Practising… Self-Compassion 4

Week 4: Compassion vs. Criticism

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.

The focus this week:

  • What might an incredibly compassionate teacher and an incredibly critical teacher might look like.
  • What kind of teaching would I like a child to experience?  Which teaching style will be most effective?  What kind of teacher have I created for myself?
  • Criticism might come from a threat based mindset (either a real life critic or the one in my head).
  • Practical exercise: recalling a time when we felt compassionate
  • Practical exercise: soothing rhythm breathing with compassionate colour

My thoughts and experience:

Compassionate or critical teacher?

I can’t explain why I am sending myself to the critical teacher.  I can see that it doesn’t make any sense.  I agree it’s not a good way to get people to learn and improve.  I wouldn’t want a child to experience that and I believe the criticism I received when I was little was damaging.  I just don’t seem able to stop myself.

I was pleased to learn that we don’t need to embody all the attributes of the perfect compassionate teacher.  It’s enough just to work on developing those aspects which will be helpful to me.  This is good news because I felt a little disheartened looking at the list of attributes a compassionate teacher might have and realising how far away from that I was when it comes to how I treat myself, and talk to myself.  Moving in the right direction will be difficult but it seems possible.

Criticism and a threat based mindset.

Criticism may be provoked by another person’s own threat response.  They might be responding to fears, feelings of inadequacy, shame or anxiety by attacking someone else.  Knowing his doesn’t make it okay, but it would mean that criticism isn’t always justified and that it might not really be about me at all.

When it comes to my self-criticism this idea makes perfect sense.  I have fears related to fears of making mistakes, being exposed and rejected.  Self-criticism can be understood as a way of avoiding failure, mistakes and rejection or criticism with others by ‘getting in there first’, pointing out potential mistakes and failures.  And by holding myself to high standards, and then being upset or feeling like  failure when I don’t meet them.

However, as mentioned above, this isn’t an effective way to make changes and keep myself safe.  Criticism stimulates my threat and protection system, even when that criticism is coming from myself.  I tend to panic when I’m criticised (or anticipate criticism or anger), I get anxious and freeze.  I can’t think clearly and I’m more likely to make mistakes.  A second reason why this is unhelpful is that it is a miserable way to live.  I really need validation and encouragement from other people – it makes a huge difference to my mood.  It would be wonderful if I could do that for myself.

Practical exercise: Compassionate colour

This wasn’t as effective for me as using a scent or an object.  No particular colour came to mind immediately and nothing seemed right.  I’ll use  my breathing with either the stone or the lavender scent as an anchor and maybe come back to experimenting with the colour in the future.

I do like the way there both the self-help books and the course give a number of options so you can experiment to find something that works for you.

Practical exercise: Memories of compassion

I found this exercise challenging.  We were asked to remember a time when we gave or received compassion and how it felt.  I found I tended to end up remembering sad events and difficulties.  I could remember what compassion felt like but I was a little overwhelmed with sad memories.

It was suggested that the difficulties we have in the exercise might give clues as to what our compassionate selves will need to have in order to support us.  For example, keeping us safe,  teaching us to learn from mistakes, be okay about it, or make fewer.

For these reasons I’m glad I’m engaging in compassion focused therapy under the guidance of professional counsellors.  It is not easy and it raises many difficult topics and questions.

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