I believe that having self-compassion is essential if I’m going to live a meaningful life with chronic illness. Unfortunately I’m not very good at it. I think self-compassion is so important because it’s an attitude that encourages us to take good care of ourselves, to recognise how difficult life with a chronic condition can be, to be accepting of our limitations and appreciative of our efforts.
For some of us (including myself) self-compassion isn’t something we developed as we grew up. Instead we have an extremely vocal and opinionated inner critic. This critical voice is always pointing out our failings, worrying about our weaknesses and generally making life even harder than it needs to be.
My counsellor (NHS) referred me to a Compassion Focused Therapy Group after discussing these issues in our one-to-one sessions. I have also read a couple of recommended self-help books (Overcoming Depression & A Compassionate Mind Approach to Building Self-Compassion).
Some of my thoughts and reflections might be inspired by conversations that took place in the group but I won’t include any details because the meetings are confidential. I have only listed the general topics and then discussed my thoughts in response to them. This means I can’t give credit to the people who have helped me think more deeply and get a better understanding of this topic and how to apply it to my situation.
What I’ve learned:
- Our emotions are part of three systems (threat and protection; drive and achievement; soothing and contentment) that shape how we react to the world.
- These systems evolved through natural selection to favour survival. The reactions they promote are not always in our best interest.
- Our threat system leans toward “better safe than sorry”.
- Developing compassion is not an easy or ‘soft’ option:
- Becoming aware of our critical voice can be upsetting.
- We may have fears around letting go of our self-criticism.
- Our thoughts and mental images can affect our bodies in the same way as the scenario might if it happened in real life. For example being bullying and critical to ourselves in our mind will trigger our threat and protection system. The threat and protection system will provoke the fight, flight or freeze response.
- We can also use this capability deliberately to build up our soothing and contentment system.
Practising at home:
I experimented with soothing rhythm breathing and with creating a mental image of a soothing place. We were taught these soothing exercises in the group sessions. The exercises are explained in self-help books on Compassion Focused Therapy including Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind and Mary Welford’s Compassionate Mind Approach to Self-Confidence.
- I like using a sense of smell with my soothing breathing. It helps me slow down my breathing while taking the focus away from my muscles which are often tense in my abdomen.
- I am getting a nice sense of being calm, contented and peaceful – even happy -when doing the soothing breath meditation using the recording from the group.
- My safe place imagery is a little muddled – it’s not so much a place as a number of elements that feel soothing and some of them are contradictory – like looking up at the moon and stars in a dark sky and hearing rain against the windows when your safe and cosy inside. But it seems to work better as a jumble of elements than trying to make one place. I’m finding the soothing breathing exercise more comforting and a lot easier.
Applying this learning to my daily life:
- My critical voice really isn’t helping me. Whatever my intention was or what started this habit, this way of talking to myself is making things worse and I’m really ready for a change.
- I find thinking about my emotions in terms of evolution helpful. Whether that evolutionary psychological theory is actually right or not, it’s a story that I find helpful and soothing.
- I noticed I was getting very cross and frustrated with myself and said “take a breath, just relax, it’s okay”. I am noticing my critical voice more. Also noticing how panicky I get in any disagreement or if I perceive signs of irritation in someone else.
- I am afraid of making mistakes and being rejected if I let go of my self-criticism. But, as Mary Welford pointed out, we are more likely to learn from mistakes if we go about it in a compassionate and nurturing way rather than being critical and bullying. This is something I want to keep reminding myself of when I feel like my self-criticism serves a purpose.