Modern life is stressful. I think most of us can agree on that. Jobs, relationships, children, families and friends that live further and further apart geographically, money, the environment, health, housing, social media, politics you name it, it can be stressful. When we experience stress our threat system (responsible for fight, flight or freeze) gets activated and our mind and body experience a whole host of responses. This is essentially a helpful response (one that keeps us safe) but when our threat system is activated too frequently or over a long period of time our mental and physical health suffers. Crucially when we experience continued stress or threat our performance or ability to achieve can start to suffer. One of the things we can then do as human beings is to turn on ourselves. Our mind becomes full of self-criticism, self-doubt, recriminations and self-judgements. We can spend lots of time trapped in our minds lost in memories of what has gone wrong in the past, worry about the way we will mess up in the future or get stuck comparing ourselves negatively to everyone around us. We may feel it is all our fault and that we just have to try harder. All of this just re-ignites the threat system and we get stuck in a vicious cycle.
You may be nodding along as you read – it all is striking a familiar note. Or perhaps you think “not me, I’m not that bad” well hopefully not. But how often have you really paid attention to it? We all have an inner voice, the voice we use to talk to ourselves about things from the past, present or future. But have you ever stopped to notice how you talk to yourself? The words you use, the tone of voice you use. I never really had, it was just my inner voice and assumed to be ‘the norm’. But then I really focussed on how I had spoken to myself when I failed my driving test (3 times!), when I hadn’t been to the gym in forever, when I had a bad day with the children or things weren’t going well at work. Then I really started to see what was going on in my head, the stuff my brain churned up for me when things weren’t going well, and boy was it an eye opener! Why not try this exercise for yourself for a minute….
Think for a moment about a friend or loved one who has struggled in some way….how do you typically respond? Consider the types of things you say, the tone of voice, the expression on your face, the way you may approach them or be with them (a reassuring hand/hug/sitting close with them etc).
Now take a moment to think about something that has gone wrong for you/ a time when you have struggled (nothing too awful – be gentle with yourself). Now focus on how you respond to yourself when you are struggling? Do you use the same tone? Do you say the same types of things?
I’m guessing for many of you the answer is no. For many of us we use much harsher words than we would with others and our tone of voice can be downright nasty. We speak to ourselves in a way that we would never even think of doing to our loved ones. Nobody likes a bully but that’s what many of us are to ourselves. “I can’t believe I did that, what an idiot”, “how can I not even get that right” “I’m such a sh*t mother/father/son/sister/friend etc” “I’m totally useless at work, I’m going to get found out” “why can’t I cope… everyone else is managing just fine" "I'm a failure” “I look fat and disgusting” “you loser” the list could go on and on.
So what can we do about it? One approach that is rapidly growing in popularity is cultivating compassion. There are different definitions of compassion, here we take it to mean:
“a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it." (Compassionate Mind Foundation).
There are many aspects of compassion that are relevant and important to our mental health but for now we will focus on self-compassion.
Self-compassion involves treating yourself as you would a loved one. Kristin Neff has identified the 3 core components of self-kindness (rather than self-judgement), a sense of common humanity (we all struggle) and mindfulness (seeing things how they are not over-identifying).
A growing body of research has shown that self-compassion relates positively to measures of psychological well-being and is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. There is evidence that self-compassion tends to decrease cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase heart-rate variability (associated with our ability to self-soothe when stressed). There is also a large body of evidence that suggests self-compassionate people suffer less and thrive more.
Sounds good right? So why don’t we embrace a more compassionate stance towards ourselves? Many people are worried that being self-compassionate is a bit ‘soft’ or ‘weak’ that it is just saying ‘there there’ and letting themselves off the hook, giving them a way out when things go wrong. We worry that if we aren’t harsh with ourselves we won’t be motivated to change or will become complacent or conceited. However, the research suggests quite the opposite. Studies have shown that people who exhibit higher levels of self-compassion have higher levels of motivation and take greater personal responsibility for their actions. Why? Well if you have the ability to hold yourself kindly when things don’t go well, understand the many things that cause us to act as we do, and create an environment that feels safe we are less afraid of ‘fessing up’ when things go wrong. Our ability to feel good about ourselves doesn’t rely on perfection or success, so we have more courage to see things how they are and take steps to move forward. It’s about creating a strong inner ally rather than an inner enemy.
Unlike self-esteem which is linked to our perceived success and is notoriously hard to cultivate, self-compassion can be practiced and generated in a number of ways. Studies show that compassion, like many other skills, appears to be something that can be grown and enhanced with training and practice. Here are a few simple exercises to get you started:
1) Practice checking in with yourself each day. Ask yourself regularly (as you would a close friend or loved one) “how am I?” (what thoughts or feelings are showing up) and “what do I need?” Have the genuine desire to provide it for yourself. It may be that you need to hear some kind words, to feel a comforting embrace, some encouragement or to get some support to do something challenging.
2) Compassionate self-talk: If you catch yourself engaging in self talk that is critical or judgemental try imagining how you would speak to a friend or loved one if they came to you with this problem. We often find it much easier to be compassionate to others. Try to adopt the same tone of voice, posture, words and sentiments you would use for them and practice talking to yourself in the same way. Focus on qualities of warmth, non-judgement, wisdom and strength. Alternatively, you might find it easier to recall a compassionate, kind, caring person in your life (past or present) or you can even create a compassionate voice/person using imagery. Focus on how they might speak to you, their words, tone, physical gestures.
3) Have a “self-compassion break”. After a difficult day or experience take a few moments to acknowledge that you may be struggling or hurting in some way. Name the thoughts/feelings and what situations may be triggering them. If you find this hard you could simply say to yourself “this is a moment of struggle”. Now try to say to yourself: “everyone experiences this, this is how it feels to struggle”. Offer yourself a soothing touch – a hand on your chest or stomach, holding your arms embracing yourself, touching your face or whatever feels soothing to you. Try taking a few slow breaths and with each breath in imagine your body opening up a little to make room for the difficult feeling of stress, discomfort, pain or struggle. Lastly give yourself a few quiet words of kindness (think about how you may talk to a friend if you struggle here).
Have a go and see how you get on.