SUPPORT: Making a case for Self-Compassion

By Dr Jas, Clinical Psychologist 

How would you describe your relationship with yourself? If someone could overhear your internal thoughts, what would they sound like? Would you speak to yourself in the same way you speak to other people that are important to you? Or are you harsher, more critical, bullying even? Our relationship with ourselves is the most intense and enduring we will experience in our lives. Yet far too often, this relationship is defined by self-criticism. This harsh self-criticism can act as a corrosive force in our lives, like walking around with a bully whispering in our ear day and night. What would it be like to instead have a relationship defined by self-compassion?

Self-compassion is not the same as ‘being kind to yourself’ or ‘self-care’, although this can certainly be part of it. Nor is it about ‘letting yourself off the hook’ or saying ‘everything I do is fantastic’. For me, self-compassion is about approaching yourself with a sense of deep understanding, patience, and a desire to ease suffering.

We acknowledge that life is hard. We do not choose to be born, or the things that happen to us. We are all just doing the best we can. Sometimes the compassionate thing will be to tell ourselves that we did well. Sometimes it may be about saying ‘ok, that thing I did was not the best’ but without ripping ourselves apart. It is an emotional tone, a gentleness in body language and voice. Think about the way you would approach a close friend, or a child, who was suffering – that is compassion.

While it may seem obvious that you would want this sort of relationship with yourself, the reality can be more complicated. The idea of approaching yourself with compassion may make you feel uncomfortable, or nervous. People often hold ideas about needing self-criticism to drive them forwards, or to stop them from being ‘stuck up’ and ‘cocky’. They fear that without it, they will not achieve their goals. It can be helpful to consider this idea more carefully.

Think back to a teacher or coach that you had when you were younger who was harsh, hard, critical, or just plain mean. What were they like – their voice, body language tone? How did you feel around them? And what was the impact on your learning? Perhaps you felt anxious, stressed, or disengaged in their classes. Possibly you dreaded or avoided those lessons, or you worked hard but found it difficult to concentrate. Now try to remember a teacher or coach who had a different style. More understanding, gentle, compassionate. How did they sound, what was their body language like? When you struggled, or got something wrong, how did they help you with that? And what was the impact on you, your feelings and your learning? Now ask yourself, which teacher or coach would I choose for a child I cared about? Why?

I hope you would choose the second kind of teacher. Feeling anxious and stressed makes it harder for us to concentrate. We are likely to struggle to learn, give up completely, burn out. The alternative gentle teacher does not hide our struggles and mistakes from us, but finds a way to gently help us with them so we can learn and develop. We feel safe and are supported, so we are able to flourish. In the same way, being this sort of teacher for ourselves can actually help us to learn, explore, make progress, achieve, and live the sort of life we want.

If we are willing to commit to developing a more compassionate relationship with ourselves, the next question to consider is how to go about developing one. The answer is simple (although perhaps not easy) – practice. The good news is that we all have an emotion system in our brains which is geared up to care and compassion. We just have to get it working for us.

We have several emotion systems in our brain. Three important ones are the threat, drive and connect/soothe systems. The threat system is all about keeping us safe from danger. When it is active we feel anxious and we take steps to get away from the threat. It becomes active when we see danger in the world around us, or when we experience threats from inside our own minds. A bully following us around and criticising us would activate our threat system, but so do our internal self-critical thoughts. The drive system is all about going after the things that we want – food, sex, money, ambitions. It is activated when we see things that we want, or when we imagine them. The threat and drive systems interact. Sometimes we really want something, but the threat system is more active and we are too scared to go after it. At other times, we want something so much we don’t care that we are scared. The connect/soothe system is equally important to our survival. When the system is active we feel calm, content and at peace. We are able to connect with other people (vital as we are a social species), to explore and learn. This system is developed and activated when we are cared for by others, but also when we show care and compassion to ourselves. It can dampen down the action of the other two systems, so that we know that it’s okay to rest where we are for a while.

None of these systems is more important than the other – we need them all. Ideally all three will be working together and will be in balance. However certain systems can become more active and override the others, while others become less active. When we are caught in a cycle of self-criticism our threat and/or drive systems are over active, while the connect/soothe system is under active. The approach to take is therefore all about rebalancing. It’s a bit like physio for your mind. We do exercises that help to strengthen and activate the soothe system – practice self-compassion. It is not about being self-indulgent. If you injured your arm, you wouldn’t say “stupid left arm, why are you so weak, you deserve to be punished!”. You would instead do your exercises until your arms are both working in balance again. 

To strengthen your soothing compassion system, you can practice showing yourself compassion in your actions and behaviours through self-care. You can also look at noticing self-critical thoughts and trying to practice replacing them with gently with more understanding, self-compassionate thoughts. As this is an issue of emotion systems, it is also important to connect on that emotional level. Compassionate imagery and visualisation exercises are a really powerful way of strengthening that compassion muscle. They may seem a little strange, but if self-criticism is an issue for you, it’s a really important thing that you can do for yourself.

The psychologist Paul Gilbert has developed the Compassionate Mind approach, involving ideas and exercises to help you to develop your self-compassion. Over weeks and months, the approach involves regular practice of compassionate imagery visualisation exercises, considering your relationship with yourself through letter writing, and applying this new emotional state to develop skills in self-compassionate thinking and behaviour. His books and website, and the Compassionate Mind Foundation are a good place to start. If shame and self-criticism are a real issue for you, you could also perhaps benefit from compassion-focussed therapies.

I hope that you will give developing a more compassionate relationship with yourself some time. I know it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done for my own psychological well-being. Above all remember that you deserve the understanding, gentleness and compassion that you would show to others. I hope you will give it a try.