Why learning to be a better friend to your self might be the best thing you can do for your mental health…

This article originally appeared in GNI magazine May edition, link below: https://issuu.com/lambpromotions/docs/gni_mag_51_print

Mental Health week, which runs from 9-15th May each year, is an opportunity to reflect as a society on how to increase good mental health and wellbeing and look at some of the things that contribute to poor mental health in our population.

As counsellor, I am always interested in the most useful and effective ways to help my clients.  There’s an idea that I have become increasingly interested in that feels relevant to promoting good mental health, both for individuals and as a collective society. I have seen it make a positive difference in the lives of some of my clients, and it is also has a body of research and evidence behind it backing up its effectiveness.

The idea? Self-compassion

I was introduced to the idea of self-compassion by Art Therapist Lisa Kelly while working on a Therapy group for LGBTQ teenagers at The Rainbow Project. Self-compassion is not a new idea, in fact it’s been around for a long time. Self-compassion, like Mindfulness which has become a popular concept in mental health over the last couple of decades, has its roots in Eastern Buddhist philosophy. In today’s world, self-compassion it is gaining traction as an effective tool in increasing wellbeing and good mental health thanks to the work of Dr Kristin Neff. Neff is a US based researcher, professor and self-described ‘pioneer of self-compassion’. Neffs work has also been elevated into public awareness by author, shame researcher and all-round legend Brené Brown (and what’s good enough for Brené is good enough for me!).

So what is self-compassion?

To understand what self-compassion is, we first must understand compassion. Think of a time when a friend has come to you for support. Imagine, for example, that they made an of error of judgement of some sort in their job or relationship that had a negative outcome.  When your friend comes to you, you will (hopefully) respond with kindness, support, and reassurance. You might tell them that they aren’t a bad person, that what happened to them could happen to anyone, that we all make mistakes and so on. Ultimately, you want to help reduce your friends suffering in their time of need. This is a compassionate response.

Simply put then self-compassion is treating yourself with the same gentle, accepting, supportive kindness that you would give to a friend.  

This can be harder said than done. Often our go-to response in our more negative moments is self-criticism and judgement. Being imperfect and having flaws is what makes us human and we can understand this when it comes to our friends and loved ones, but sometimes we can struggle with applying this to ourselves.

An important element of self-compassion is identifying our ‘critical inner voice’.  This is that little voice in that back of our minds that’s ready to jump in with the criticisms and judgements anytime we put a foot wrong (It might sound like “I can’t believe I did that, I am so stupid”, or “no one will want to listen to what I have to say, I am not interesting” etc.). Understanding the types of things we are saying to ourselves helps when it comes to practicing being kinder to ourselves (when doing this work with clients they often remark that if they spoke to their friends the same way they spoke to themselves they might not have any friends left!).

We all have a critical inner voice to varying degrees and it often comes from our experiences in childhood or as teenagers, or from other difficult life experiences.  For LGBTQ people the critical inner voice can come from internalizing negative messages from society, school, unsupportive families etc. We may feel we have to hold ourselves to higher standards to prove our worth and so therefore can be more self-critical.

This is why I think self-compassion is especially important for LGBTQ people. Neff describes self-compassion as a radical approach, and I completely agree. To treat yourself with kindness, love and acceptance for all that you are in a world that would have you think otherwise is both powerful and empowering.

Self-compassion is good for our mental health. I have seen first hand the positive difference it can make when a client begins to be a little more kinder to themselves. But it’s not just anecdotal, the research backs it up too. People who introduced more self-compassion into their lives were shown to be less critical and had less experiences of anxiety and depression which lead to greater life satisfaction overall. Self-compassionate people were also more likely to be optimistic about the future and experience better mental wellness. In a study that focused specifically on the experiences of LGBTQ people, self-compassion was linked to increased mental resilience in the face of stigma and minority stress. This really is important stuff.

So what can you if you want to introduce more self-compassion into your life?

A good place to start is to try and get into the habit of treating yourself like you would treat someone you love. In those moments when the go-to is usually self-criticism for something you have done, try to take a moment and think of how you might respond to yourself in a kinder way instead.  

You might also want to spend some time trying to identify that critical inner voice. This can be helpful to do in the safety of the counselling environment where you have the support of a counsellor.

Neff’s website (self-compassion.org) has many useful resources including the ‘Self-compassion scale’ for measuring levels of self-compassion and breakdown of what self-compassion is and what it isn’t. There are also guided meditations and journaling & creative writing exercises designed to help increase levels self-compassion.

One idea I really like is the ‘compassion-break’-checking in with ourselves to see if there is anything we need when we are going through something negative (Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Do I need a change of scenery?).

Being self-compassionate is more of an ongoing practice than a one-time deal. It is like a muscle that needs to be built and maintained. If you stop the exercise, you lose the muscle. So it’s about trying to introduce a little more self-kindness each day, building it up until it becomes second nature. Also, you might not do it perfectly every time, and that’s Ok too. The good news is that the more we practice the easier it becomes. And the more we start to treat ourselves kindly, the more we will want to continue to treat ourselves kindly.

One final thing to say is that it is not selfish or self-indulgent to start treating yourself better. As Neff says, being self-compassionate is the opposite of selfishness because it improves our mood and feelings of wellbeing. This means that self-compassion is more likely to open us up and expand our capacity for the other relationships in our lives, whereas self-criticism will shut us down. It just makes sense that if we are increasing how compassionate we are to ourselves, then we are also going to be more compassionate towards other people.

So this mental health week, maybe try to think about how to introduce a bit more self-compassion into your life. As the saying goes, the relationship we have with ourselves is the longest one we will ever have, so we may as well treat ourselves like the beautiful, unique, fallible beings that we are.

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