One way of dealing with our anxieties is being compassionate towards ourselves rather than critical. Consider a young woman with severe social anxiety. She gets invited to a party, but dreads the idea of going. Tonight, however, she musters up the courage to try and overcome her social anxiety. She goes, but after half an hour of being a wallflower, she decides she’s happier elsewhere.
Many people with social anxiety disorder ask themselves, “Why do I feel so anxious whilst having a conversation when most people find talking with somebody else so easy?” Such a critical inner voice can make you feel ashamed of your worries, thoughts and yourself. She could mull over her uncomfortable experience at the party, and beat herself up about not talking to anyone, or she can just cut herself a break.
The little voice in her head can say; “It must have been so hard for you to go to this party on your own given that this makes you so anxious. I’m proud of you for actually managing to go. You tried your best, and that’s what counts.” Hearing that after a night out that did not go according to plan makes it much easier to deal with the pain from a challenging night.
What Does It Mean To Show Self-Compassion
A compassionate self is aware that suffering is part of the human condition. We have not signed up for a pain-free, perfect life. This also implies that nobody else has a ticket for such a life and that even if we think that others seem to be so much more at ease with things, it is very likely that they will have gone through their patches of suffering as well.
Compassion is defined as
We show compassion to ourselves when we acknowledge that it is not our fault that we are excessively anxious, or worry more about things than others do. For the most part, anxiety is a mixture of primal instinct, genetics, what we have experienced in our life.
Compassion Focused Therapy
Treating your anxieties with compassion can help reduce tendencies to avoid a situation and potentially improve your quality of life. Because you know that even if you fail, become too anxious to take on a situation, and maybe even have to walk away, you will have the compassion to react with understanding and warmth. This makes being scared much less scary!
Enhancing self-compassion is used in Compassion Focused Therapy (Gilbert, 2009). Compassion Focused Therapy has been shown to be helpful for various mental health problems, and seems to be particularly helpful for people who are high in self-criticism (Leaviss & Utley, 2014). Compassion Focused Therapy defines three different emotion regulation systems in the brain: the threat system, the drive system, and the soothing system. The threat system enables us to detect and respond to danger. The drive system is associated with drive and achievement, doing and acquiring. And the soothing system relates to a sense of inner calmness, and a sense of peaceful well-being. These three systems are constantly interacting with each other.
People suffering from an anxiety disorder have an overly developed threat system, whereas their drive system and soothing system are less pronounced. This means that they are very good at detecting threat signals in their environment, but they are less good at enjoying themselves, and having fun, i.e. activating their drive system. Even more importantly, they appear to find it difficult to feel safe and content, i.e. to activate the soothing system.
Learning How to Self-Soothe
Research suggests that the ability to activate the soothing system is related to early experiences of a safe and sensitive caregiver (e.g. Neff & McGeehee, 2010). When children become distressed, they usually return to their caregivers (their “safe base”, Bowlby, 1969) for consolation. If a caregiver reacts with understanding to a child’s distress, and is able to sooth a child and to provide her with a sense of safety, the child learns that however anxious or distressed she might feel, there is a place she can go where she feels safe and where somebody will try to make her feel better. However, if a caregiver is not available, or reacts with criticism, or with ridicule to a child in distress, a child might not be able to learn that.
In Compassion Focused Therapy, different exercises (e.g. soothing rhythm breathing, compassionate imagery, compassionate letter writing) are used to help people with anxiety disorders to further develop their soothing system. Once people with anxiety disorders have learnt how to sooth themselves and how to be compassionate to themselves, they can start approaching anxiety-provoking situations whilst using their newly learnt soothing skills. Metaphorically, they are now able to provide a “safe base” to themselves and to switch between exploring and returning to their “safe base” when they feel their anxiety becomes overwhelming. For example, a person with social anxiety disorder, who has a severe fear of taking exams, might use compassionate self-talk whenever she notices that her anxiety gets overwhelming during an exam. This will help her to get a sense of calmness and safety and will allow her to continue writing the exam.
It is important to keep in mind that self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence, selfishness, or lack of responsibility. Being compassionate to ourselves means that we have a deep appreciation of our own and other people’s suffering. We recognize our common humanity and are moved to do something to alleviate this suffering.
1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
2. Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable-Robinson. Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger.
3. Leaviss, J., & Utley, L. (2014). Psychotherapeutic benefits of compassion-focused therapy: an early systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 12, 1-19,doi:10.1017/S0033291714002141
4. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.
5. Tirch, D. (2012). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic, and Fear. New Harbinger Publications
Olivia Bolt, Ph.D., completed her Bachelor and Master studies in Psychology at the University of Basel (Switzerland) before earning her doctorate in social anxiety disorder from King`s College London. She is currently pursuing a second Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, focusing on relationship satisfaction in couples. With experience working across different age groups and settings, Dr. Bolt's research interests encompass compassion-focused therapy, mindfulness, attachment, mother-infant relationships, romantic relationships, and anxiety disorders.