Research has shown that practicing self-compassion can have positive effects on both our mental and physical health. As we continue to face the significant challenges of COVID-19, building self-compassion is one of the steps we can take to protect and improve our health.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion means treating oneself with kindness, patience, warmth and understanding, even when we experience negative emotions, and in the face of perceived mistakes or challenges (Neff, 2003).
There are many ways to build a more self-compassionate mindset, and this resource will explore each in turn:
- Building self-compassionate thinking
- Treating yourself to self-compassionate touch
- Exploring compassionate memories
- Compassionate writing
- Compassionate meditation
These exercises have been informed by the evidence-based work of Dr Paul Gilbert in his 2009 book The Compassionate Mind.
Thoughts play a huge role in our emotions and behaviours. How we think about ourselves and the automatic thoughts that jump into our minds in response to a situation, feeling, or interaction have immediate effects on our mood, what we do, and how we treat ourselves and others. Many people can relate to being self-critical, which might involve our inner thoughts being harsh about things we have said or done, and focussing on flaws or perceived mistakes.
When you notice thoughts like this, try the following:
Ask: what is going on in my mind? What am I telling myself about this situation?
This is all too hard. I can’t deal with all this!
How does that make me feel? Try to label it.
I feel anxious and hopeless.
What does this feeling and thought mean to me? What bigger picture or threat could this be linked to?
I associate these feelings with being weak. I don’t like this feeling and I don’t want to be judged by others. It means I sometimes underestimate how well I can deal with things.
Why is that understandable?
It is understandable because this is really challenging for me, and I’ve been judged in the past for my emotions.
Validate your emotions.
It is normal and okay to feel this way at the moment, and this reminds me of past times when I have felt the same.
Whilst your emotions are understandable and valid, are your thoughts accurate or do they include unhelpful assumptions?
It is assuming that I can’t cope, and that others won’t understand me. Negative feelings aren’t a weakness, they are a part of normal human functioning!
Are there any alternative views of this situation that are more helpful to me, or that help me be more caring to myself?
It is probably not helpful to make these assumptions. Others are feeling the same way as me, and I wouldn’t say the same thing to them. Maybe trying to find hope or ways I can feel more useful and connected would help me.
How have I coped with challenges in the past? Can these strengths help me now? If you haven’t always got it “right”, what have you learnt?
Is there anything more helpful I can focus my attention on or do?
If a loved one was in this situation, what would I say to them to be supportive and kind?
Catch yourself in Self-Criticism and move towards Self-Compassionate Correction.
- Focusses on the past, what you should have done, why what did or didn’t do was wrong or bad
- Might involve punishment or wanting to hide yourself away
- Might feel like anger, frustration disappointment, shame or guilt, sadness
- Focusses on perceived mistakes, and overestimates the consequences of ‘failure’
- This perspective can take over your view of your ‘whole self’
E.g., Ugh I shouldn’t have done that! I always get this wrong, now X (insert other bad thing) is going to happen!
- Focusses on the desire to improve and grow
- Focusses on moving forward
- Might feel like positivity, hope, encouragement and support
- Helps to motivate you towards positive action and reflect on what has been learnt
- Helps to identify and draw on individual qualities that you possess rather than judging the ‘whole’
E.g., Okay, that didn’t go how I planned. I could do it differently next time by slowing down and finding what I can improve. It has taken me a few goes in the past, but I eventually get it if I stay cool and persist.
Touch is a powerful way humans connect and stimulate responses in the brain. We can all relate to the wonderfully comforting feeling of a warm hug by someone we love, a squeeze on the arm, or your hand held in another’s. Social distancing means that all our usual ways of
showing affection and care to friends, family, and new people we meet aren’t available to us and this helps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This might seem strange at first but self-compassionate touch is an alternative way to provide soothing and care to yourself during these difficult times. Research has shown that self-touch stimulates the brain in similar ways to as if we were receiving it from another person.
