January 25, 2012

Self-Compassion as a Coping Strategy During Stressful Life Events

Self-Compassion, as a psychological strategy for coping with stressful life events, appeared in the psychological literature only recently with Dr. Kristin Neff’s (an educational psychologist in the University of Texas, the world’s foremost expert on self compassion, and the author of, “Self-Compassion: The Key to Human Happiness” ) publications in 2003.
Having a small son with a serious mental illness, she had to cope with such tragedy, passed through feelings of grief, despair and anger to developing a new psychological approach to helping people to deal with the most painful and stressful experiences in their lives.

This article will inform you of  new strategies that focus on developing a new self-to-self relationship based on warmth and compassion. These strategies will always be under your control and can be used at any time, including the time when you lose, fail and are disappointed as well as when you win or excel.
 “You are going to have painful experiences – absolutely every one of us is – are you going to turn them into something healing or are you going to let them destroy your life?” – Dr. Kristin Neff 

1: Developing Self-Compassion: Changing self-criticism to compassionate self correction

Consider your answers to these questions:
● Are you compassionate to yourself when you lose, fail , or face disappointment as well as when you win or excel?
● Are you kind and forgiving to yourself when you feel regret and sadness?
● Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family? 
How do you feel if people criticise or bullying you? How does it feel? The unpleasantness will make you feel anxious and upset because those threat emotion systems in your brain have been triggered. This will affect your stress systems and your stress hormone, cortisol, will increase. If the criticism is harsh and constant it may make you feel distressed and depressed. Our own thoughts and images can do the same.
Learning to spot self-criticism and learning what to do about it will be a key issue in developing self-compassion.
Kindness involves understanding one’s difficulties and being kind and warm in the face of failure or setbacks rather than harshly judgmental and self-critical.
Imagine two teachers teaching a young child. One focuses on their deficits and picks on them when they make mistakes. The other teacher focuses on what the child does well and encourages the child to improve and learn from their mistakes and offers clear guidance. Which one will help the child’s confidence? Which one do you really prefer?

Compassionate self-correction is about being open to all our weaknesses and limitations (remember, we did not design our brains) but with a genuine wish to improve. Compassionate self-correction is based on being open-hearted and honest about our mistakes with a genuine wish to improve and learn from them.
We need to recognize that our genuine wish is to improve.

Self-criticism, on the other hand, comes from a “fear – and –anger based place”. It is concerned with punishment and is usually backwards-looking, related to things we have done in the past. The problem is that you cannot change a single moment of the past, you can only change the future.
There are many reasons for becoming self-critical. 

One common reason is that others have been critical of us in the past and we simply take their views as accurate. We do not stop to think whether they really wanted to help us and really cared us – in fact they may just have been rather stressed people who were critical of everyone. We just go along with their criticisms of us and never stop to think if they are still reasonable and accurate.

Lots of people tend to beat themselves up and get into the habit of using self-loathing as a way to self – motivate. ” If I didn’t kick myself, I’d never do anything.” This view goes back to childhood where parents and teachers over-focused on the child’s errors and not on their positives. As a result, the child becomes good at self-criticism and punishment but poor at seeing their good points, self-rewarding and valuing.

But when you stop and think about it when has name calling or accusing someone of being a “big loser” ever motivated anyone?
It may also be that we are trying very hard to reach a certain standard or achieve something or present ourselves in a certain way. When it does not work out as we would like this can frighten us because we might think we have let ourselves down or others will be rejecting of us.
“Compassion and gentleness are your right when you lose, fail and are disappointed as well you win or excel.”, Dr Kristin Neff
Research reveals that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more caring behaviour in relationships and less reactive anger. “
 With self-esteem it’s about how you measure up against others and is, by definition, focused on social comparison, “says Neff. “ You have to be cuter, smarter, faster and richer or you’ve not good enough. So many surveys have shown that Americans rate themselves as ‘above average’ or ‘superior’ on almost every task you query them about, whether it’s level of driving skill or reading speed. Feeling you’re much better than average creates a distinct sense of separation, a sense of distance, and for many it leads to narcissism. Self-esteem so often hinges on winning and is contingent on the attention and approval of others.”

