Try these techniques from compassion-focused therapy to help you show kindness to yourself and your mental health
Although 2020 may not be a year that we look back on fondly in years to come, it has been a momentous year for kindness. We’ve supported the #BeKind campaign, clapped for our carers, stayed at home to protect our NHS, and so much more. As a nation, we’re extremely empathetic and great at showing compassion for others in times of need.
However, when it comes to being kind to ourselves, our efforts can often leave a lot to be desired. Most of us are all too good at being self-critical, and lockdown has been no exception. But why?
Often, most of this self-criticism comes from the comparison culture that lives on social media. We criticise ourselves by comparing our lives to our online connections; we’re not productive enough, not creative enough, not having enough fun, and so on.
Some say that self-criticism exists to try and keep our standards high; to help us feel better than average, and help ensure we are accepted by others. But, self-criticism can be especially brutal because there’s no external referee to keep the nastiness in-check. It’s an ongoing battle within the mind.
When our inner critic is really loud, it can be tough not to believe and engage with the negativity. So, we go about our daily lives listening to and engaging with our inner critic, to the point where it can start to impact our mood, causing irritability, anxiety or fear.
But, there is something at our disposal which can help to overcome this negativity and support our sense of wellbeing – self-compassion.
The importance of self-compassion
The idea of generating compassion to help improve wellbeing stems from ancient Buddhism. It’s thought that people who develop self-compassion are more motivated, resilient, and more able to cope with life's difficulties. It can not only help us to feel happier, but also lessen feelings of anxiety and depression.
Research has found that by developing our compassion we can create positive effects on our brain and immune system. It’s so effective that there’s even a type of talking therapy devoted to it – compassion-focused therapy.
Compassion-focused therapy looks to help those who struggle with shame and self-criticism.
Of course, all talking therapies involve compassion – the premise of counselling itself is to be kinder to yourself and your mental health. What makes compassion-focused therapy different, however, is that it looks to help develop your ability to be more compassionate towards both yourself and others.
Lessons we can learn from compassion-focused therapy
There are lots of different tools used within compassion-focused therapy, some of which are drawn from other therapies. Here are five techniques you can try for yourself:
Try to be caring and understanding with yourself, rather than being harshly critical or judgemental. Just because you might have more time of your hands right now, that doesn’t mean you have to be ‘doing’ more.
If you start to feel your inner critic creeping in, focus on being gentle with yourself instead. It could be helpful to try to change how you are viewing your situation.
For example, if you’ve been furloughed, it might be helpful to think of this time as a holiday, away from the expectations of normal life. Or, if you’re homeschooling your children, remind yourself that you are not simply homeschooling. You are a parent who is caring for their child during an epidemic, trying to continue their education.
Similarly, if you’re working from home, remember you are not working from home in the typical sense – you’re at home during a crisis, trying to work. Reframing the situation can help to put things in perspective and be kind to ourselves.
Shared common humanity
This means acknowledging that as humans we are imperfect, fail and make mistakes. Psychotherapist Emma Cameron says, “Who says we have to be perfect? Of course we can’t be perfect! Remember that you are bound to get things wrong and mess up from time to time – because you’re human, and that’s what real humans do!”
This also means acknowledging that each and every one of us is different. Even during a worldwide epidemic that we are all experiencing, our individual circumstances are unique. So, although we might all be experiencing the same storm, we are each navigating through it in different boats.
We often think that having negative thoughts or feelings is bad or ‘wrong’ but, the truth is, it’s not. Being mindful helps you learn how to pay attention to the present moment without judgement. It involves being aware of your distressing feelings in a clear and balanced manner, so you neither ignore nor obsess about things you dislike about yourself or your life.
Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to sit with negative thoughts or emotions. So, if you’re feeling particularly anxious or upset, it is OK to feel that for a while.
You neither need to make an effort ‘cheer up’ nor wallow in negativity – instead, just ride the wave of that emotion. Show your feelings acknowledgement and tune into what has made you feel this way.
“Compassion is having a sensitivity to the suffering of ourself and others in the world and having an intention to try and alleviate it” – Dalai Lama
Just as we all have an inner critic, we all have an inner champion – we just may not be able to connect with it as easily.
Try to connect with that inner champion and show appreciation for yourself. This may include making a list of things you like in life or taking five minutes at the end of each day to note things you are particularly grateful for. The aim is to help you savour those moments and take notice when something enjoyable happens.
Working on showing yourself more appreciation and embracing your inner champion will help you to balance out the voice of the inner critic and increase your self-esteem.
Compassion-focused therapy encourages people to imagine images or events that help elicit compassionate feelings, for example, imagining an experience of kindness from another person.
Here, Emma details a great imagery exercise to help you take control of self-criticism. “Picture yourself taking all the inner critic’s opinions and putting them in a basket. Then, in your mind, take the basket outside the room and leave it there, telling yourself that you can bring it back in later on if you choose.
“Or, picture the inner-critic as a cartoon figure – a monster or a person. Now start to alter your image. Make them gradually more and more ridiculous-looking, small and/or powerless, with a silly voice.”
In hard times, it can be easy to feel helpless and anxious – like things are spiralling out of control. It’s an incredibly difficult time right now, so if you feel like you’re struggling, that’s completely understandable.
Find out more about compassion-focused therapy and find a counsellor near you on Counselling Directory.