The task of writing down your evidence for and against your critical beliefs is a good starting point for self-compassion but it isn’t the easiest task to complete as you have to face your critics (meaning you) head on which can be daunting and needless to say, pretty fucking difficult. However, using imagery is a great way to try self-compassion without being too direct towards yourself.
Imagery is another technique I learnt whilst going through my CBT (CBT ARTICLE HERE). We think in images a lot of the time, more often then we probably realise so, using imagery is actually an easy and straight forward task to do. The images we create in our head can be used to stimulate compassionate thoughts/feelings which results in us feeling better about ourselves or a situation. You’ve just got to find the compassionate image that works for you.
Images can be very powerful at triggering emotions but our brains can struggle to distinguish images from reality therefore, our brains may often respond to an image as though it is real. For example, you see slow mo video of your favourite dessert getting drizzled in sauce which can stimulate feelings of happiness or make you salivate/feel hungry. If you see an image of a beach it could remind you of your childhood, a holiday, you might be able to feel the sand between your toes or smell the salty air etc.
After my dads death my PTSD got really bad and I struggled to look at pictures of him because instead of the pictures reminding me of our happy memories and remembering how I felt then, they reminded me of the day he died and all the thoughts and emotions I felt on that day. My mum and I made a photo album containing all the pictures we have of dad and along with his school report book (where teachers often referred to him as the ‘class clown’). I’ve always kept the photo album in my bedroom but for the following 10 years after his death I only glanced through it a handful of times as it became frustrating for me to only be able to remember his death.
During one of my CBT sessions my counsellor came up with an imagery task for me to complete. Firstly, I had to create a happy place (I have a guide to creating your happy place, which you can read HERE CREATING YOUR HAPPY PLACE). My happy place is somewhere I go to when I’m meditating, stressed, in bed, sat outside, day dreaming, I can go to my happy place wherever and whenever and that’s the best thing about it. It is a place created by you and specifically for you. You have full control over where your happy place is, who is there, what you can smell/see/hear and touch.
Usually after I had done some processing work on my traumas, my counsellor would finish the session by asking be to close my eyes and go to my happy place. She’d ask me what I can see or hear and when I was ready I’d open my eyes again and bring myself back to the present moment.
In order to build self-compassion you firstly have to stimulate compassionate feelings which you can then direct towards yourself when needed. We know that images are very powerful triggers for emotions so we can use this to our advantage!
A good way to start stimulating compassionate feelings is to think about someone you care for. Someone that warms your heart and it can be a family member, friend or a pet and then on a piece of paper, write down their name at the top. Now, get comfortable, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine that person needs help (but try not to get caught up into the details of why they need your help). Instead, focus of providing them with the compassion they need. Allow yourself to deeply care and feel your desire to help them and provide them with happiness.
Spend a few minutes focusing on this image in your head and when you’re ready begin to focus on the emotions you feel. What physical sensations can you pick up on? What is your facial expression? What does your body posture say? What advice are you providing them with? What tone of voice are you using?
Go repeat those questions and zone in on the compassionate feelings the image makes. Whenever you’re ready, you can open your eyes and write down everything you felt. This is an imagery exercise that will either work for you straight away or you might need to practise a few times. You can mix it up by imaging that you see yourself needing help (this may help with directing compassion towards yourself but it might be a harder task) or try imaging a place instead. Remember you have full control of this.
During my one of my sessions my counsellor asked me to think of a picture that is framed in our house. The first picture I thought of was a picture I have framed on my bedroom wall which is of me riding a horse called Silver on a beach in South Wales. I have an auntie who lives in South Wales and as a kid, whenever we used to visit I would always go horse riding on the beach and sometimes my dad rode as well (which always provided the laughs). I wasn’t entirely sure why this image was the first one that popped into my head but it did, so I just went with it. I closed my eyes and took myself to that day. I remembered all the details from the smells, to everything I could hear, my body language, my thoughts and for the first time in a long time I was able to remember my dad on very day.
My counsellor then set me another task to do at home, which was to get the photo album out and try looking at just the front page of the book. So, that’s what I did and I actually managed to look through the entire album and not get flashbacks of his death. I was able to remember most of the stories behind the pictures as well as feel what I felt during those days. I attended my next session and I was amazed at how easy looking at pictures had become. It was a real turning point for me and about a month later I had completed my therapy.
Imagery is all about trial and error, which is absolutely fine as you have to find what works for you and the benefits will honestly amaze you! It’s a way of not only stimulating your senses, but it’s something that is both creative and fun and no one will have the exact same image as you. You could even have more than one image that provides you with compassion if you wanted. It’s all about you and you have full control.
Try it and see how you go!
Sending my love to you all,