Self-compassion is an area we will continue to visit often in this group as it is something helpful for us all to practice and something we generally struggle to do, so encouragement and reminders to be self-compassionate are helpful.
Compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’ and is an active word, implying movement, a rising up to alleviate suffering. The group spent some time reflecting on how they feel towards others when suffering and experiencing that sense of feeling moved to alleviate suffering. When asked about practising self-compassion, group members continued to talk only about others. This was noted! People were able to identify a strong expectation of perfectionism within themselves which could lead to self-criticism in ways they would not expect from or criticise others.
Kristin Neff’s component explanation of self-compassion of self-kindness versus self-criticism was presented. She puts it this way, in her website self-compassion.org:
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”
Research into self-criticism and self-compassion have shown that self-criticism increases anxiety whereas self-compassion can decrease anxiety. We considered the three systems approach used in Compassion Focused Therapy to understand this more, from Getselfhelp
Group members identified a strong identification with an active threat system and less so with the soothing system.
Each time we tried to talk about how to be self-compassionate, people started talking about compassion for others. Indeed it is the full vision of compassion focused therapy that all; ourselves and others, are treated compassionately. However the deflection from self-compassion to compassion for others was explored. What we discovered was a well documented feeling of resistance towards the practice of self-compassion because of deeply ingrained self-criticism, and that the idea of kindness caused an unwelcome emotional response and began to expose painful experiences of being criticised, hurt, let down and having trust betrayed by others.
Kristin Neff compares this reaction to self-compassion as a backdraft:
“Some people find that when they practice self-compassion, their pain actually increases at first. We call this phenomena backdraft, a firefighting term that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is opened – oxygen goes in and flames rush out. A similar process can occur when we open the door of our hearts – love goes in and old pain comes out.”
Group members were keen to learn how to be more self-compassionate, so we introduced the ‘Compassion break exercise’. This is a nice way to start practising self-compassion because it allows us to start thinking about how to be kind and care for ourselves as we start to notice and identify having a moment of suffering. This could be anything such as feeling acute loneliness, words spoken that really stung us, feeling left out of something, or feeling horrible about things said and regretted in an argument.
You can find the exercise here: Self-compassion Break