Self compassion takes self discipline

I say self compassion and many will think, at best it’s airy fairy, at worst it’s self indulgent or even hedonistic. But I just want to spend a few minutes putting this in perspective.

So, what is compassion?

People holding hands with caring and compassion

Firstly, you need to notice some suffering, you then need to feel moved, in some way, by this pain and thirdly, you need to feel some warmth or desire to change the situation. For most people it is fairly easy to feel compassion for someone else. For example, if you hear the plight of families in your local area who cannot afford food (step 1), if you’re moved by this (step 2) you may wish to help the situation, while doing your weekly shop, by donating some canned goods (step 3). Easy, isn’t it?!

Feeling compassion for ourselves can be a lot harder.

Most of us are incredibly quick to judge and criticise ourselves for falling short, for making mistakes and for our various inadequacies. But if we can be compassionate to fellow human beings, why do we raise the bar so high when it comes to judging ourselves? Self esteem is a fragile enough entity, why do we insist on making it so hard for ourselves?

It’s a common technique, when recovering from mental illness, to imagine how you would treat a friend in a similar situation. Some people struggle with this, if your self esteem is low enough, you’ll think you’re not good enough to be treated as a friend; but consider this, is what you’re doing, the way you speak to yourself, the way you treat yourself, at the moment, work? If not, you need to try something different.

To feel compassion and to care for ourselves may be at odds with our inner beliefs but it can have such wide ranging benefits it’s worth taking time to think about this.

Self compassion can be put as simply as feeling compassion for others: step 1 – be aware of your pain, step 2 – feel moved by the pain, step 3 – have a desire to change it. But it’s not that simple is it?!

Instead of judging ourselves we need to practice self-kindness. If you’re constantly beating yourself up for making mistakes, this only leads to a negative spiral of stress. If you’re doing your best and you fall short, it’s ok, being kind to ourselves take practice and discipline to replace habitual thought patterns.

We are all human, mortal, vulnerable and imperfect – we can find solace in sharing our humanness rather than feeling isolated in our suffering. Instead of believing we are failing and experiencing suffering as an individual, consider these experiences part of a shared human experience.

2 people looking at a figure on the ground. One person sees a 6, the other person sees a 9.

Remember, sometimes perspective is everything – if you’re a new mum or dad waist deep up nappies, you’ve not had a adult conversation for days, your baby’s got colic and you’re exhausted, it’s likely, you will feel you’re doing something wrong and you’re totally alone. If you pick up the phone and speak to a friend, how will they view the situation? They will think you’re doing an amazing job, your baby is alive aren’t they?!

In all seriousness, sharing experience puts it in perspective and helps us realise we’re all human, stumbling through life, what we perceive as our failings and imperfections are all part of the human condition.

Being mindful of our emotions allows us to experience our emotions in their fullness without suppression or exaggeration. We are able to do this when we’re able to view our emotions within our situation as a larger picture. Mindfulness allows us to view all emotions, (whether perceived as “positive” or “negative”) simply as they are, without judging them or trying to change them.

I do not believe there are negative emotions – all emotions simply serve the purpose of telling us more about a given situation (the negativity is only the judgment we place on the existence of the given emotion).

While identifying and being aware of our emotions, we will enable ourselves to avoid over-identifying and getting caught up in our emotions, thus avoiding negative reactivity.

Element of self compassion by Kristin Neff. Self kindness, recognising our common humanity, mindfulness.

This self-compassion sounds quite complicated, doesn’t it?! It’s certainly not some passive pleasure seeking, it’s an active choice that takes discipline, you decide if the benefits are worth it:

  • Improved self esteem
  • Increased sense of self worth
  • Reduce stress
  • Improved resilience

To start trying self kindness, catch your thoughts and turn them around, you don’t have to become your own cheerleader (unless you want to!) but be more gentle than harsh with yourself:

  • Replace “I’m useless” with “I’m doing my best”
  • Replace “I always mess up” with “it’s ok to make mistakes”
  • Replace “I can’t” with “I’ll try”
  • Instead of always saying “yes” to requests, consider what’s best for you and say “no” or “I’ll think about it” or “I could find time next week”

It’s going to take practice. Some people will find it helpful to write down their common harsh thoughts so that they can think of concrete replacement thoughts and seeing them in black and white can be eye opening.

“You got this” written in flouncy text

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with a situation and feeling isolated. Remember you are human, stumbling and being vulnerable is part of the human condition – talk to a friend, a problem shared really is a problem halved! But this, again, takes discipline, it’s so much easier to dwell in our self pity or not want to both anyone else but you deserve to feel better and you never know, the friend you phone may need you just as much as you need them!

