In a world that seems to value strength and stoicism, we often forget the power of being kind to ourselves. As Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion, beautifully expresses, “Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.”

Many of us have a tendency to criticise ourselves or ruminate on our mistakes and failings, which can create feelings of unworthiness and shame. This experience may lead us to feeling dysregulated or emotional as we navigate the challenges of everyday life.

Resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficult experiences and setbacks. It’s not about avoiding stress or tough times, but rather about facing them with grace and fortitude. And self-compassion is a vital tool in this resilience-building process.

When we practice self-compassion, we acknowledge our own suffering without judgment or self-criticism. Instead of beating ourselves up over mistakes or perceived failures, we respond with understanding and kindness. This nurturing attitude towards ourselves helps cultivate a mindset that is conducive to resilience.

As Brene Brown, a research professor and bestselling author, aptly puts it, “Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.”

In his book, the Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert identifies three different aspects of our emotional regulation system

    1. Threat – Our brains are hard-wired to monitor our environment to identify and react in times of threat. These may result is us responding with Fight, Flight or Freeze. These are protective responses. Our threat response may also include self criticism and emotional reactivity (anger, disgust, anxiety). It is important to recognise these are our in-built self-protection responses.
    2. Drive – Our brains are also hard-wired for reward. This is the part of our behaviour is focused on achievement, wins, consumption, all geared to gaining excitement and pleasure. It can also go into overdrive meaning “you never feel satisfied” or in times of depression feel blocked leading to disappointment and frustration.
    3. Soothe – This is the third aspect that we human need and desire. The ability to feel contentment with life as it is. Meditation, kindness and affection all create this sense of soothing. This is where Self Compassion comes into play.

Kristen Neff outlines three main components of Self Compassion, which she has derived from people’s experience of feeling compassion towards others.

  1. Notice that you are suffering. This means that rather than try and sweep your feelings away or try to squash them, simply acknowledge that you are feeling pain.
  2. Understand the pain (feel empathy) This may include kind and empathic words to yourself and it may be enhanced by placing a hand on your arm or giving yourself a hug.
  3. Recognise the shared human experience. This means we recognise that we all feel pain, shame, hurt, humiliation or difficulty at different times in our lives.

 

How Does Self-Compassion Foster Resilience?

  1. Emotional Regulation. Self-compassion helps us regulate our emotions effectively. When we are triggered by challenging situations or find ourselves unable to switch off our negative and ruminating thoughts, practicing kindness and understanding towards ourselves, helps us process our emotions in a healthier way. Emotional regulation helps us gain perspective and better manage our reactiveness.
  2. Learning to Self Soothe As young children we relied on our parents and care-givers to offer us comfort in times of distress. As we become adults, we need to learn healthy and effective ways to self soothe, as we may not be able to rely on others for this care when we need it. Some of us have learned to self soothe through comfort eating or unhelpful behaviours, self compassion tools and techniques can help us in a healthy and loving way.
  3. Reduced Stress. Self-compassion has been shown to reduce stress levels. By offering ourselves comfort and reassurance, we can mitigate the harmful effects of stress on our overall well-being. Finding ways to comfort ourselves and soothe ourselves through touch, kind words and gentle reassurance, can significantly reduce stress. This is especially helpful if you have a strong inner critic or if you had a critical or uncaring parent.
  4. Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills. When we approach ourselves with a compassionate mindset, we’re more likely to view problems and failures as opportunities for growth and learning rather than insurmountable obstacles. When we are starting out and learning new skills, we will stumble and struggle as we learn. Our capacity to forgive ourselves and learn enables us to develop greater resilience.

 

Loving Kindness Meditation

A powerful tool in the work of self-compassion is the Loving Kindness Meditation. The way that I have practiced this for self-compassion is to firstly bring to mind, someone, or something (like a pet) that I love unconditionally. Bring the person or pet into your mind so that you can see them clearly and strongly which is key to feeling the strong emotion that you feel for them. When you can see them, say these words or something similar.
“May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy in body and mind. May you live in peace. May you be free from fear. May your heart be filled with love and kindness.”

Then you replace the image of this person with a picture of yourself, as if you are looking in a mirror. Bring yourself into clear vision, and then share the unconditional love towards yourself. Feel the heart connection with yourself. Then say the words, or something similar.
“May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy in body and mind. May I live in peace. May I be free from fear. May my heart be filled with love and kindness.”

I encourage my clients to place their hand on their heart or give them selves a hug as they say or hear these words. It can be immensely powerful. It’s a process that can be done, anytime, you need it.

Art Therapy Activity: Compassionate Self-Portrait

One art therapy activity that helps to  foster self-compassion is the “Compassionate Self-Portrait”

    1. Gather Your Materials: Choose a sheet of paper preferably A3. Select some art making resources such as oil pastels, crayons, paints, brushes, collage, whatever you prefer.
    2. Set your Intention: Create a calming environment with soft lighting, soothing music, and a comfortable space to work. Settle into the space and take some deep breaths so that you feel more relaxed and centred. Invite your Wise Self to connect with you as you set the intention to create an image of your compassionate self.
    3. Bring to mind a person who you would call a compassionate friend. What is about your compassionate friend that you admire and appreciate. Write some words that describe their facial expression, gestures, behaviour, tone, approach. Hold that sense of their being as your move into the next stage.
    4. Begin Drawing or Painting or Creating a Self Portrait: Using that as a starting point, start to envisage your own compassionate self. What words, tone, gestures and behaviours do want to infuse into your compassionate self portrait? Bear in mind, you are not trying to create an exact likeness of yourself; it may be abstract, gestural or even indicative. Simply allow your warm and caring emotions to flow onto the canvas.
    5. Infuse Compassion: Imagine what your compassionate friend would say to you in challenging times. Incorporate those comforting and encouraging words into your drawing / painting.
    6. Reflect and Connect: After completing your self-portrait, spend some time reflecting on the experience. Connect with the emotions you’ve expressed and the kindness you’ve shown to yourself through your art. Journal about your experience and connection with your compassionate self.

By engaging in this activity, you can not only nurture your creativity but also cultivate self-compassion, reinforcing your ability to face life’s challenges with greater strength and grace.

In conclusion, self-compassion, as advocated by Kristin Neff, Paul Gilbert and Brene Brown, is a powerful tool that enables us to build resilience by fostering emotional regulation, reducing stress, and enhancing problem-solving skills. Through practices like the “Loving Kindness Meditation” and the “Compassionate Self-Portrait” we can activate and cultivate self-compassion, ultimately empowering ourselves to respond to life’s challenges with greater strength and grace.

 

References

Brown, B. (2013). Daring greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin UK.
Gilbert, P. (2010). The compassionate mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges. New Harbinger  Publications.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Hachette UK.

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