Self-care is often thought of as the practice of taking care of our physical health by booking a haircut, having a massage or eating a healthy meal. And that’s important, but so is practicing compassionate, kind ways of thinking about yourself to help you take care of your mental health.
Self-compassion is a type of self-care that many of us may not have thought much about. For some people it might be an instinctive strength to be accepting of our limits and failures, or acknowledge that we’re only human and that means being likely to make mistakes and sometimes experience suffering. But it might also be that we’re not really aware of how to be compassionate to ourselves and treat ourselves kindly, without judgement or criticism, just as we hope we would treat other people.
The word compassion is derived from the Latin words ‘pati’, which means to suffer, and ‘com’, which means with. So the literal meaning of the word is ‘to suffer with’ and this summarises the sense that to be compassionate we have to realise that we are not alone and that a wish to relieve suffering also comes with experiencing hard times.
Able Futures understands that making changes and learning something new is often done much more easily with some trusted advice and guidance and so our Vocational Rehabilitation Consultants often support participants with ways they can treat themselves with kindness and understanding when things are tough, rather than subjecting themselves to harsh, critical thoughts which may even make things harder to bear.
Self-kindness is an important element of self-compassion. If you struggle to be kind to yourself, ask yourself whether you would treat a good friend in the same way that you are treating yourself?
Could you be more understanding of the way you reacted when you have experienced something difficult or traumatic? Do you use kind words and warm feelings when thinking about yourself?
Psychologists like Kristin Neff believe that being actively kind to yourself is hugely important in helping us to heal and recover from the physical and emotional wounds that have been caused by a traumatic experience. And while this doesn’t mean ignoring negative emotions or feelings that are hard and uncomfortable to experience, a way to be kind to ourselves is to acknowledge that negative things can and will happen but that things will eventually change.
VRC Lisa Dobinson says some ways we can be kind to ourselves could include comforting ourselves with a physical gesture like putting our hand over our heart, as touch can be calming and can activate our body’s soothing system. Lisa says: “Watch your language and how you talk about yourself in your head. You may be so used to criticising yourself that you don’t even realise you’re doing it. So it helps to pay particular attention to the words you use to speak to yourself. Compassionate phrases like ‘I’m pleased with what I have achieved’, ‘gently does it’ or ‘life is challenging right now. No need to make it harder’ can be useful to remember to repeat to ourselves to replace negative words.”
Able Futures VRCs are able to understand how it might feel difficult to stop the critical thoughts we have about ourselves, because we are all human, so our VRCs will listen carefully and will be empathetic when participants share their thoughts with us. As fellow humans, we’re all in this together so can share ideas for how other people have found they are able to become more self-compassionate and what positive impact this has had on their mental wellbeing.
Laura, a chemist from Leeds says Able Futures helped her by giving her an unbiased, human ear to listen to her when she felt her issues were in danger of overwhelming her. “Friends and family see me as a much more positive person now, I was really hard on myself before and now I worry a lot less,” says Laura. Read more about Laura’s Able Futures story.
Having a non-judgmental, receptive state of mind is something we can practice to change what may have become our instinctive negative way of thinking when we react to difficult situations.
Mindful acceptance, or recognising the reality of our thoughts and feelings, without trying to hide from the hard feelings or cover them over by faking it till you make it with more upbeat thoughts is something that can help us remember that we are all human and therefore imperfect. It’s about accepting that I am a diamond that needs a bit of polishing!
Next time you make a mistake, being mindful of your thoughts and feelings in response to that and then considering what you have learnt from that mistake and whether you’ve been overly harsh on yourself for having flaws, just like everyone else, can be a helpful way for you to accept and move forward without dwelling on the problem so it continues to overwhelm you.
Watch our webinar on hard-wiring positivity if you’d like to understand more about why our brains have a negativity bias but can be re-wired and trained to become more positivity focused.
Self-compassion is different to self-esteem, it is not self-pity and it isn’t self-indulgent.
Self-esteem is the ability to believe positively in oneself and to feel valued by others whereas self-compassion involves caring for oneself rather than believing in oneself. Many psychologists think that self-compassion is more important for wellbeing than self-esteem so it should not be considered self-indulgent or self-pitying.
Being self-compassionate is seeing things exactly as they are – no more and no less. It means acknowledging that you are suffering, while acknowledging that others have similar problems or are suffering even more. It’s putting your problems into perspective.
One of the key principles of self-compassion is to learn the impact of criticism on your self-esteem and in fact there is nothing motivational about self-criticism. It can make you fear failure and lose faith in yourself, so even if you do achieve great things, you can still feel miserable if the language you use to talk to yourself is critical.
If you’d like support in learning more about the impact of self-compassion on your mental health, Able Futures can offer nine months’ advice and guidance that is tailored. Whether you apply on 24th July, which is International Self Care Day, or any other day of the year, this is a good time to consider how the benefits of self-care are something you can feel 24/7, 365 days of the year.