Many of us have harsh inner-critics that are well practiced at directing criticism and judgement toward ourselves when we experience struggles in life or don’t live up to our expectations. Whilst these voices are often coming from a self-protective place and develop as a way of motivating us to try harder and do better, they often have unwanted negative consequences for our self-esteem and overall wellbeing.
As an alternative to this often-automatic human response, Dr Kristen Neff (an American clinical psychologist and researcher) has conducted extensive research on our need to develop self-compassion. In her research, Dr Neff has found that when we direct criticism toward ourselves (think of the tone of voice as well as the content of self-statements!) our brain reacts as if it were under threat from the environment. As a result of this, we are more likely to experience emotion states such as fear or anxiety and behave in ways reactive to this than to be able to take calm and considered action that aligns with who we want to be.
Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is an approach developed by Psychologist Paul Gilbert which focuses on developing self-compassion as a vehicle for adaptively coping with struggles and healing. CFT emphasises 3 main points: 1) that experiencing struggles in life is inevitable (rather than a personal failing) and that acknowledging this fosters an ability to speak to ourselves with kindness and compassion; 2) that all human’s will experience this (rather than feeling isolated and alone in our difficult experiences); and 3) mindfulness of our difficult emotions is an important part of feeling compassion for ourselves (rather than trying to avoid unpleasant emotional experiences).
How can I build self-compassion in my life?
One central strategy in a CFT approach is to consider how one might speak to a friend when hearing of their struggles and to use this same compassionate response in speaking to ourselves.
Another strategy that can be particularly effective in managing the body’s response to difficult situations is to use our inbuilt sense of touch to direct compassion toward ourselves. Next time you notice your harsh voice you may find it helpful to try the following activity:
- Take 3 deep breaths, being conscious of elongating your exhalation
- Gently place your hand over your heart noticing the sensations of touch (where you hand touches your chest, what temperature it is, how much pressure there is, etc.)
- Consciously direct compassion toward yourself using your hand as an anchor for this
- Pay attention to the sensations of your breath as you do this and be conscious of this for as long as you feel you want to.
In this way, the benefits of activating the body’s calming response may be harnessed to improve coping and wellbeing in the face of difficult situations that arise in our lives.
If you’d like to read more about self-compassion and find a number of helpful exercises and meditations, visit Kristen Neff’s self-compassion website
Article written by our clever, compassionate Psychologist Theresa Donnelly