I came across some of the research around self-compassion as part of my masters in psychology studies. On an academic level, the concept of self-compassion interested me and was relevant to the case study I was working with however there was also a personal interest.
The more I read about self-compassion the more I realised something a little difficult to stomach, I was actually pretty poor at practicing it myself….
One of the amazing things about furthering my studies and working as a hypnotherapist is that I get to experience a wide range of different ways that people learn to manage their anxiety and often have to take a bit of a look at myself and consider how I deal with issues that come up for me.
So, realising that I am not great at self-compassion is a little tricky for a therapist but also a great opportunity to learn.
In order to get better at something, I personally like to understand it so this blog is going to consider what self-compassion is, why someone might struggle with it and how you might be able to get started in a small way even if the whole concept seems a bit unattainable to you.
There are a few different aspects to self-compassion:
What I took from this list is that self-compassion seems to be about treating ourselves and our thoughts with kindness while understanding that others around us have similar thoughts and struggles. It also seems to suggest a much greater awareness of how we think and feel without allowing ourselves to become those thoughts and feelings.
Self-compassion is becoming much more widely researched and so there are more and more benefits being shown to be associated with self-compassion. It seems that self-compassion can be a source of strength and resilience when dealing with life stresses such as big life changes, chronic health issues and even body image (Bluth & Neff, 2018).
Another study has shown that self-compassion can also help motivate us to do better in our lives especially when we practice self-compassion about past failures (Breines & Chen, 2012).
Most importantly to me and the work I do, it seems that self-compassion can significantly reduce depression and help people achieve a much greater level of life-satisfaction (Neff, 2011).
Based on personal experiences and through discussions with clients, there are number of reasons why a person might struggle with self-compassion:
Trauma is a very broad concept and can be used to describe a wide range of experiences so for the purposes of this blog I will be keeping discussions of trauma very general. If you have experienced trauma of any kind and are finding that this is negatively impacting your life, then please consider finding a therapist who works with these issues.
When a person experiences trauma, there are changes that occur in the brain in response to this. We know that areas of the brain such as the amygdala can sometimes be shown in fMRI scans to be larger in people who have experienced trauma. This points to something we call hyper-arousal in the brain and suggests that the brain is almost constantly sensitised to possible danger.
For people in this state, their primary focus is often about survival and self-preservation and not self-compassion, which anyone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder will be able to identify with.
Negative self-beliefs can be tricky to overcome as we tend to feel that if we believe something then it must be true. The types of negative self-beliefs that would be likely to get in the way of self-compassion are things like; not feeling worthy of self-compassion, being stupid, being a failure, that we can’t change who we are, that some people are just happier than I am… the list goes on.
The challenge with negative self-belief is that we look for evidence that we are right, so if we consider ourselves a failure then we are right because we failed at x, x and x. We can often feel justified in doing so because we use that fear of failure as motivation to not fail again and bully ourselves into doing better next time.
Cognitive distortions can also get in the way of self-compassion, especially the one that I am most guilty of; the “should”
The word “should” is one of my most hated words but yet the word that I have to catch myself using on a regular basis with myself. When we tell ourselves that we should do something it becomes a negative thing based on others expectations and a good measure of self-judgement that we aren’t doing whatever it is that we feel we should be… like going to the gym for example.
You can find out which cognitive distortions you tend to do by heading here and downloading your very own negative thoughts exercise. The download also comes with a video taken from a workshop I ran on how you can recognise these negative thoughts.
Often people take their cues on how to treat themselves from other people, this can be problematic if the people around us are not very compassionate towards us or themselves. It really does help us be more compassionate if we can see compassion in other people. Consider if you struggle with self-compassion who around you acts in a compassionate way towards themselves and others and consider reducing the time you spend with people who are overly harsh, critical or demeaning in the way they treat you.
For some people there may be several of these reasons why self-compassion is extremely difficult, or even completely different reasons, and often self-compassion can be seen as weakness or simply a load of nonsense.
The key thing here is to think about why self-compassion may be something you find difficult and then consider how you might like to change that.
The good thing here is that there are loads of options and the key thing I would stress here is find something that works for you, your history and your lifestyle. There is no “should” with self-compassion and anything you try and learn from is a positive step.
One of the key researchers into self-compassion is Dr. Kristen Neff, who you will see in several of the references below. She has a website dedicated to self-compassion and has some guided meditations and exercises that you can try here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
Here are a few ideas that I have been trying recently:
Imagine that you are someone that you really care about. This one is a little convoluted so stay with me… If you have someone in your life that you really care about, imagine what it would be like if you were them. For example, I have people I really care about and I want them to be happy, successful and be able to do all of the things they want to do.
When issues crop up or they make mistakes, I want to make them feel better about those issues and not let those mistakes stop them from trying again. By imagining that I am both myself and the person I care about I can access those feelings again but this time they are aimed at me. For me this is a deeper version than the “what would you say to a friend?” type question and can be very hard so my recommendation would be, start with something small.
If it is easier for you then stick with the “how would you treat a friend in this situation?” question and see if you can be more compassionate with them first and then apply your answer to yourself.
Another question that I like to ask myself is “What if it’s OK….?” This is a question that is quite useful if you are prone to the “what if” question as part of your anxiety but you can extend it to apply to anything that you like. In my case it can be useful when I am looking for evidence that I am a failure as once you apply the question “What if it’s OK to fail?” it changes the way you think about it.
References and research
Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032
Bluth, K., & Neff, K. D. (2018). New frontiers in understanding the benefits of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 17(6), 605–608. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2018.1508494
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x
The way we think has a huge impact on our mental health. If you are looking to overcome your anxiety or just improve your mental health then first you need to know what thoughts are making things worse.
This download gives you a list of the most common ways we think negatively. All you need to do is see which ones you do most.
Also, keep an eye on your emails! I will be sending you a really useful video that goes with this exercise.