The Power of Self-Compassion

images-1Self- compassion is always an interesting and well deliberated topic in my therapy room- and it comes up ,with most clients, at least once across the sessions that I see them for. Central to the Buddhist tradition of non-duality, its often embodied in the form of a lotus flower ; a reminder of the path towards peace and unity that lies within us all. This path, of course has proven itself over and over again to be elusive even for the best of us – yet I can promise with a bit of self-work and the right tools, that you too can find a place within yourself where things just sit right – where stress falls away easily and you find yourself bouncing back from challenges with grace – where real vitality, happiness and a sense of pride runs through all the tasks and roles you take on in your life.

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

The Science Behind Self-Criticism

Enough of the theory though – because yes , while this all sounds very good I’m sure the skeptic in you is also doubting it’s achievability – or perhaps that we can actually learn to incorporate this notion of wellbeing and peace into our modern lives rather than in meditation atop a misty mountain somewhere. So let me start this by saying that firstly it is very possible to achieve both greater self compassion and also the things that I’ve outlined in the earlier part of this article and secondly, that I know this because I’ve witnessed it, many times over, in the therapy room amongst clients that have come in to achieve these very things ( or admittedly sometimes come with a different objective but nonetheless got these things as part of the package).
One reason for this is because the very thing that lies in the way of greater self-compassion – our own internal ‘Self-Critic’- is often the source of a lot of both conscious and unconscious stress in our lives. The Self-critic divides us from feeling at home in our own selves , telling us that we’re not quite right where we are, that we always need to be doing more, that we’ll never be quite good enough in the roles we have taken on . It’s not difficult to imagine how this creates stress within us.
Yet here – and this is the key to good therapy in this department I’m certain – it is important to keep in mind that this Self-critic is actually telling us these things from a place of care and consideration for us , a fear of us failing and ultimately the belief that it is through this gift of criticism that we will be motivated to better and greater things. To berate and ostracise the Critic is therefore an act of greater self-division and often only serves to create more internal stress – i.e. : we criticise ourselves and then we criticise the Critic for speaking in the first place. This serves to create stress not only on an emotional level, but also on a biological one.

In “Compassion for the Self-Critic” (2013), Dr. Kristin Neff discusses the roots of self-criticism in our evolution and how it served to protect us , through self-monitoring, from being thrown out of our social groups – which could have resulted in both isolation and deprivation and ultimately led to death. Being accepted and included in the group was therefore tantamount to our survival. Neff discusses how self-criticism therefore served to ensure our group membership (and ultimately survival) , through giving us a shot of stress hormones, or cortisol every time we might be acting out of accordance with the group. Self-criticism actually has the same impact on the brain and body as any other perceived threat – throwing us into fight or flight and motivating us to do something to save ourselves in that moment.

Fast forward to modern society however and it becomes clear how this ancestral coping mechanism may not be as useful in today’s world. For one thing , we are no longer as dependant on social group acceptance or identity for our survival. The ‘group’ itself and it’s code of rules , seems to also have expanded due to the social media and ways in which society communicates it’ social norms. So what we have here, could be understood in basic terms as – more rules and more pressure to act in accordance, and yet the paradox that our survival today really is not contingent on this adherence.
I would go so far to say, therefore, that our self-critics have become more troublesome and yet less useful, as they are actually no longer serving the purpose they were constructed for.

The Way to Self-Compassion

In the therapy room, I work with clients to honour the role ( and bring in compassion therefore) that our self-critics are playing – to acknowledge that they are trying to protect us, even if the way they are going about it may in fact no longer be useful. Instead of adding to the internal tension between the critic and the Self , clients often report an internal softening and release. This process is based on Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy and has proven to result in positive changes that endure across time (Ecker et al, 2012) . Their ‘Critics’ often seem to relax when they feel listened to and this begins the process towards cultivating greater unity and love for themselves. The next time a challenging task comes up at work, or they receive ‘constructive feedback’ from the boss, clients often report being able to be softer with themselves, more encouraging rather than critical and ultimately feeling less stressed. They also feel greater compassion for themselves and their partners in conflict situations, and are able to focus more on their strengths as parents/friends/siblings rather than the weaknesses their internal critic might have pinpointed in the past. Besides stress reduction ( now that those negative tapes and self-talk have stopped playing on a loop in their minds) , clients will , therefore, often report greater overall happiness, focus and a sense of achievement in both their personal and professional roles.

There is a lot of truth in the ancient Buddhist teachings which advocate unity and harmony with the self as a path towards peace. Scientific research today has begun to shed light on the biological explanations for this while giving us structured therapeutic tools to begin to learn how to soothe our conflicted parts and embrace a deeper space of love within us.

References, Compassion for the Self-Critic, Kristin Neff for Huffington Post, 2013.

Unlocking the Emotional Brain, Bruce Ecker, Rbin Ticic & Laurel Hulley, 2012. Routledge, UK.



One Comment

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  1. Mollie Lord says:

    I love this and I think we so often forget to be compassionate towards ourselves, and this is a terrible mistake and it causes no end of guilt which blocks the healing of our selves.We can not help but be influenced by what has occurred in our past the damage that has been done to us can only be healed through self love and compassion.
    The idea of self love and acceptance is difficult but it is essential if we are to bring healing both to ourselves and to others.

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