Simple techniques for developing
Self-compassion is enjoying a period of popularity right now.
From a therapy perspective, I use the phrases “try to be compassionate to yourself” or “be kind to yourself” quite often, but similarly often the notion of being self-compassionate can seem alien to some people.
Often clients, when trying to learn a new skill or struggling to overcome a particular difficulty in their lives, will often find themselves becoming critical of themselves in their efforts. They might find themselves thinking self-critical thoughts like, “I’m useless”, “I’m a failure” or “I’ll never manage this.” It’s helpful at this stage to look at the function of thoughts like this. Regularly people will explain to me that they believe that such thoughts serve to motivate them to push harder (although this very rarely works) and actually contributes to people giving up.
Techniques for developing self-compassion: Imagine that you have a young child who is just learning to walk. Every couple of wobbly steps, our child loses their balance and falls to the floor with a bump. How do we respond?
Do we call the child stupid and tell them that they need to get their act together? Do we tell them that they are a failure for not being able to do something so simple as learning to walk?
Hopefully not! Instead, we would typically find ourselves encouraging the child, cheering as they make each new step and hugging them and giving them reassurance if they find themselves again falling to the floor. We treat the child with compassion. We recognise that the child is learning something new and that they are inevitably going to make some mistakes. By understanding this and giving the child warm, loving encouragement and affection, they learn that it’s ok to make errors and they will be safe if they do so.
But how do we relate to ourselves when struggling with something in our lives? Often, particularly if we are struggling with some form of depression or anxiety problem, we may be hard on ourselves.
Techniques for Developing Self-Compassion: Acknowledging your suffering
As the Buddhist tradition has attested since it’s origins, “Life is suffering.” This statement broadly means that it is an intrinsic part of our experience as a human being for us to be exposed to and experience suffering in our lives. We all have the capacity to feel sadness, hurt, fear, guilt and shame and it needs to be said that without these experiences it would be hard to imagine what it would be like to be “human.”
In compassion focused therapy, a relatively recently developed type of therapy which sits loosely under the umbrella of a “Third Wave” CBT approach, it is emphasised that whatever suffering we experience, it is fundamentally not our fault. We are human beings with a particular physiology and psychology, born in a particular time, to a particular culture, family and social strata. We are limited to respond to events in our lives through an evolved, refined range of emotional, behavioural and cognitive actions, none of which we have asked for or chosen.
In essence, our ability to suffer is hardwired into us. We suffer because we are human, we’re human because we suffer.
With this in mind, one approach to developing techniques for developing self-compassion is to allow us to simply acknowledge that we are suffering. We can do this through the words that we might say to ourselves and the actions that we take.
When you feel yourself suffering from emotional pain, raise one or both of your hands to the area in which you feel the difficult feelings. Hold yourself in the same way as you would hold a child or an animal whose pain you wanted to ease. Allow yourself to experience the emotional pain – be curious about what it feels like. Then offer words to yourself which acknowledge that pain that you are feeling like : “this is a difficult feeling I’m having”, “this is sadness” or “this suffering is part of being human.” See how this feels just acknowledging your suffering.