Self-Compassion one way of looking after your emotional wellbeing

SELFCARE   – Self-Compassion one way of looking after your emotional wellbeing

Written By Jane Anasatasios

Oh my gorgeous lovely neighbour.  She knocked on my door unannounced the other day only to be met with a somewhat frazzled, irritated and cursing version of me.  Before she could even say hello, off I launched: “ I can’t believe it, I’m such an idiot, of all days, my @%beep## computer has finally decided to stop co-operating, the damn space bar is jammed and the ‘a’ key thinks it is an ‘s’, it’s my own stupid fault I still haven’t gone to get it fixed after one of the kids spilt water on it before Christmas, [that’s a whole other story], and as usual I’ve stupidly left things to the last minute.  Of course I’m in the thick of writing a lecture that is proving to be bigger than Ben Hur. What was I thinking? I can’t do this. I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew with this one.  And I’ve got my parents coming over a bit later, the house is a mess as usual and I haven’t got any afternoon tea to feed them…What was I thinking?”. Having beaten myself up sufficiently and whipped myself into a right lather, I took a slight pause to draw breath …. “Oh, and how are you?”  She delightfully and gently chuckled: “One of those days, huh.  Glad to know you are human too. I just popped by to thank you. I finally decided to take up that redundancy package I talked to you about. Lucky for you, now that I have just a bit too much spare time on my hands, I have re-discovered my inner Nigella.  I’m just returning the cake tin I borrowed from you”.  I looked at her somewhat vacantly at first, then at the cake tin she was offering up to me, the cake tin, that in the throes of my rant, I had failed to notice, and in it was the most beautifully iced chocolate cake I’d ever laid eyes on.  My day was starting to look better already.

We have all had “one of those days”, sometimes they extend into weeks, months and even years.  It maybe the culmination of a series of seemingly minor stressful events (like computers that won’t co-operate when you really need them to) or being faced with big decisions like my neighbour’s redundancy and all that that entails, or sad news or awful circumstances and situations that you or someone you care deeply about has to endure (or possibly all of these things together).  We all experience sadness, disappointment, relationship difficulties, illness, loss, frustration, anger, rejection, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and guilt. These are inescapable parts of being human, even though we do our best to navigate, dodge, outstep and even go to great lengths at times to avoid or outright ignore them and the whole host of emotions we experience when they do happen.  One of the other things about being human is our capacity to self-reflect and to attempt to make sense of what goes on for us and around us. This can be both a blessing (when we are able to do this in a calm and considered way) and a curse (when we are so derailed by overwhelming sadness or anger or worry that we just go over and over it in our heads, and none of our solutions seems ideal).   Thankfully we can also be quite adaptable when we need to adjust to changes or cope with difficulties, even though this may take time and hard work and be met by resistance (mostly our own).  In this article I would like to offer up a few ideas, research offerings, practices and strategies to consider as a way of taking care of yourself by acting more kindly towards yourself as you attend to your rich, sometimes complex and perplexing emotional world.  In essence the ideas below could be summed up in one simple sentence:   “BE KIND TO YOURSELF, YOU ARE ONLY HUMAN AFTER ALL”

Self Compassion & Emotional Wellbeing  

In recent years a whole new body of research has been emerging in the psychology field that focuses on the idea of self-compassion. The research is showing how when we are kind and gentle on ourselves rather than giving ourselves a hard time about our failings or trying to overly focus on changing (vs accepting) ourselves because of some perceived inadequacy or vulnerability, we seem to fair better psychologically.  A lack of self-compassion can take its toll on our physical and mental wellbeing and performance at work, home and in relationships.

Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself or gentle on yourself when you have mucked up, made a mistake, not done as you had hoped, failed at something, or acted in a way that you were not so proud of.  It is not self-pity or an opt out clause (which can also lead us to feel stuck) rather it is a particular way of viewing ourselves (warts and all) and the difficult circumstances we confront at times in a way that can help us to move through and navigate these difficulties. It encourages and allows us to accept responsibility for or own our actions and feelings, but doing so in a way that is non-blaming and non-punitive.  We can often be compassionate and kind to friends and family, even strangers, but are less familiar and comfortable with being compassionate to ourselves. Next time you are going through a tough time or think you have mucked up in some way, try asking yourself what you might say to a good friend in similar circumstances, or what they might say to you.

