Hello lovelies! How are you today? (Honest answers only please! :))
So today has had a wonderful start for me already. I woke up having had a maximum of 3 hours of sleep (the joys of overthinking and having an exhausted body paired with an over-analytical mind!!) and crippling pains in my stomach. Plus, to make matters worse, anxiety crept into my system before I even had a say about it. (That’s the thing about mental illness – YOU don’t get a say in the matter. Of course, you’re always in control of your thoughts and your emotions… but when you have a mental illness, you don’t get to pick when you suffer from it. It just happens. It just is. Anxiety sucks.)
Today was meant to be my first day of school after break… well, looks like a change of plans. Instead I am lying wrapped in blankets on my couch, drinking tea and watching Black Beauty, with one of my cats padding around my legs to make his bed. I could have gone to school – in fact, the abusive thoughts started to roll in as I began to ponder taking a day off: “you’re weak,” “all you have to do is just push further and you’ll be fine”, “you’re going to look so bad at not coming to school on the first day”, “do you really want to miss all this work your classes are going to cover? You’re just gonna make matters worse for yourself”. I almost gave in to it. But my pain was stronger and forced me to give in. And you know something? When I gave in, and listened to what my body was telling me rather than my mind, a new voice piped up in my head. A softer voice. Telling me, kindly, gently, “you’re obviously not very well. If you go to school today, you’ll hardly be able to focus, so it’ll be far more productive if you stay home and let yourself rest up so you’ll hopefully be fresher tomorrow.” Whilst the abusive voice didn’t go away, it lessened its harshness as this softer, kinder voice took charge behind the wheel.
You see, my friends, THAT is self-compassion: when you allow your kind voice to overpower your abusive voice. When you let your gentle voice calmly say, “hey, abusive thoughts, it’s alright – I got this one.” It doesn’t mean your abusive voice is going to go away. Mine is always there. But if you can channel your inner perspective, step outside of your head for a moment and see the bigger picture, you always have the choice to dull it, put it to the back of your mind, and get on with what YOU want to do.
Of course, it’s not easier said than done. Believe me. I’ve let my abusive thoughts push me past my breaking point so many times, and it’s often left me so damaged and broken that I take longer to repair myself and pick up my pieces than I did to actually get there. So what can we do to drive the little critters out of the control station?
I asked my counselor at Headspace the same question, and he produced three documents for me: “8 Types of Distorted Thinking”, “Ten Popular Irrational Beliefs and Alternative Rational Choices”, and “How to Develop Self Compassion (In Just About Anyone)” by Dr. Russ Harris. I’d really like to go through each of these documents with you all, but they are so in depth that I think I’ll take it one blog post at a time. They are all a big eye opener and have helped me so much on my journey to a kinder approach to myself and developing self-compassion.
For today, I’d like to focus on the article written by Dr. Russ Harris. I found it to be the most profound and motivating of the lot, and if you’re like me and struggle to figure out just WHERE to start on showing compassion to yourself, then here’s the guide.
Harris starts with a cracker opening line: ‘Everybody hurts sometimes. Life dishes up pain for all of us.’ Yes, yes, we are not alone in our struggle. Remember that. He then goes on to provide an actual definition for self-compassion, which I will include here:
Self-compassion involves acknowledging your own suffering and responding kindly. In other words, treating yourself with the SAME warmth, caring and kindness that you’d extend to someone you love if they were in similar pain.
How about that, hey? Imagine if we all treated ourselves as we would a loved one when they are going through a difficult time. Our pain is just as valid as theirs. So why are most of us not so quick at jumping to treat ourselves with care and consideration the moment the need presents itself?
Harris explains that there are many barriers to self-compassion, and touches on a few of the most common defences…
- Fusion with unworthiness (“I don’t deserve kindness.”)
- Overwhelming emotions (such as anxiety, sadness, guilt or shame)
- Pointlessness (“How’s this going to help me?”)
- Lack of personal experience (little to no kindness shown from other people)
- Prejudice (“it’s a sign of weakness!”)
Sound like you? Yeah, me too.