What does self-compassionate touch look like?
Hugging or holding yourself – wrap your arms around your body, and give a gentle squeeze. Breathe fully and deeply and allow your body to settle into the feeling, notice where your arms connect to your body, feel the weight or gentle pressure, notice – where are your hands? Close your eyes if you wish and hold this for a few minutes, or as long as is comfortable.
Place a hand using an open, soft palm on one or each of the following areas, or another position that feels comforting and safe to you: over your heart, on your chest or sternum, on the side of your ribs or waist. Feel or try to imagine warmth, care, understanding and kindness moving from your hand into your body. Breathe slowly and gently. Feel the weight of your hand on your body. Focus all your attention on the spot you are holding, Mould your hand to it, perhaps give a soft squeeze or rub.
Similar to the gentle hand exercise, you might prefer to hold your own hand. Lace your fingers however you wish, whatever feels comfortable. Again take slow, gentle breaths, close your eyes if you wish, and focus your attention on what it feels like to have your hand hold the other. Imagine warmth, kindness and wisdom flowing in. Describe the sensation. If your eyes are open, what does it look like? What do you notice about your hands when they are used this way?
Exploring Compassionate Memories
I hope we can all remember a time that we received kindness and understanding from another person. Perhaps it was someone close to you or even a stranger.
Try to recall someone who was caring, kind, and warm towards you. Try to remember a specific event and focus on the details of that. What was happening? (Note: try to avoid something that was distressing to you as you will then be focussed on the upset caused by the difficulties you experienced, rather than the kindness). Focus on the kind person’s facial expression, their voice tones, their general manner. What feelings were being directed at you? Could you sense those coming from the kind person? What kind words did they share? Explore your feelings about receiving kindness. Can you sense them in your body? Can you label them? Did your face or
body change from receiving the kindness? How did you feel afterwards? When you are finished, you may want to note down the memory, thoughts and feelings to refer to again in the future.
Can you remember a time that you felt very caring towards someone else?
Think of a time when you have felt kind, warm and caring towards another person or animal. Again, try to think of a time without major distress. Again, really try to call the experience to mind and engage all your senses. What was happening? If you could see yourself, what would you look like? What is your tone of voice? What facial expression do you have? Notice if anything is starting to happen in your body now when recalling this event. It’s okay if this is faint. There is no right or wrong. Try to recognise what it feels like to recall these memories and feelings. Note them down if you can, to remember what it feels like to share kindness with others, and how it makes you feel.
Send some compassion outward!
Imagine directing kindness towards the people you care about. Bring them to mind, see their faces and how they move, what is it that you love about them. We all vary with how clear a picture we can generate when using memory or mental imagery. Remember it is normal for images to be fleeting or brief and might not be a clear full picture. Now explore the feelings emerging from this desire for them to be happy, peaceful, and content. You might like to wish some sentiments like: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering. They are, like you, in the flow of life, find themselves in this world, and are all doing the best we can in the face of challenges.
During this time of increased social distancing, it is important to explore different ways of communicating other than face to face. Thankfully we have many ways to stay in touch using video calling and talking on the phone. There could be an increase in email and chatting online, using more written communication to work and stay in touch with the world. Self-reflective writing or journaling is often suggested as a way to explore and express emotions. We can build compassion into writing whether it is writing to yourself or about your personal experiences, or when communicating with other people.
You might like to use some of the same questions as in the section on compassionate thinking to guide some of your writing. Or, when staying in touch with others – what about them are you thankful for? How are they helping or have helped you in the past? What understanding and encouragement can you offer them about their current struggle? What is something positive from your day you could share with others?
Here is a link to a variety of guided meditations that help to invoke a compassionate mindset:
Set yourself the challenge of trying a new self-compassion strategy each day. If you’d like to know more, or find that these exercises are difficult or upsetting, reach out. Psychologists are well trained to help you learn new ways of thinking and being.