2: Developing Self – Compassion: Recognizing that any experiences, no matter how painful are part of the common human experience

Consider your answers to these questions:
● Isn’t it true that I am not the only one going through such difficult times and that all people experience things like this, or worse, at some point in their lives?
● Can I feel my feelings of pain without getting lost in the drama or storyline of my situation?
When people fail, experience loss or rejection, are humiliated, or confront other negative events, they often feel that their experience is personal and unique when, in reality, everyone experiences problems and suffering.
“When you have self-compassion and something awful happens to you,” says Neff, “you’re able to step back and say, ”Yes, it’s very difficult, what I’m going through right now, and I’m going to acknowledge and feel this grief, but there are many other people who are experiencing much greater suffering. Maybe this isn’t worth getting quite so distressed about.”
Realizing that one is not alone in the experience and that imperfection is part of the shared human experience reduces people’s feelings of isolation and promotes adaptive coping.

It is how Dr Neff is talking about her personal life journey:
“ ...I started to think about how all families have issues and difficulties related to their children at some point in life, even if their children are “normal” and healthy.  I began to see us as just another family and my son’s illness was just one of the unique features of the fabric of our family, not a punishment or defeating disaster. I started feeling a connection with other families rather than isolation.

3: Self-Compassion: Mindful Acceptance - Maintaining balance and perspective through mindfulness

Dr Neff identified mindfulness as a core component of self-compassion and suggested people who are able to maintain perspective in the face of stress and approach the situation with mindfulness cope more successfully.

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to your life, on purpose, in the present moment in a non attached way. By observing, non judging or analysing thoughts and feelings, allowing them to ‘come’ and ‘go’ as they come and go. Mindfulness is an intentional way of ‘being’ in life. The present moment is emphasised – the past is in the past and the only influence we can have over the future is to live fully and consciously in the ‘now’.

We highly recommend reading:
Mindfulness as a Practice
Being mindful allows us to be aware of important feelings and other problems that interfere with the daily management of life’s difficulties – this then allows us to make conscious effective decisions about life challenges. The opposite of mindfulness is ‘mindlessness’ where our thoughts and actions can limit our conscious decisions.

Mindfulness takes patience and practice and takes time to develop, it is more a way of being than something you sit and do. Over time you will develop new habits and develop new skills to break free from limiting or unhelpful habits. 
Consider your answers to these questions:
Take a few minutes before you go to sleep and review your day.  Ask yourself :
● Where was I hard on myself?
● What events (internal or external) triggered that harshness within me?

● What feelings did I experience – anger, fear, disgust, shame, frustration, guilt?

● What were the thoughts that triggered these emotions?

And most important – what beliefs do I hold that fuel these thoughts and feelings?  Beliefs are the cement that holds it all together.

● Finally, stop and imagine what it would feel like to be kinder on yourself in those moments when you believe you “fall short”. What happens to your energy level when you release your judgment?

●Spend five minutes remembering kindnesses that occurred in the day that went well.
Self-compassion is a skill. If you find that developing self-compassion can help you to deal with your life challenging events, we recommend you to consider taking a compassionate mind training (CMT). Results showed that CMT resulted in a significant decrease in depression, anxiety, shame, and self-attacking tendencies. Alternatively, if you would like to learn more about mindfulness or need some professional guidance please contact our counselling unit for an appointment 02 9542 4029.

● Self – Compassion with Dr Kristin Neff, Jim Porter
● Self – Compassion, Stress, and Coping, Ashley Batts Allen and Mark R. Leary
● Training Our Minds in , with and for Compassion by Paul Gilbert PhD FBPsS
● Why Do We Continue to Think Self-Compassion is Self-Indulgent? http://intentionalworkplace.com/2011/03/14/why-do-we-continue-to-think-self-compassion-is-self-indulgent/
● What is Self-Love? It’s You Being Compassionate to You, Dr Annette

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