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Why self-compassion is more important than ever

At the hands of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have all been forced to adapt to a new normal. And, whilst this has been far easier for some than others, we have all encountered new and unfamiliar challenges; whether that be dealing with illness and loss, loneliness, financial difficulties, family conflict or mental and physical health challenges, we have all felt the personal impact of COVID-19.

With government restrictions now beginning to ease, some might sigh a breath of relief, whilst others feel a sense of mounting uncertainty – many of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between. The theme of this year’s mental health awareness week was kindness, and being kind to ourselves amidst this uncertainty is arguably more important than ever.

What is self-compassion?

Psychologist Kirstin Neff defines self-compassion as a positive and caring way of relating to yourself through times of suffering. The concept has three core components:

  • Self-kindness entails being gentle and caring towards ourselves, especially when things go wrong, as opposed to being overly self-critical and judgemental.
  • Common humanity involves recognising that everyone makes mistakes, and that we are not alone in our mental distress.
  • Mindfulness requires us to be aware of our experience of suffering, whilst also taking a balanced view of the situation and trying not to get carried away by our emotions.

Neff suggests that we think of self-compassion as giving ourselves the same care and support that we would give to a good friend. For instance, if a friend came to us saying ‘I’ve put on a stone over lockdown; I feel so awful and demotivated to exercise’, it is unlikely that we would launch into a judgemental attack on how terrible they look. Rather, we would give them a shoulder to cry on and offer support and advice to make them feel better.  This, Neff argues, is the sort of kindness we should all offer ourselves – we all need a kind self-coaching champion who has our best interests at heart. 

Why we need self-compassion

And yet, the reality is that many of us are seriously lacking in self-compassion, with a great tendency to be overly self-critical and hard on ourselves. As the author Anthony Powell eloquently puts it, ‘self-love seems so often unrequited’.   

Getting into the science behind this involves an understanding of the evolution of the human brain.  According to psychologist Paul Gilbert, our ‘old brains’ were designed to respond very quickly to danger and threats of any kind, whilst ‘new brains’ have evolved to allow imagination, reflection and reasoning.  We have a ‘tricky brain’ – our ‘old’ brain quickly kick-starts anxious physiological responses, such as a racing heart and muscle tension associated with danger, and the ‘new’ brain brings the worry and danger into our consciousness.  In this way, the brain can get caught up in unhelpful loops that lead to distress and emotional difficulties.

These complex emotional systems are simply part of being human; the evolved mind is not necessarily the ‘good’ mind, and we need to learn how to work with these strong emotions compassionately. An understanding of self-compassion will allow us to take responsibility and not suffer the needless consequences of our tricky brains. When we feel difficult emotions like confusion, shame and stress, practising self-compassion provides the emotional support we all so desperately need to move on and function healthily.

According to Gilbert, we have three major emotion regulation systems, which we must understand better if we are to develop kinder relationships with ourselves:

  1. The threat system (sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain) is linked to emotions such as anger, fear and disgust, which help us to identify and respond to threat.
  2. The drive system is linked to emotions like excitement and joy, which motivate us to move towards certain goals that may be beneficial to us.
  3. The soothing system is linked to feelings like calmness, contentment and safety, which help us to engage in periods of rest when we aren’t threatened or trying to achieve things.

Unfortunately, the old reptilian brain is the quickest to respond, whilst our soothing system (and sometimes our drive system) is chronically underactive. Western society fosters a competitive mindset, where we are all constantly on the lookout for what we can do next and how we can become better versions of ourselves. This competitiveness also makes us more alert and defensive to potential competitors in our environments, making our brains even more responsive to threat. The very real threat of COVID-19 to both our physical health and mental wellbeing has put many people’s threat system into overdrive.

Self-criticism and the workplace

Unhelpful thought patterns and overactive threat systems play out in the workplace all the time. For example, think about how many times you have found yourself:

  1. Having a difficult conversation with a colleague and thinking “I came across so badly in that conversation, I wish I’d said…”
  2. Being unkind to yourself after a long day, dwelling on all of the things that went wrong, such as stumbling over your words in an important presentation
  3. Stressing about your work to-do list alongside home commitments, going around in circles worrying about how you could possibly get everything done in time

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these self-critical comments may have become even louder as we struggle to adapt to the new situation. In addition, working remotely can be isolating – at the end of work video calls we are met with silence – we can’t grab a coffee with co-workers or go for drinks to unwind after a difficult day in quite the same way. 

Developing a compassionate mind

It is, however, possible to develop a more self-compassionate mindset and healthier way of thinking.  People who have a higher sense of self-compassion have been found to experience lower levels of anxiety and depression, and higher levels of overall wellbeing; developing a compassionate mind set allow us to transform harsh, self-critical judgements into a much healthier way of thinking and behaving. For example, after an eight-week self-compassion program including yoga, meditation and relaxation exercises, 90% of participants increased their level of self-compassion.

At Kamwell, we understand how important being kind to ourselves is to our health and wellbeing, especially during these unsettling times. Here are some useful steps to develop our self-compassion and quieten our relentless inner critic:

  1. Identify and accept your emotions: we all have to deal with complex emotions on a daily basis. Learning to identify our emotions (‘I feel angry and frustrated’) and accepting that it is normal and part of being human to feel like this is the first step towards becoming more self-compassionate. Self-compassion is first noticing that you’re suffering, and then working to be kinder to yourself in the face of that suffering.
  2. Understand and express your needs: when we have an overly judgemental internal dialogue, we can become alienated from our needs. Taking time to reflect on what it is we really need (‘I need affection from my partner when I get home from work’), and practicing expressing these needs in a compassionate and assertive way is the next helpful building block.
  3. Cultivate your soothing system: consciously making time for self-care can do wonders for our mental wellbeing. Drawing our attention back to the present moment through short mindfulness exercises such as grounding and rhythmic breathing are simple yet powerful ways to alleviate difficult emotions. When we practice self-care, oxytocin and endorphins are released, which help to reduce stress and increase our feelings of safety and security.
  4. Write yourself a letter: it can be helpful to write a letter to yourself to find your compassionate voice when you are having a difficulty.  Think of an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving and kind and then write a letter to yourself from your imaginary friend. Put the letter down for a while and come back to it whenever you need to hear these soothing and comforting words of wisdom.
  5. Be kinder to yourself: watch how you talk to yourself. If you catch yourself in an automatic negative thought, try writing a rebuttal to it. So instead of ‘I messed up at work. My boss hates me’ you can reassure yourself that ‘Mistakes happen. My team respects me, and I’ll do better next time’.  We are all in this together. We all mess up sometimes.
  6. Cultivate your drive system: finding time for fun activities is also important to make sure that our emotion regulation systems are in balance. Having fun is a key ingredient to fostering a loving and healthy relationship with ourselves, whether that be through spending time with friends, being silly and laughing, dancing or spending time on your favourite hobby.

The great thing about practising self-compassion is that you’re there 24/7 and can always be there to give yourself the support you need, when you need it most. Self-compassion is non-judgemental, a source of comfort that you can always come back to regardless of what is happening in the world, which is why we need it now more than ever.

Interested in finding out more?

The transformative effects of mindful self-compassion (Mindful)

Paul Gilbert’s Three Circles concept explained.

Are you kind to yourself? (Healthline)

Published 30th June 2020