Self-compassion also refers to recognizing and accepting those events or circumstances that are not of our making or not in our orbit of control that can make us feel vulnerable and have considerable impact on us and how we feel.  The self-compassion researchers have found that being kind to ourselves by recognizing that we are human, that we all face adversity, and experience suffering (they call this common humanity), rather than berating ourselves or the world or pretending we are impervious to life, leads to improved psychological wellbeing by helping us to be more resilient and better able to cope with adversity.

Self-Compassion: Mindful Awareness & Emotional Awareness

Being more self-compassionate also involves an awareness of how we are feeling generally and in the moment.  Paying attention to our moment to moment internal and external experiences without judgment using mindfulness and self-compassion builds our flexibility, adaptability and tolerance to the inevitable challenges of being a human and in relationship with others.  It involves noticing and being aware of how we feel when we are either being overly-judgemental, critical and harsh about ourselves, our actions, our shortcomings, or when we attempt to avoid, repress or ignore our feelings.


Self- Compassion, Self-Talk and Emotional Wellbeing

Noticing the unkind and sometimes harsh and judgemental ways we talk to ourselves when things aren’t going so well or we’ve mucked up in some way can be helpful.  Speaking more kindly to ourselves, perhaps as we would to a friend dealing with similar struggles helps us to lighten up on ourselves, reducing our tendency for perfection and self-imposed high standards (eg.“I should…, I must..”). We sometimes expect so much of ourselves and we can fall into the trap of beating ourselves up when we fall short of our unrealistic expectations. Giving ourselves a break and extending compassion allows us to acknowledge with kindness that we are frustrated, angry, worried and that we are human (rather than “a stupid idiot who can’t do anything right”). The good news is that we can learn or re-learn ways to judge ourselves less harshly and change the way we talk to ourselves – we can challenge our thoughts and related self-talk.  This can then in turn help us to find or navigate towards a different and hopefully more helpful solution to our situation or emotional response. A psychologist can help you with this skill.

Self–Compassion: Self- Soothing and Calming ourselves

When we are experiencing difficult or strong emotions it helps if we can find some caring ways to soothe ourselves.  Being aware of a few things you can do to help you feel somewhat calmer in the moment when you are going through a difficult time or feeling strong emotions seems to help.  The trick seems to be working out what helps you best. Sometimes it is about a brief distraction and taking a break or pause from it momentarily, or riding it out, other times it is about directly dealing with it, processing it. Here are some ideas that other people have used that you might find helpful:

  • Focus on your Breathing
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Meditate
  • Go for a walk or run
  • Have a bath or shower
  • Cry
  • Listen to some music
  • Talk with a supportive friend, family member, work colleague, neighbour, GP or other helping professional either about how you are feeling or just simply spending some time with them to enjoy their company
  • Drawing, colouring in
  • Writing or journalling
  • Knitting, sewing
  • Do some housework
  • Cooking
  • Read a book, Watch a movie or TV show, Listen to a podcast
  • Eat a piece of chocolate cake that your neighbour made for you (okay maybe it was 2 pieces. Maybe not the whole cake cos then you might feel bad about that too – who am I to judge; and yes I know I have just contradicted everything I said in the last article about how healthy eating patterns can help improve our psychological wellbeing – I am only human afterall)

Self Compassion, Self Understanding, and our Relationships with others.

Being kind to ourselves by comforting ourselves as we struggle with difficult experiences can also enhance our relationships by helping us to learn more about our needs and preferences and face our flaws and limitations. When we learn more about ourselves we are in a better position to find ways to help others we care about or interact with to understand us.  When we understand ourselves in a compassionate way, it can also help us to feel a bit more willing to admit to and repair our mistakes – acknowledgement and warranted apologies can go a long way.  We can learn to move towards understanding our emotional reactions, learn to take time to reflect, rather than just launch out and react or over-react in the moment, and we can learn to find ways to respond to interpersonal difficulties and tricky situations with others.  We can learn to attend to and speak about our concerns, reactions, and needs in more thoughtful honest and direct ways with others, which seems a little easier when we are kind to ourselves and the other person in the process. A psychologist or relationship counsellor can help you sort and sift through some of this.

Want to know some more about Self Compassion:

Check out Kristin Neff’s (an expert on self-compassion) website

And, no my computer is still not fixed. Here’s to being human, to chocolate cake, and to the good neighbours who bake these cakes – the subject of my next article. We will focus in on finding ways to look after our psychological wellbeing by connecting with supportive people and engaging in meaningful activities.   Take care.