Self-compassion bolsters our mental health

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Self-compassion is important for our mental health and wellbeing. Most of us will suffer from at least some form of mental distress at some point in our lives that could warrant some external help, especially after intense or prolonged periods of stress. There is now much less stigma associated with seeking help for such difficulties as anxiety and depression.

However, one of the main things that still stands in the way of many people seeking help for mental health problems is a sense of shame. Apart from their particular struggles with anxiety and depression, many people are debilitated by their non-acceptance of such difficulties, believing that that they shouldn’t have them. They might view their distress as a sign of weakness.

High achievers can be even more prone to harsh self-criticism when they are not able to maintain their usual lofty standards, especially if they have always had a tendency to perfectionism. Shame and non-acceptance of problems can also interfere with people’s response to therapy, especially in early stages. Once people come to more fully accept themselves and their current difficulties, progress comes more easily. Self-compassion supports our mental health and wellbeing and eases depression by promoting self-acceptance. It is basically about being kind and forgiving toward yourself as you would be kind and forgiving to a friend.

Psychologists such as Kristin Neff and Paul Gilbert have expanded and drawn upon our understanding of self-compassion through clinical research. Kristin Neff outlined three core components of self-compassion including kindness, awareness of our common humanity and mindfulness, whereby we neither deny nor over-identify with our painful thoughts and feelings.

Self-compassion is a somewhat different concept to self-esteem, which tends to relate somewhat more to how we compare ourselves to others, or to our performance. Self-acceptance is healthy, but evaluating our worth in relation to others, or basing it on our performance, will provide a less stable source of positive feelings. Such evaluation can also encourage a distorted self-view, can lead to less consideration for others and can promote a tendency to excessive self-absorption.

Self-compassion does not mean self-pity. If we allow ourselves to feel like a victim, we are separating ourselves from common humanity and adopting an attached focus to our ill fortune and pain. This will likely accentuate it. Nor does self-compassion mean letting ourselves off the hook to the point of self-indulgence. Being more self-compassionate may mean that we are even more likely to consider ways of influencing our wellbeing, including saying no to bad habits and being more prepared to resist harmful impulses.

What has the research shown us? Developing our self-compassion helps reduce stress levels, anxiety and depression. It helps to counter perfectionism, a personality trait that can dispose us to depression. It increases our life satisfaction, flexibility in thinking and social functioning. It enhances our relationships, partly by helping us to be more kind and forgiving to those close to us. It helps us to persist in pursuing our goals.

How can we learn to be more self-compassionate? The first thing is to notice your negative thoughts, and especially those self-critical thoughts, when you are feeling low or stressed. We could refer to those thoughts in terms of your inner critic, a disruptive self-critical voice.

Secondly, step back from those self-critical thoughts and ask yourself whether you would judge a friend or neighbour as harshly. If not, why should we adopt such a different standard for ourselves as we would for others? Perhaps you can give yourself permission to be human rather than giving yourself a hard time – especially during periods of increased stress.

When we identify self-critical thoughts, we don’t need to eliminate them. That would be a harsh expectation. Trying to eradicate or control negative thoughts can make them more intense, persistent and disruptive. It can be more helpful to simply recognize the thoughts and allow them to be like white noise in the background, perhaps redirecting your attention onto whatever else you are doing at the time. You might rehearse a coping self-statement or mantra, such as “I’ll be OK”. You can appreciate your genuine efforts. For example, if you’ve completed a task, you can tell yourself, “At least I’ve done that”. This can build up a quiet sense of personal encouragement. Rather than ruminating on something you have not done, or fixating on a past mistake, you might turn your attention to what you can do now to improve the situation. Even a small gesture in a positive direction can help build some positive momentum.

During periods of greater or prolonged stress, you might think of ways that you can cut some corners to reduce demands on yourself. Perhaps you might allow yourself to not complete a task to your usual standard, or leave a less important aspect of it unfinished.

It can also help to plan time off in the near future to do something to recharge your batteries. It helps to have some brief ways of defusing stress that you can use when spare time is limited, such as taking several slow deep breaths, practising some form of relaxation or mindfulness technique, or taking a leisurely walk. It also helps to enjoy some re-energizing activities on a weekly basis that take a bit longer, such as a relaxed catch-up with a friend, going to the gym, watching a favourite TV show, having a surf or enjoying a game of tennis or golf. It’s a matter of finding what works best for you.

Draw on your supports. It helps to spend time with people who help you feel good. We partly learn how to treat ourselves by how others treat us. Degree and quality of social support is one of the most important factors in recovery from a wide range of mental health problems. It might be helpful to limit the time you spend with people who you experience as being critical or undermining. If you actively practice a faith, this can also be a powerful source of emotional sustenance.

For those suffering from mental health problems it can be enormously helpful to acknowledge your distress to an understanding and supportive friend. This calls on your courage. Those close to you will likely be accepting and very willing to be a constructive support. They will typically be relieved that something is happening to help you get back to your usual self, to the benefit of all. Give yourself credit if you have already let someone know that you have been struggling.

To practice self-compassion, think of how you would talk to a friend in the same position, and aim to talk to yourself in the same way. Give yourself permission to be human.