But as Frank Capra says: “Compassion is a two-way street.” You simply just CAN’T show compassion to someone without having compassion for yourself. After all, where does it come from? If you’re doubting that you can show compassion to yourself, think to all the times you’ve been kind to someone. Why did you do it? Because you are compassionate. You therefore have the potential to demonstrate it any way you please, including yourself.
Now we ask ourselves the question – but HOW DO we develop self-compassion??? The answer is: unlimited. There are many ways you can develop self-compassion. Every person is different, so each person develops it in their own unique way – whatever works for YOU.
Dr. Harris does, however, provide ‘The Six Building Blocks of Self-Compassion’ to help you get started on your own very unique journey. He highlights that “we can start with any one of the six basic ‘building blocks’ of self-compassion – ideally, whichever one we find easiest – and we can work on that for a while. Then once we’ve made some progress with that element, we can start experimenting with another”. You know what that means? Think of it as your own self-paced course! YOU decide how long you work on one aspect of yourself, and when to move onto the next aspect. There is no time allotted to restrict or pressure you – ah, yes, you can breathe… finally, you can lower your expectations!
In this way, going gently, step-by-step, we can build our self-compassion skills over time. As we develop more ‘building blocks’, we can learn how to stack them on top of each other, to build taller and more stable towers. There is no need for people to meditate, or to follow some religious practice (although they can if they want to!)
So give it some effort. Put in the work. But remember – it will take time. Don’t be discouraged!
Now here we are, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: just what ARE the Building Blocks of Self-Compassion?
1. Acknowledging Pain
Harris describes this process as ‘flexibly noticing’, “with an attitude of curiosity and openness, what is present: right here, right now”. I LOVE this! Putting all attempts of self-compassion aside, you are bathing in what you’re feeling right now, your PAIN, and there is nothing wrong with it. Acknowledging you’re hurting is actually so incredibly essential. It’s human.
He goes on to say that “often it’s useful to express what we have noticed, in a non-judgmental way!” For example, just simply saying to yourself: “I am noticing painful feelings of rejection” can help you immensely to see the problem for what it is by hearing the very words causing your distress.
2. Defusion from Self-Judgment
Harris explains the process of defusion to be “learning to separate/unhook/detach from our thoughts and beliefs and see them for what they are: nothing more or less than strings of words and pictures”. In particular, we are learning to defuse from all that harsh self-talk.
As I’ve said earlier, Harris reinforces that “we can’t magically train our minds to stop speaking to us that way. Sure, you can learn to think more positively, and practise non-judgmental awareness – but that won’t stop your mind from judging and criticising you.
“But we CAN learn to defuse from those ‘not good enough’ stories. We can notice, name and unhook from those cognitions. We can let them come and stay and go in their own good time, without getting caught up in them or pushed around in them.”
My counselor often reminds me of his bus analogy whenever I admit to feelings of an anxiety attack coming on. He says to me, “Breanna, think of your anxiety as a bus. You’ve been on this bus many times. You know it’s route all too well, though it shows up at different and unsuspecting times. You can get on it. Or you can simply step onto the platform, smile at the bus driver, and tell him politely that you’d rather wait for another bus, a much more calmly driven, safer, quieter bus, with scenery that you’ve never seen before. And then you can step down from the bus, and watch it disappear down the street.”
3. Acting with Kindness
“The value that forms the foundation of self-compassion is kindness.” Yes, yes, yes. Right again, Dr Harris. “Indeed, we can think of kindness as the glue that holds together all the other elements of self-compassion. For example, when we consciously acknowledge our pain, this is an act of kindness. And when we defuse from harsh self-criticism, this too is an act of kindness.” Ah, the glue… Perfect way to think of it.
Dr Harris touches on four main ways to be kind to ourselves:
+ Kind self-talk… such as reminding ourselves that we are human, that we are fallible, that everyone makes mistakes, that no one is perfect.
+ Kind imagery… such as ‘loving kindness meditation’ or ‘inner child re-scripting’ or numerous other practices where we create powerful images to tap into self-kindness.
+ Kind self-touch… such as placing a hand gently on our heart or on top of a painful feeling, and sending warmth and caring inwards through the palm.
