Self compassion was something I learnt whilst going through my cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). To have compassion for someone is to be sympathetic towards them, for however they are feeling or whatever they have been through. Now, those that know me will know that I hate, hate receiving sympathy. I always have done. I don’t not want nor need it, so one of my challenges during CBT was to have compassion for myself which was a difficult task in a few different ways.
My CBT was focused around the traumas I have been through and processing them properly so they no longer had a negative impact on my mental, emotional and physical well-being. My therapy also focused on how I saw myself and at the time, I was extremely hard on myself (looking back it can be quite sad to realise how much I used to beat myself up). I saw more of my failures (even though most of them weren’t failures at all) and I always put myself down about my intellect, life choices and body image. Learning self-compassion helped improve my life and more importantly, my mental health.
Being compassionate towards myself did not come naturally and it was far from easy. To be compassionate, you have to notice that someone is suffering. So to be self-compassionate, you have to notice that you yourself are suffering which involved a lot of acceptance. I needed to accept that I was allowed to suffer and allowed to feel hurt and pain from the traumas but I didn’t deserve to feel that way. I needed to accept that I couldn’t have done anything differently and I couldn’t change anything about it now so all of this guilt and blame was unnecessarily burdening me and my life. Whenever the feelings of guilt or blame overcame me I would repeat to myself ‘You don’t deserve the pain and you don’t deserve all of this suffering. You are just suffering from a traumatic experience and that is completely normal. It is human. It is okay.’ I repeated that a lot (I mean a lot).
I had heaps of blame, guilt and negative thoughts about myself. At the time, I still felt the pain and suffering but I felt as though I deserved it because if I had done things differently, then maybe it would have altered what had happened (obviously this is something that can never be changed, but it’s those what ifs?). This is a common thought pattern for those who have witnessed or experienced trauma and those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this thought pattern is on repeat daily, and so there can be a hell of a lot of blame and guilt felt as well as a need to feel as though you should be punished. This is self-criticism and this actually came naturally to me (as it does with many other people). It’s a lot easier to beat ourselves up than to praise or even give ourselves a pat on the back.
Self-criticism can sound anything like “I am an idiot/fool”…”I am useless/unwanted”…”You may as well give up now” or “You should’ve known better”. Some people may self-criticise in either first person (I am) or second person (You are) and when you hear it in your head, or even say it out loud it is normally said in a cold, harsh and abusive tone of voice. Self-criticism is the opposite of self-compassion.
There are 4 key ways to being more compassionate towards yourself:
- This is being attentive or aware of the fact that there is some sort of suffering happening whether it is physical, emotional and/or mental.
- Recognising that what you are feeling is normal. It is human. Experiencing pain/suffering is not our fault, we don’t deserve any blame and we are not alone. Everybody goes through pain/suffering.
- This is the hard one. Responding to our pain with kindness instead of ignoring or fighting back at our pain. Try responding with understanding, care and warmth (easier said than done…I know).
- Focusing our energy on alleviating the pain instead of ignoring it. This will be different for everybody. The pain can be alleviated via more warm care, providing a helpful perspective (depending on what the situation is) or addressing the problem with a positive/understanding attitude.
The trauma surrounding my dads death was the hardest trauma I worked through and the one that I carried the most negativity with. I had a heavy load of blame and guilt about his death and so many what if’s (I have explained my dads death in another post which you can read here) My counsellor challenged me with a self-compassionate task to help me see that I was being unnecessarily critical about myself and how I acted at the time. She drew me a table that had a top row labelled ‘Belief’ and then two columns below. The first column said ‘Evidence For’ and the second said ‘Evidence Against’.
The belief would be a criticism I had about myself on the day my dad died. The evidence for would be evidence that backs up that criticism and the evidence against would be evidence that basically proves the criticism is bullshit.
So for example,
One of my beliefs was that if I had helped my mum more then maybe my dad would’ve survived.
Now, when you actually break it down into this table you realise how much bullshit the criticisms are. This was the biggest belief I had about my dads death and I felt heavy guilt from it every single day but when I had to break it down, I couldn’t think of any evidence that backed it up.
When it came to writing down the evidence against it, I still couldn’t think of anything to write as this was a belief that I strongly believed to be true, despite there being no evidence for it. It was something I had believed in for over 10 years so I couldn’t just suddenly understand it was bullshit. My counsellor helped me out and suggested that I was just 12 years old, I wasn’t that strong so could I have actually physically done something? Then it all started to come to me. I realised that I did what I could’ve. I stayed on the phone to the doctor, I ran to the neighbours for help, I flagged down the ambulance I did everything that I could’ve done at that age and in that situation. My dad died before he even arrived at the hospital, there was nothing that I could’ve done to change that.
Once it was all written out, my counsellor suggested that I write down ‘I did everything I could’ and to say it out loud. This, this crushed me. I was hysterical. It was the realisation of the trauma that hit me and the realisation of how fucking cruel I had been to myself for all those years. But this was one of the major turning points for me.
Once I had recovered from this counselling session (it usually took a few days or a week or so for me to recover after each session) I became a lot kinder, not just to myself but to others. I became chattier with my mum and friends, my smile became more genuine, I felt lighter and more at peace. The guilt and blame had gone. After a few weeks I didn’t feel as though I was suffering anymore. I had processed and accepted what had happened which allowed me to finally move on with my life.
The best thing about doing a task like this is that it can be done with any critical belief you believe to be true about yourself or what you may have done. Once you write it out and actually sit there, argue a bit with yourself, the realisation begins to kick in and it all becomes a bit clearer. Starting off with this task was hard for me to do without my counsellor there to point me in the right direction, so if you are self-critical, I would recommend trying this task and seeing if you can have someone who you trust with you (please make sure you are doing this task with the right person. If you feel like you don’t have anyone, drop me an email and I will help you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you for reading,
Sending my love,