Are you someone who tends to ignore your emotions or do you get carried away with them? Being mindful of emotions as they happen will aid a more balanced approach and will help prevent maladaptive coping mechanisms from kicking in. Emotions do not come with a health warning so being mindful of them, to catch them as your feeling them, to notice them, non-judgementally and allow them to just be, will take discipline and practice!

Self compassion isn’t airy-fairy-self-indulgence. You’re probably someone who finds it easier to feel compassion and care for other people. There are no simple answers but practice makes perfect and as you start to have compassion for yourself, you’ll have even more to give others!

1 piece of broccoli and 1 cherry tomato on a plate being eaten with a knife and fork bound with tape measure

Why “going on a diet” doesn’t work!

TW – Trigger Warning – I’m aware many of my readers have eating disorder either currently or in their history. Please be aware this blog talks about food frankly and openly. If this may be a trigger for you, please click onto another blog!

One of the hardest things I feel I’ve had to contend with while recovering from anorexia is full-on diet culture! It’s everywhere, from magazines in waiting rooms to everyday in the office. A day doesn’t go by where someone talks about the weight they’ve lost, or put on, or what diet they’re going to try next.

I’ve found it quite shocking, when I was ill, I was in a bubble of denial about these kind of things, I didn’t talk to people about food, nor them to me so I had no idea there was so much rubbish out there.

I think the most bizarre, to date, has to be the potato diet – you’ve guessed it – all my colleague ate for weeks was potatoes! I’m guessing the logic is that you’ll be so bored of them that eventually you’ll just stop eating and you might lose a bit of weight. But seriously…who dreamt this up?! How can just potatoes sustain a human being?!

I’m taking this back to basics. Very broadly there are 3 reasons we eat:

1. Food is available
Buffet table full of food

This may be simple, someone has brought some cakes into the office and they’re offered round. You eat one because they’re waved in front of your nose. You may feel “it’s rude not to” or you may just fancy one.

We also follow this rule when we live by strict habits. For example, lots of people eat 3 meals a day, each day fairly similar no matter how different their needs are on each day. Habitually, it’s 1pm, you prepare lunch and eat it because it’s there.

This is also the case when we live in family groups. “We eat dinner at 6.30pm because that’s when most people are likely to be hungry”.

2. We’re emotional

Females are renowned for this but it can happen to anyone. For some it’s a case of stuffing their feelings down, “If I eat, I don’t have to feel”. Or it may feel like a comfort, food just makes everything feel a bit better doesn’t it? All sorts of emotions may work in this way, living in the western world, food is available as a coping mechanism.

3. We’re hungry

Our body’s pretty clever, when it requires more food, you experience symptoms of hunger and we can use these as a signal to eat. Your stomach may physically feel empty or may be making noises, you may feel light-headed, irritable or lacking in concentration. If you’re feeling these things but you’ve only just eaten, they’re unlikely to be hunger, but if it’s been a couple of hours, they may signal hunger.

None of these reasons to eat are wrong

If you’re at a dinner party and not hungry, it’s totally fine to eat when food is available. It’s not just polite, it’s a sociable thing to do. If you’ve had a shocking day at work and you just fancy a a massive ice cream or block of chocolate, that’s ok.

However…
Square of carrot cake on a plate

It’s important to be aware of why you’re eating. When you’ve met up with your girlfriends for a coffee and chinwag, if you just fancy that slice of carrot cake because you saw it on the counter, do it – but make sure you know you’re eating it because it was there. Don’t pretend to yourself you’re hungry, or you’ll “make up for it later” or any other “excuse”. It’s ok to say “I’m having it because it was there and I want it.”

If however, you know you’re a grazer and you tend to just eat food “because it’s there”, try to become more mindful about this. Do you need snacks in the cupboard?

Emotional eating is a really important one to be aware of – eating our feelings is dangerous. The only healthy way to manage feelings is to fully experience them a talk about them. Say to yourself, “I’m having this bar of chocolate because I’m really sad” – you may then decided you don’t need the bar of chocolate and may express your emotion in a different way but as long as your acknowledge it, you can make sure that you deal with the underlying emotions as well.

As a generalisation, people are over weight because they have consumed more calories than they have expended. This is likely to be because they have done more eating for reasons numbers 1 and 2. I reiterate, these are not wrong, but we need to be mindful of them in order to keep them in check.

Being mindful of what we’re eating and why is the most important part of having a healthy relationship with food. Having a healthy relationship with food is not about say “yes” or “no” to “good” or “bad” foods, it’s not about having rules, it’s about listening to our body and being aware of what it needs and when.

(I’m not entirely sure I’m as in tune with my body as I’d like to be – I say I’m fully recovered form anorexia but I still struggle to know when I’m hungry, what it means when I’m craving food and most of the time I feel totally disconnected from my body – it’s work in progress!)

“Going on a diet” doesn’t change anything
Potato

Eating potatoes [insert latest fad] for a month may help you lose a few pounds but if you’ve not changed your relationship with food, when you come off the diet, it’s fairly predictable what’s going to happen…!

The way to a healthy body is a healthy mind

Biscuits are on the side during a tea break/cake is handed ‘round during someone birthday/chocolates are “calling you from the sweetie draw” – do you have one? Do a quick check with yourself:

  1. Are you hungry? – is this an appropriate thing to be eating at this time of day to satisfy the hunger you have?
  2. Are you feeling emotional? – is this an appropriate thing to eat to cope with how your feeling? Would you prefer to manage your emotions in another way?
  3. Do you want it just because it’s there? – that’s ok, but make sure you’re making a conscious decision and be aware that you are not eating this because you need it.
Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most. Quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln with background of mountains and trees

Because diet culture is so much the norm, language around food is really unhelpful. If you say “no” to the birthday cake, other people (who are probably feeling guilty* about eating some) will say “oh, you’re so good”. But it’s not about being “good” or “bad”. It is entirely up to you whether you say “yes” or “no” when feeling peer-pressure to join in, only you know why you’re eating it and whether you have a healthy relationship with food.

*I recently heard Raymond Blanc completely baffled by the question “what’s your guilty pleasure?” – he couldn’t comprehend why anyone would feel guilty about feeling pleasure from food. (Obviously) he’s right! We should never feel guilty about eating. If you’re eating, no matter what you’re eating, if you’re aware of why you’re eating it, no matter whether it’s reason 1, 2 or 3, and you’re ok with your reasoning, and it’s giving you pleasure – just enjoy it!

People end up feeling guilty when their relationship with food is such that they lie to themselves about why they’re eating. Tackling the reasons will in turn address the guilt. We should not feel guilty about nourishing our bodies!

Say no to fad diets text written using food to form the letters

We may need to re-educate ourselves about what a healthy diet looks like. For our bodies to function healthily and feel good we need a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fruits and veg. No foods are “off limits” but some may need to be eaten less often. A good relationship with food is about mindfully saying “yes”!

Modern, white church building on housing estate

Is church relevant anymore?

My faith is of central importance to my life and it always has been; I don’t know what it’s like not to believe in an all loving God I can turn to at anytime and to be part of a community of fellow believers.

Pew ends with stacks of bibles

Not many years ago, going to church was the thing everyone did on a Sunday, on the day of rest, whole families would attend church together as part of their weekly routine. Society has changed a lot, with shops opening on Sunday and many sporting activities happening on Sundays, there are many reasons why the habitual practice of going to church has changed. But does that mean that church no longer has any relevance?

British culture has changed such that people are encouraged to express their individuality, instead of following what their family has done for generations. People, now more than ever, think about what’s right for them personally, rather than fitting in with what everyone else does.

I see many people for whom religion just isn’t on their agenda, they live their life quite happily and don’t see any reason to show any interest in the church or what they have to offer.

Many people have actively been put off church by the things people do “in the name of religion”. Interpreting the Bible in an unhelpful manner has made people think Christians are judgmental do-gooders who do not welcome difference or anyone who’s struggling.

So we have people who have been hurt by the church and we have people who are indifferent – how is the church relevant to either of these groups of people?

When I was young, I went with my family to church, I thought I was an ok Christian – I didn’t think I was anything special but I moved through life being as good-a-person as I could be and I thought that was ok. I knew I sometimes did things that weren’t great, I might have told a fib here and there but I wasn’t a terrible person.

When I went away to uni, I continued going to church, it was what I’d always done, I saw no reason to stop. But it was here that I woke up to what being a Christian really meant. It suddenly hit me was that I was a serial sinner, I committed sins daily even hourly, but I also learnt that that’s ok, God forgives me even before I sin and when I ask for forgiveness, God’s grace is abundant.

But, why am I talking about is sin?! I hear you ask. I’m not that terrible am I?! I’ve not murdered anyone or stolen anything?! The sorts of sins I commit include being quick to anger, being slow to say sorry, letting my emotions dictate how I react to situations, not being compassionate towards people and judging people before I know their story. At the moment something I’m struggling with is that I’m being quite negative at work, I try not to be, I’m generally a positive person, trying to see silver-linings etc but just now I’m letting a negative situation get the better of me – this is not how God made me to be. Maybe other people wouldn’t call these sins but for me, I find it easier to lump everything together otherwise I get unnecessarily caught in grading or rating the level of “not great” I’m being.

God’s grace through Christ is greater than our sin, even on our worst days - white quote on grey background by Jerry Bridges

For me, it is these things that brings me closer to God, they remind me I am human, they humble me, they remind me I can’t do anything without God’s strength and being mindful of my shortfalls keep me striving to be a better person. Yes, I’m sure there are non-Christians out there who try to be good people but I strive to be more Christ like, the bar is high – I will fail but this does not stop me trying.

Jesus loved the sick, he prioritised spending time with criminals – no matter what sin people had committed, Jesus wanted to love them, to accept them and to bring them into his fold. Absolute unconditional love and compassion is not something many people experience – this is what Jesus has on offer.

I’m not one for writing hard hitting challenging blogs as I’m naturally a people pleaser, I don’t like upsetting people, I like to gently present a idea for people to think about but I feel this subject needs a more direct approach. I ask you this – why do you do anything?

Why do you get up in the morning? To go to work? To put breakfast on the table for your family? Because you feel you should?

So why do you do that? Why do you go to work? Why do you prepare meals for your family? Why do feel you should?

Cup of coffee and a pen on a pile of papers with the question “Why am I here”.

Keep asking “why” until you strip your life back to find what you fundamentally believe the point of your life is. Why are you on this earth? What, ultimately, gives you meaning and purpose?

I believe God has put me on this earth to serve him and other people, I believe I am meant to use the skills God has given me to care for other people, to show them love and compassion, and to improve the quality of their lives.

Most of my blogs are about mental health because illness has dominated my life and I believe by sharing my experience and the things I’ve learnt I might help other people, whether it’s by helping people feel less alone or by educating and raising awareness in order to decrease stigma and discrimination.

The connection between my faith and my mental health recovery is simple – I could not have recovered without my faith. There was a point in my recovery where I had to make a conscious decision to take my illness out of the centre of my life. I decided I did not want it to define me. By removing my illness from the centre, I had to replace it with something, for me, this something was God. Other people may want to fill that hole with family, friends or work but in my experience (as fantastic as they are) these things cannot be as rock solid and reliable as God.

While going through trialing times, such as illness, bereavement or relationship breakdown, we all need people we can rely on. As an introvert, I struggle to make friends and it takes me a long time to open up to people. Some people are fortunate enough to have strong groups of friends either purely socially or via a hobby who they can rely on to be there through thick and thin. But for me, it’s my Church community who offer love and acceptance no matter what I’m going through. I don’t need to blurt out my deepest darkest secrets for people to care, to offer words of comfort or to pray with me.

I have been really fortunate that various music groups that I’ve belonged to have been understanding when I’ve been unwell. For example, for a period of time I could only manage half rehearsals but I was still accepted and my participation (no matter how little or unreliable it was) and my talent was appreciated. But with a social group or hobby, there’s an expectation, some condition on you belonging. This situation here was great but there was some expectation that if I was to come along, I would play the saxophone, at least some of the time!

But church goes the extra mile; there are absolutely no conditions placed on being part of a church. There have been times I’ve gone to church, week after week, sat at the back and not spoken to anyone – this was what I wanted and needed at the time. It’s totally up to the individual how much you take part in the church community.

Looking across rolling hills with mountains in the background and trees and hedges in the foreground

People find God in different place, for example, within themselves or in nature and although I agree God is everywhere and people will feel nourished by different environments, God has designed us to be in community and for me, church is not about some old (or new) building, it’s about a community of people, a loving, accepting community of people.

Unfortunately, there are groups of people who call themselves Christians who are judgmental and expect people to conform to a set of rules in order to be accepted into a church but this is not what Christianity is about. My church is a safe and supportive environment where my relationships with Jesus Christ can grow.

So, if you’ve made it to the end of the blog…

If you’ve been hurt by people acting “in the name of religion”, I’m really sorry. Please remember humans get it wrong. The God I know is not judgmental, he is infinitely gracious and longs to have a relationship with you.

If you’re “meh” about religion, might it be worth giving it a go? What have you got to lose?!