When you are kind to yourself, and have compassionate self-talk, you will be less anxious. Research over the past nine years has indicated that self-compassion has a protective role to play in mood and anxiety disorders.
Roemer (2008) found that people with low levels of self-compassion had more severe symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and Werner (2012) found that individuals with GAD had lower self-compassion than healthy controls.
The opposite of self-compassion is being hard on yourself, criticising yourself, bashing yourself at every turn. It sounds like this:
- I always get things wrong.
- I am the only person who is lonely on weekends.
- I am weak because I require help.
- I am such an idiot/failure/loser/a-hole.
- I know everyone is laughing at me.
- I do not deserve happiness.
- I was bad today because I ate a chocolate.
- I hate myself, I am a waste of space.
- I let everyone down when I am sick.
- I was not invited because I am not good enough.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is when you are being warm, kind and understanding to yourself during difficult circumstances. It is when you observe yourself going through a hard time and feel compassion for what you are going through. It includes those times when you do not behave perfectly and, instead of being critical, you drop judgments and feel empathy.
Some people are able to give themselves compassion more easily than others. It seems that children who grow up with critical parents struggle more to be self-compassionate. This makes sense because when you have grown up being told that you are bad/stupid/a loser/useless by your parents, you will continue to use their language about yourself when you grow up.
The good news is that self-compassion is a skill that you can learn. You start by being aware when you are being hard on yourself, stopping the negative self-talk and finding a different way of viewing yourself. We call this cognitive re-framing. If you find it difficult to re-frame, imagine what you would say to your child or a good friend if they were in the same situation and then say the same things to yourself.
You dent your new car. Your immediate thoughts include “I am such a bad driver. I am incapable of looking after my things adequately. Other people drive around for years without a hiccup and stupid old me stuffs up straight away. I am so embarrassed; I am not going to tell anyone”.
Step 1: Realise that you are bashing yourself up.
Step 2: Re-frame the incident. It will help you to ask yourself what you would tell a friend in the same situation. You probably would not be harsh. You would say something like: “Mate, everyone dents their car at one time or another. Have you checked out panel-beaters lately? They are full of cars dented by smart, capable people every day. Accidents happen and they happen to everyone. Lucky you were not hurt and have the means to get it fixed. It is an ordinary problem with an easy solution.”
Step 3: Tell yourself what you would tell a friend and notice how your mood lifts.
How does self-compassion help with anxiety?
When you criticise yourself, you are literally attacking yourself. When you are attacked your limbic system responds by setting off the fight/flight response to help you escape or fight the danger. Therefore, even if it is you who is making the attack, your limbic system will respond accordingly and you will experience the physiological responses associated with fight/flight which is called anxiety.
Conversely, when you are self-compassionate, no fight or flight reaction is activated meaning there is no anxiety.
Benefits of self-compassion
Mastering self-compassion has huge benefits including:
- increased acceptance;
- greater positive affect (mood);
- lower negative affect;
- greater resources are mobilised for regulating difficult emotions in an adaptive way;
- increased likelihood of sharing feelings with others and deriving support and compassion from others;
- greater emotional acceptance reduces any feelings of anxiety around future experiences of negative emotion;
- improved capacity to respond to stress in a flexible and self-soothing way;
- better problem solving skills;
- elevated levels of happiness.
Tips to develop self-compassion
- Be aware of your negative judgments and self-talk.
- Be ready to give them up.
- Reframe your judgments about the situation with a compassionate view.
- Ask yourself what you would tell a friend in the same situation.
- Listen to others who are self compassionate and copy them.
- Ask for help. Ask a knowledgeable friend how you could see a situation differently.
- Meditate. When you meditate, focus on yourself in a positive and kind way.
- Practice mindfulness. Observe your thoughts with a kind and gentle curiosity. Make no judgments.
Finlay-Jones, Amy Louise. The relevance of self-compassion as an intervention target in mood and anxiety disorders: A narrative review based on an emotion regulation framework. Clinical Psychologist, 21 (2017) 90-103.