Learning how to cultivate self-compassion – an article by Mary O’Connor in the Galway Advertiser, October 20th, 2016, reviewing Carmel Sheridan’s new book.
Mention compassion and what words spring to mind? Thoughtfulness, decency, kindness, a caring nature and a willingness to help others.
We usually think of compassion in terms of other people and rarely apply it to ourselves. Yet self compassion is important for our emotional wellbeing and growth.
It involves demonstrating the same qualities of caring, kindness and understanding to ourselves when we are having a difficult time, not judging ourselves harshly for any perceived shortcomings or when we make mistakes, comforting and caring for ourselves and, most of all, valuing ourselves for the unique people we are.
Carmel Sheridan, a Galway based psychotherapist, mindfulness trainer and author of “The Mindful Nurse: Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to help you thrive in your work”, describes self compassion as the capacity for healthy nurturing of the self.
“Just as compassion is the willingness to acknowledge and be moved by the suffering of others, self-compassion extends this acceptance and care to you. After all, just like on an airplane, if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first then you won’t be able to help anyone else.”
She asks people to look inside themselves and see how much self-compassion they possess. If you are unsure, ask yourself a couple of telling questions. “Picture yourself tripping up at work, for instance,” she suggests. ”Let’s say you arrived late, failed to get everything done, or said the wrong thing. Do you attack yourself for every little imperfection? You might say to yourself, ‘How could I have been so stupid? or ’Why can’t I accomplish as much as others?’ Or maybe you continue to blame yourself even after you have been forgiven by others. Do you constantly berate yourself for not being perfect or for not having all the right answers all the time? These judgments cycle through your mind and stir up stress. In an attempt to halt the pain you berate yourself and stress increases. Although the thoughts and feelings are uncomfortable, you continue to condemn yourself long after the event, creating even more stress for yourself.”
When we fling insults at ourselves, our inner critic takes over, she says. This quickly ramps up our anxiety levels and activates the flight or fight response. ”Distracted and self-critical you think about what happened tossing it around in your mind and going over it again and again. Lost in reactivity you lose sight of the need to treat yourself kindly. Because you are both the attacker and the attacked, your body floods with the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, this flood causes mental and physical damage and impairs your health, your sleep, your ability to think clearly and your ability to function competently at work.”
Ms Sheridan says when things go wrong it is important to step outside the “pull of self-judgement” and practice self compassion instead.
“Rather than berating yourself when you slip up be gentle. Speak kindly to yourself and accept what has happened. This doesn’t mean that you let yourself off the hook. Instead, it is the opposite. When you are self-compassionate, you are more likely to own up to what happened. Turning towards your distress with compassion helps you to let go of defensiveness. Rather than judging yourself you can now acknowledge difficult feelings such as guilt and shame. This frees up energy so that you can look for helpful solutions to your dilemma and focus on how to avoid repeating what went wrong.”
She outlines that self- compassion helps you recognise and soothe your painful thoughts and emotions.
“When you identify and relate to your emotions with kindness rather than harshness, you tap into your biological caregiving system. Self-compassion is yours to tap into at any moment when you acknowledge that your nature is inherently good and that you deserve a generous dose of self-value and self-gratitude.”
She refers to Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas, who outlines that self-compassion consists of three things:
- Self-kindness. Relating warmly and kindly to ourselves rather than being self-critical whenever we are faced with our own shortcomings or encounter difficulties.
- Common humanity. Remembering that suffering and failure are part of our shared human experience rather than unique to us as individuals.
- Mindfulness. Meeting our difficult feelings in a balanced way so we do not over identify with them.
Research indicates that practicing self-compassion improves wellbeing, life satisfaction, resilience, and a sense of connection with others, according to Carmel Sheridan.
The first step in becoming more self compassionate is to notice when you are being self critical or reactive.
“Your body reacts when you are self critical. When you catch yourself in the act of finding fault with yourself, shift your attention instead to your body. You might notice your shallow breathing, warm face or clenched stomach. Once you become aware of reactivity, you can set the intention to release it, letting go of the bodily tension and hostile thoughts and extending kindness to yourself instead.”
She offers the following suggestion from Dr. Neff to help people build self-compassion:
Steps to self compassion
- Practice mindful self compassion when life is not going well. Maybe you are late for work or just had an argument with a colleague. Rather than reacting to the situation take a self compassion break. As a way of connecting with the difficult experience make a comforting physical gesture to yourself, for example, placing your hand over your heart. Sense yourself opening up to compassion and send kindness to the hurt inside. Kindness in the form of physical gestures can have a soothing effect on your body. It doesn’t matter what the gesture is as long as it resonates with you and you find it comforting.
- Speak kindly to yourself. When you find yourself in the grip of strong feelings of distress or self-judgement you may find yourself thinking, ‘I am hopeless’ or other condemning comments. However, thinking like this only makes you feel worse. Instead, substitute kind phrases to help calm your distress. Choose phrases that resonate with you, such as those listed below and memorise them, repeating them silently whenever you need compassion.
This is a moment of suffering (Here mindfulness helps you acknowledge what is happening).
Suffering is part of life. (This helps you remember your common humanity, you are by no means alone in your suffering).
May I be kind to myself in this moment. (This phrase reminds you to respond compassionately rather than berate yourself).
Camel Sheridan’s book entitled “The Mindful Nurse: Using the power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Help you Thrive in your Work“ can be ordered from all bookshops and is available online from Amazon.com.