+ Kind deeds… such as self-soothing rituals, or self-care activities (these can range from treating yourself to a gourmet lunch, to having a warm bath, to just allowing yourself a five minute break to sit in the sun and focus on your breathing!), or spending quality time with people who treat us well.
There are a lot of us who think of the word ‘acceptance’ as a passive act of submitting to a difficult situation. “On the contrary,” Dr Harris explains, “the committed action process in ACT involves taking effective action. Acceptance in ACT refers to accepting our thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, urges, sensations. Acceptance means we ‘open up’ and ‘make room’ for our thoughts and feelings; we allow them to flow through us, without fighting them, running them or being controlled by them.”
Tricky thing to do, huh?
“When we practice accepting our painful thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations (instead of doing self-defeating or life-draining things to avoid them, such as zoning out in front of the television or turning to alcohol), this is an act of kindness in itself.”
I’m pretty sure ALL of us reading this right now has at least once in their life invalidated our own pain. It’s pretty easy to do. All you have to do is think about the malnourished, suffering kids in Africa, and hey presto! Feelings of guilt and shame, ensue. “Our minds tell us that we shouldn’t feel like this, we shouldn’t react like this, we should be able to handle it better.” Yup. Been there, done that.
This type of harsh and critical attitude is the very opposite to kindness. One aspect of validating our experience to ensure kindness, therefore, is via defusing. “Even though we can’t stop them from arising, we can learn to defuse (unhook, detach) from these harsh self-judgments, unrealistic expectations, and unkind comparisons to others.”
The other aspect is to actively validate our experience through self-talk. “We can remind ourselves – (in a warm, caring inner voice) that it is normal and natural for humans to have painful thoughts and feelings. And when our minds compare our emotional reactions unfavourably to those of others, we can remind ourselves that we are unique.”
Again – you are entitled to feel! You’re just as human as those starving kids in Africa, after all.
What was I saying about spirituality in my previous blog post? CONNECTEDNESS… with the world around you, other people, animals, and – lo and behold – yourself.
It is so easy for our minds to generate thoughts along the lines of “I am the only one going through this” or “no one cares” when we are in great pain. We’ve all been there, done that. I know I have, repeatedly. I still do. “Thoughts like these are commonplace,” Dr Harris reassures us, “and completely natural.
“However, the problem is not having such thoughts. The problem is fusing with them. Getting caught up in these thoughts creates a sense of disconnection. We feel cut off from others; we are suddenly on our own, the odd one out. And our pain is all the more difficult, because we are suffering alone.
“If, on the other hand, we develop a sense of connectedness with others, this can help us with our pain.” It sure does. Ever heard of stories where people immediately feel good about themselves after helping someone out?
So how do we develop this connectedness, you ask?
+ Actively defuse from thoughts such as those above
+ Spend time with people who care about you and treat you kindly. Actively engage with them; meaning, be fully present with them. This does not mean you push all your problems aside and try to force yourself to forget about them. No, they’re still there. Accept those thoughts. Thank your brain for them. And leave them lying on the ‘get-to-later’ shelf for safe keeping. You don’t need them right now.
+ Often, it’s useful to let these people know you are in pain, and accept their kindness.
+ Actively think about how your pain is something you have in common with all human beings. Your pain tells you that you have a heart; that you care deeply; that some things just really matter to you.
You see? Your pain most certainly is NOT a sign of weakness or defectiveness. It’s a sign you are a living, caring, human being. And that is something so truly amazing… and so incredibly full of worth. You deserve to be here just as much as everybody else.
Wow, I’ve got to say… this definitely is my longest blog post yet!!! But I truly hope you got something out of reading this. I know I did writing it – helped me kill 2 hours of my lazy day, yes! (Silent victory for the anxious xP)
If you’re feeling in a comment-y mood today, I’d love to know: what do YOU already do to practise self-compassion? Do you have any other tips that could benefit other people, or another building block to add to the list? Do share!
I hope you all have the most fantastic day, gorgeous people.
I’ll leave you with this:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross