Tag Archives: mindfulness

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!

What do you do if you just can’t talk about it?

A large contributing factor to why I got ill was that I didn’t talk about my feelings. Whatever I experienced I thought it was bad so I pushed it down, ignored it, pretended I was fine and put a brave face on. Even when I was getting very unwell, I had no idea what was going on, I had no language to describe my inner turmoil so I just kept quiet and things, unsurprisingly, got worse.
I have learnt, through various therapies, how to talk about my feelings in a healthy way – I don’t talk about my feelings all the time but if things don’t feel right, I have ways to communicate and talking through my struggles, this means things are easier to understand and manage.
Whenever I hear about someone self harming in some way, whether it’s cutting, over dosing, drinking to excess or disordered eating – I do my best to persuade them to find a way to talk about what’s going on. It’s often about who you talk to as well as what you say, sometimes it’s about writing things down, but I think putting your thoughts and feelings into words is vital for mental health recovery.
However, what if things are so overwhelming, words just won’t come?!
Or, what if, due to another condition, a developmental condition or learning disability, you’re never going to be able to talk/communicate the way other people do?
On my mind is a young lady who’s desperately unhappy, she has self harmed in the passed but recently felt so hopeless, she tried to take her own life – this story, unfortunately, is not rare – sadly, this young lady also has Asperger’s syndrome, which is now considered part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with ASD have problems with, amongst other things, social interactions and communication.
I would always advise anyone in mental distress to seek professional help but sometimes there are things we can do to help ourselves, so here are some of my thoughts when words just aren’t the answer:
Exercise
Whether it’s anxiety, depression or other symptoms such as psychosis, some form of exercise has many benefits:

  • Grounding – it helps people stay in touch with reality, rather than spiraling off down a disordered thought stream or into a reality that causes more harm than good.
  • Endorphins – ‘happy hormones’ proven to be released when we exercise
  • Release of aggression – some people (usually females) force their aggression inward while others may express aggression/anger towards other people, either physically or verbally. Some forms of exercise, especially something like kick boxing can be brilliant for releasing pent up aggression.
  • Can be done in community or solitarily – introverts and extroverts take their energy from different sources and exercise can provide either the company or the solitude needed.
  • It can be a good distraction – taking pressure off talking and going for a walk with someone can actually make the taking side of things easier. Just being in nature, for example gardening, can have this effect as well.
  • It’s generally good for your physical health as well!

There are many forms of exercise from formal team games to walking, running or cycling on your own, or classes such as body combat, Zumba or martial arts. It may help to do something as a regular outlet or just do it when feelings feel particularly uncomfortable.
Art or creativity
You don’t have to be Salvador Dali or the latest Banksy to pick up a paint brush, some crayons, a pencil or some charcoal – people find all sorts of ways of expressing themselves through art. I’m not particularly creative but when angry it can be incredibly therapeutic to press down hard with a pencil and scratch away at the paper. Tearing paper or fabric can also be calming or helpful for a destructive mindset.
Liz Atkin uses charcoal drawing to directly manage her mental illness. Her story is fascinating and can be found here.
Adult colouring is a bit of a craze at the moment. The way I used it was as a distraction, it was something that could consume my focus and while I was doing it, it helps me stop my destructive thinking.
It may also be useful to make collages of words or pictures from magazines, this may express an acute emotion (eg anxiety) or overriding issues (eg loneliness) and this links to the next thing to try.

