The Life-Changing Art of Compassion

Learning to be kind to yourself is more than a trendy slogan—it’s the most effective way to transform your mental health, says Just a Thought clinical lead Anna Elders.

We live in a culture that is much more comfortable with putting ourselves down, than raising ourselves up.

We’ve all heard the jokes about ‘getting a big head’ if we dare say something positive about ourselves. We may even have been told to ‘harden up’ in times of stress. 

So, when it comes to our self-talk, many of us have learnt to listen to our harsh, critical voice, rather than developing our comforting voice. 

‘In 20 years of practice, what I’ve found humans struggle with the most is learning to be kinder to ourselves. Helping people increase their ability to be self-compassionate has been the most successful way to help people transform their mental health,’ says Just a Thought Clinical Lead Anna Elders.

What is our critical voice?

Experts have found we have around 6200 thoughts a day, so our internal talk has a huge impact on the way we view ourselves.

‘Most of us would never say to someone else the kind of critical things we say to ourselves. Yet we give ourselves permission to cast doubt, put ourselves down and demean ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This causes us mental distress, and if it occurs on a regular basis, can create chronic stress, physical illness—and even hormonal problems for women,’ says Anna. 

If we have experienced shame and punishment as a child, we learn to respond to ourselves in this way—we may blame ourselves before anyone else can blame us. Or we may criticize ourselves as a form of self-punishment when we make mistakes.

The most effective change I’ve made in my parenting has been learning to find compassion for myself.  

Learning to listen to our comforting voice is not going to turn us into ‘snowflakes’ (another cultural catchphrase)—it actually helps build resilience and makes us stronger. If we find ourselves in a stressful situation, being able to calm ourselves will help bring down our stress levels. This allows us to think more clearly and find solutions. But if we pile on blame and criticism, it will only increase the stress of the situation. 

Becoming a friend to yourself

‘Using self-compassion means our stress system can run at a lower level, we’re more relaxed and able to better deal with everyday stressors,’ adds Anna—sometimes with surprising benefits for our day-to-day lives. For example, if we get cut off in traffic, a self-critical person is likely to ramp up their stress by placing blame, personalising it as an act of aggression and getting angry. However, a self-compassionate person will automatically calm themselves and get on with their day without the stress of road rage.

Even when we’re the ones who have made mistakes or acted badly, self-compassion will help us make the changes we need. In her own life, Anna says learning to be kinder to herself has transformed her own relationships: ‘The most effective change I’ve made in my parenting has been learning to find compassion for myself. If I’ve had a hard morning and yelled at the kids, if I am able to comfort myself and validate my stress, then my distress comes down faster. That means I’m able to apologise to the kids and change my behaviour. It also means I don’t wake up the next morning and start the vicious cycle again.’

Self-compassion is about learning how to talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend. ‘Having supportive relationship with ourselves is no different from having a healthy relationship with a child, partner or friend. It’s about listening to yourself, paying attention to how you feel, and speaking and acting towards yourself, like you would someone we care about,’ sums up Anna.

‘It’s actually so simple: when we are distressed, we can make the choice to criticize ourselves and feel worse, or be kind to ourselves and improve both ourselves and our relationships!’

THIS WEEK’S CHALLENGE: Practice self-compassion

Learning to be your own friend is both a positive mindset, and a set of easy-to-learn skills. Next time you find yourself in a stressful or distressing situation, try practising these steps:

  1. Be willing to feel the distress—learn to notice when you’re feeling stressed or distressed.
  2. Show up for yourself with kindness—even if you know you’re over-reacting, ask yourself, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ If you validate your feelings, you can begin to understand where they come from.
  3. Treat yourself like a friend—what would you say to a friend who is feeling this way? Say that to yourself. 
  4. Do something to comfort yourself—this could be as simple as doing some deep breathing to ease your stress, or making a cup of tea and taking a break.
  5. Reflect—what did you notice about your distress? Did it ease more quickly? The more you practice self-compassion, the more natural it will feel. Over time, it will become your ‘hard-wired’ response in times of stress. 

BE IN TO WIN

This week, be brave and tell us something about yourself that you’re proud of, and be in to win our Feelgood Care Package worth over $150!

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