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Practising self-compassion

In this video, Richards review the self-compassion exercise and explores how self-compassion is different from self-criticism.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: We’re now going to explore some of the benefits of self-compassion. First of all, what did you notice in that self-criticism exercise? Most people find that they respond very differently to suffering in themselves than they do in others. Often we’re much tougher on ourselves than we are on other people. We tend to respond to suffering in others by bringing attitudes like friendliness, gentleness, softness. We tend to convey an attitude of genuine acceptance, recognising that failures and setbacks are a part of being human, and therefore completely understandable. However, when it is us who has failed at something, we tend to activate self-criticism. This then either makes us tense and stressed, or leads to avoidance behaviours such as distraction, and procrastination.
Some people even resort to numbing out with drugs, and alcohol, TV, food, that kind of thing. And of course, in these moments it’s like life has knocked us down. And we start kicking ourselves, trying to force ourselves to get back to our feet. There are a number of reasons why we’re self-critical. Self-criticism is generally motivated by positive intentions. These include things like avoiding mistakes, or at least not repeating them. Motivating ourselves to do better, or to develop personally or professionally. Protecting our relationships by making sure that we don’t do something that hurt somebody’s feelings, that kind of thing. And so it can be good to recognise that self-criticism actually serves a purpose.
So that we can remove judgments, and reactivity, and labels from it, and just acknowledge that it’s happening. It is also often the internalised voice of our primary caregivers. So when we’re growing up, the way that other people respond to our vulnerability, and our suffering, it shapes the way that we respond to it ourselves later in life. We actually can internalise that– those voices or that attitude. And then later on of course when we’re suffering, that’s how we start to relate to ourselves. But doing this can cause problems for us. Self-criticism causes a range of problems. It activates fight and flight circuits.
So when we are being self-critical where the amygdala is firing, and we’re releasing adrenaline and cortisol, and we’re caught up in sort of threat defence behaviours. And of course makes it harder to focus on what’s actually in front of us, because the mind is constantly scanning for threats, and caught up in other things other than what we need to be engaged with in the moment. And it also makes it hard to learn from mistakes. It can lead to rumination, which is really an attempt to problem-solve the situation, or sometimes problem-solve ourselves. And of course when we’re caught up in trying to problem-solve ourselves, we tend to find more faults and more problems, and this can exacerbate the effect.
And self-criticism results often in avoidance, since we’re flooded with stress hormones, and the situation can take on a very negative and unpleasant, even threatening flavour. Another metaphor that’s sometimes used is the second arrow. It’s kind of like life has shot us with an arrow, and we are experiencing some suffering or discomfort. But rather than tending to our worry, we just shoot ourselves with a second one– the second arrow of self-criticism. This is the self-critical thinking like, why was I shot? What did I do to deserve this? Maybe I had it coming. That kind of thing. I should have tried harder. I’m such an idiot. That kind of thing.
You know, these familiar things that we all experience from time to time. The alternative is self-compassion. Self-compassion refers to being kind to ourselves when we are suffering. Or you could say, because we are suffering. And there are three elements of self-compassion. Self-kindness, and a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-conscious refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with ourselves, rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Common humanity involves recognising that all humans are imperfect, that we all fail and make mistakes. And it helps us to realise that mistakes and difficulties are just part of being alive.
And in fact, when we experience suffering, we can recognise that this unites us with everybody else, because it’s something that we all experience from time to time. Rather than separating us, giving us that sense that we’re the only ones suffering and everybody else has it together. And mindfulness, of course, involves being aware of our painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner, so that we neither ignore nor obsess about these locked aspects of ourselves or our lives. We’re often able to bring this attitude to others, as you may have noticed in the exercise we did, but it can be very hard to bring it to ourselves.
The good news, of course, is that if we can bring it to others, then it’s within us as an innate quality. And that’s actually true– that compassion research shows is an innate quality of being human. So we can cultivate it, and learn to bring it to ourselves. When we do rediscover this innate quality, we start responding to our suffering in gentler, much more loving and supportive ways. And this has a range of benefits. First of all, we activate the mammalian tend and befriend circuits, which are a very different part of the brain to the fight and flight circuits.
We release the hormone oxytocin, which is what we’re flooded with when we fall in love, or when a mother holds a baby for the first time to help her bond with it and overcome the trauma of childbirth. Research shows that we also release it when we get or give a hug for 10 seconds or more, and we can learn to release it in our selves. And oxytocin produces that feeling of well-being, that warm glow. But it also helps us to focus, and to relate more effectively to others and to ourselves.
And so in the next exercise we’re going to explore how to activate the tend and befriend circuits to release oxytocin, by learning to relate to ourselves with self-compassion in the face of suffering. But first, let’s quickly look at the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem. Self-esteem was really popular amongst researchers in the ’80s, and ’90s, and the early 2000s. And it refers to a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of their own worth. So when we fail, for instance, to rebuild our self-esteem, we have to try harder. Or alternatively, to tear other people down. And this is why it can lead to perfectionism, anxiety, narcissism, and bullying. It also requires everybody to be above average, which is of course a logical inconsistency.
We can’t all be above average. So it’s a bit of a flawed model. And self-compassion on the other hand, means that we respond in a friendly way to ourselves when we fail, or when we’re experiencing suffering or discomfort. We can learn to relate to the vulnerable parts of ourselves in supportive, loving ways. And this avoids the problems of self-esteem, and has a range of other benefits. It results in improved mood, less emotional avoidance, which of course is shown to be harmful, and improves our performance. For instance, there was a study where people spent much more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure. We also become more motivated to improve personal characteristics and perceived weaknesses.
Because our attention is on the problem, where it needs to be rather than caught up in self-critical thinking, we actually focus on what we need to be focused on to learn from our mistakes, or to perform better. Recently, probably in the last five years or so, self-compassion research has been coming together really beautifully with mindfulness research. And many people, including Craig and myself, are teaching self-compassion in our mindfulness programmes. Actually, mindfulness and self-compassion are inseparable. So that when we’re being mindful, we’re naturally self-compassionate just by virtue of not being caught up in self-criticism, or any of those other mental habits. But we can also cultivate it. And in the next exercise we’re going to explore mindfulness and self-compassion separately.
And also show how they work together to improve our well-being and our performance.

Watch Richard review the self-compassion exercise and explore how self-compassion is different from self-criticism.


When some people practise self-compassion, they may actually experience more pain at first. Leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff refers to this phenomena as backdraft (imagine the door of a burning house being opened and as the oxygen goes in, the flames burst out).

In her Tips for practice, Kristen writes:

“A similar process can occur when we open the door of our hearts – love goes in and old pain comes out…. Fortunately, we can meet old pain with the resources of mindfulness and self-compassion and the heart will naturally begin to heal. Still, it means we have to allow ourselves to be slow learners when it comes to practicing self-compassion. And if we ever feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions, the most self-compassionate response may be to pull back temporarily – focus on the breath, the sensation of the soles of our feet on the ground, or engage in ordinary, behavioral acts of self-care such as having a cup of tea or petting the cat. By doing so we reinforce the habit of self-compassion – giving ourselves what we need in the moment – planting seeds that will eventually blossom and grow.”

Tend and befriend

Go to See also for a paper about the “tend and befriend circuits” that are activated when we practise self-compassion.

Note: The paper talks more about interpersonal tending/befriending and social bonding under stress, but we can bring this same attitude to ourselves.

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