Use pictures to communicate
There are specific systems such as the Picture Exchange Communication System but it doesn’t have to be that formal. Use Google Images and search for what speaks to you, it may be pictures of people or landscapes but it could just be colours or shapes. You don’t have to know what it means or why it’s important but if you use this method a few times, you may get used to expressing your feelings in this way.
Punch a pillow
You may not call it anger, but if you feel like you have lots of energy and don’t know what to do with it it may be helpful to punch a pillow. This is helpful to prevent keeping energy/emotions locked up, it’s important to let it out as people have a tendency to either take emotions out on other people (through verbal or physical aggression) or on themselves (by self harming).
Mindfulness/meditation
Mindfulness can be a complex concept to understand but at its most basic level, it’s about being aware and then sitting with how things (feelings/situations/thoughts) are, as they are, without judgment or desire to change them. If we manage to do this, we can learn to manage all sorts difficult or uncomfortable feelings.
Meditation takes a number of forms and may include elements of relaxation techniques as well. This link to YouTube may be a good place to start.
Even if it doesn’t sound like ‘your thing’, sometimes it’s worth trying something new, just to see what it’s like. Type, mindfulness or meditation into YouTube and have a look at what’s out there. The most important thing with this is not to get cross, upset, angry or to judge how you’re doing with the exercises, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Talk to yourself with compassion when trying something new.
Pets as therapy (PAT)
Spending time with animals can be an amazing healer for some people. A loved family pet can evoke calmness in any situation. There are also special animals trained for therapy and horses are used in some specialist centres.

No matter what the situation, there is a way through, some times we just need to be a little more creative with how we get through.

How mindfulness changed my life

I was introduced to mindfulness in the traditional way, practicing the skill with set times for doing a body scan, focusing on the breath or focusing on the dreaded raisin, but this never particularly clicked with me.

I didn’t like the way I was taught it and I was very unwell at the time and it just didn’t make sense. For example, we did a task of pouring a glass of water and drinking it, I was made to feel bad for daring to state that I had to judge how heavy the jug of water was going to be so that I was able to pick it up, I was told that all judgments were bad. This is of course, not the case!

Dog sitting upright and cross-legged, looking 'zen'What mindfulness is not:

  • A form of relaxation
  • New age Buddhist thing
  • A way to get rid of thoughts
  • A way to sort out your problems
  • Meditation
  • Boring
  • Hippy nonsense
  • A waste of time
  • Anti-Christian (or any of faith or religion)

Since I was first introduced to it, I’ve come a long way and I’ve come to love elements of mindfulness. I do not sit down and do the formal practice sessions but for me, mindfulness has become a way of life. I try to live mindfully by focusing on what I’m doing in the here and now. How often do we arrive at a destination, having driven there but we have no recollection of the journey? What I do now is concentrate on what I’m doing in the moment, this includes driving but can be applied to any task, from cleaning my teeth to eating to washing up.

If you're always rushing on to the next moment, what happens to the one you are in? quote on a stormy background

What do I mean by “living mindfully”?

I mean I really pay attention to every task I do, I take in the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of everything. If I’m brushing my teeth I pay attention to the sound of the water running, the feel of the toothbrush on my gums, the taste and smell of the toothpaste and notice the movement of my wrist and arm as I brush.

Of course, my thoughts wonder all the time, I try to stop this happening but I do not judge myself for struggling to stay focused, if I’ve got a lot on my mind I’m going to find it hard, this is natural and ok. It’s about being gentle with myself, if I find my attention and thoughts straying away, I gentle being myself back to the task in hand.

I hear people saying, “I’m not good at it so I’ve given up trying”, being “no good” is a judgment, it’s the judgment that’s getting in the way rather than how hard or easy the task is.

The biggest change it’s had for me is to stop judging myself. Of course, I still do, I may never be able to break the habit of a lifetime but I do not judge the fact that I judge myself. I know it’s unhelpful but if I judge the judging, what’s the point in even noticing that it’s unhelpful?!

The positive effects mindfulness has had, with this being the ‘aim’:

  • I’m more relaxed
  • My mind is clearer
  • My food tastes better
  • I’m a safer driver
  • I relish the simple things in life
  • I’m more content
  • I’m less easily distracted
  • I’m more compassionate towards myself
  • I know myself better
  • I’m more aware of my feelings
  • I notice how beautiful the world is
  • I accept the things I cannot change
  • I forgive easily
  • I appreciate new experiences


Fundamentalists may say you need to do the formal practices to gain the fullest benefit from it but I say you have to do what suits you. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing and at some point I’ll try the formal practices again but for now living mindfully works for me.