person who shunned you can do this to others and has difficulties of their own; your compassionate side can remind you that you have other friends who don’t treat you this way. As another example, if you have forgotten to do something, or have made a mistake and are very frustrated and you are cross with yourself, your compassionate side will understand your frustration and anger but help you see that the mistake was a genuine mistake and is not evidence of being stupid or useless. It will help you think about what is the most compassionate and helpful thing to do in these circumstances.
Not alone: When we feel distressed we can often feel that we are different in some way. However, rather than feeling alone and ashamed remember many
others can feel depressed with negative thoughts about themselves, the world, or their future. 1 in 20, or more, of us, can be depressed at any one time, so the depression is very sad but is far from uncommon. Your depression is not a personal weakness, inadequacy, badness, or failure.
Explore self-criticism: If you are feeling down, disappointed, or are being harsh on yourself, note in your letter that self-criticism is often triggered by disappointment (e.g., making a mistake or not looking like we would like to), loss (e.g., of hoped-for love) or fear (e.g., of criticism and/or rejection). Maybe being self-critical is a way you have learned to cope with these things or take your frustration out on yourself, but this is not a kind or supportive thing to do. Understandable perhaps, but it does not help us deal with disappointment, loss, or fear. So we need to acknowledge and be understanding and compassionate about disappointment, loss, or fear. Allow yourself to be sensitive to those feelings.
Compassionate behaviour: It is useful to think about what might be the compassionate thing to do at this moment or at some time ahead – how might your compassionate part help you do those things? So in your letter, you may want to think about how you can bring compassion into action in your life. If there are things you are avoiding or finding difficult to do, write down some small steps to move you forward. Try to write down steps and ideas that encourage you and support you to do the things that you might find difficult. If you are unsure what to do, maybe try to brainstorm as many options as you can and think which ones appeal to you. Could you ask others for help?
Dilemmas: If you are in a dilemma about something, focus on the gentle compassionate voice inside you and write down the different sides of the dilemma. Note that dilemmas are often difficult, and at times there are hard choices to be made. Therefore, these may take time to work through. Talking through with others might be a helpful thing to do. Acceptance of the benefits and losses of a decision can take time.
Compassion for feelings: Your compassionate side will have compassion for your feelings. If you are having powerful feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety, then compassionately recognise these. Negative emotions are part of being human and can become more powerful in depression or when we are distressed but they do not make you a bad person – just a human being trying to cope with difficult feelings. We can learn to work with these feelings as part of our ‘humanness’ without blaming or condemning ourselves for them. Your compassionate mind will remind you that we often don’t choose to feel negative and these feelings can come quite quickly. In this sense, it is ‘not our fault’, although we can learn how to work with these difficult feelings and take responsibility.
Loss of positive feelings: If you are feeling bad because you have lost positive feelings then we can be compassionate to this loss – it is very sad to lose positive feelings. Sometimes we lose loving feelings because a relationship has run its course, or we are just exhausted, or depression can block positive emotion systems. As we recover from the depression these positive systems can return. Your compassionate letter can help you see this without self blaming.
What is helpful: Your letter will be a way of practicing how to focus on things that you feel help you. If thoughts come to mind that make you feel worse, then notice them, let them go, and refocus on what might be helpful – remember there are no ‘I shoulds’.
Warmth: Now try to focus on the feelings of warmth and a genuine wish to help in the letter as you write it. Spend time breathing gently and try, as best you can, to let feelings of warmth be there for you. When you have written your letter, read it through slowly, with as much warmth as you can muster. If you were writing to somebody else would you feel your letter is kind and helpful? Could you change anything to make it more warm and helpful?
What to do next
When you have written your first few compassionate letters, go through them with an open mind and think about whether they capture compassion for you. If they do, then see if you can spot the following qualities in your letter.
It expresses concern and genuine caring.
It is sensitive to your distress and needs.
It is sympathetic and responds emotionally to your distress.
It helps you to face your feelings and become more tolerant of them.
It helps you become more understanding and reflective of your feelings, difficulties, and dilemmas.
It is non-judgemental/non-condemning.
A genuine sense of warmth, understanding, and caring permeates the whole letter.
It helps you think about the behaviour you may need to adopt to get better.
Self-critical people can struggle with this, to begin with, and are not very good at writing compassionate letters. Their letters tend to be rather full of finger-wagging advice. So we have to work at this and practice. The point of these letters is not just to focus on difficult feelings but to help you reflect on your feelings and thoughts, be open with them, and develop a compassionate and balanced way of working with them. The letters should not offer advice or tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. It is not the advice you need, but the support to act on it.
Remember that this is an exercise that might seem difficult to do at times but with practice, you are exercising a part of your mind that can be developed to be helpful to you. Some people find that they can rework their letters the next day so they can think through things differently. The key of this exercise is the desire and effort of becoming inwardly gentle, compassionate, and self-supportive. The benefits of this work may not be immediate but like ‘exercising to get fit’ can emerge over time with continued practice.
References, Sources, and Resources
- “BUILDING SELF-COMPASSION” module - part of Saulsman, L., Campbell, B., & Sng, A. (2017). Building Self-Compassion: From Self-Criticism to Self-Kindness. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.
- “How to Develop Self-Compassion” by Russ Harris 2018 - imlearningact.com
- “Compassionate letter writing” - Paul Gilbert 2007