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What is Self-Compassion?

DR JANA JENKINS explains what is self-compassion and why it is important for our wellbeing

Research shows that developing self-compassion increases our sense of well-being and general health. You may be wondering why self-compassion can help your mental and physical health. Perhaps you are someone who is hard on yourself and self-critical. You may feel exhausted from being always on the go, judging yourself and unable to switch off. If this is the case, you may benefit from self-compassion.

Self-compassion is a skill that can be learnt. One of the important things about self-compassion is to learn how to become more sensitive to your needs (e.g. the need for recognition and respect from others, the need for confidence, independence etc).

From my clinical experience, it is not uncommon that people struggle to identify their needs and recognise when they are not met. Another tendency is to find it much easier to be kinder to others rather than to ourselves and adopt ‘double standards’ when it comes to kindness. For example, we are less likely to think of someone else as ‘useless’ when they make a mistake as opposed to judging ourselves when the same occurs.

Another important facet of self-compassion is to learn how to be opened to our feelings and tolerate them without harsh judgement. I think you would agree that it can be rather challenging when we experience low mood, anxiety or big disappointment. On the other hand, it is easier experiencing happiness or excitement. In other words, we have the tendency to categorise our feelings as positive and negative.

The key aspect of self-compassion is learning how to tolerate and become less frightened of our feelings.

It is helpful to know that our experiences of emotions and desires emerge from the patterns created in our brains and bodies. It is useful to think about three different operating systems; threat, incentive and soothing system. Let me explain their different functions.

The function of the threat system is to pick up on threats quickly and generate feelings such as anxiety which then alerts us and urges us to act against the threat and to self-protect (fight and fight). Our brains can over-estimate threats because that's how they are designed to work.

The incentive system is important to give us positive feelings that guide, motivate and encourage us to seek out things and resources in order to survive and prosper. We are motivated and pleased by seeking out, consuming and achieving nice things (e.g. food, places to live, comforts, friendships, and so on).

However, if this system becomes over stimulated it can also drive us to wanting ‘more and more’ and if things are not going smoothly, experience ‘frustration and disappointment’. When our desires and goals are blocked we are in the threat system and can become overwhelmed, judgmental of our feelings, self-critical and ‘unhappy’.

Operating in the soothing system on the other hand results in feelings of contentment, social affiliation and peacefulness. Many people struggle with self-compassion because their soothing system is not well developed.

Cultivating self-compassion is not easy and we need to practice it and prioritise it. We all need time to stop, reflect, process our feelings, being with the loved ones, have a cuddle and sometimes just simply ‘be’ rather than always ‘do’.

Noticing when we are harsh on ourselves and judging feelings can be helpful. Noticing when we are not kind to ourselves is also beneficial; perhaps we are overworking, not sleeping enough, pleasing others but not recognising our needs.

When we practice meditation, mindfulness and ‘slowing down’, we are not concerned with wanting or striving, we tend to feel more connected with others and contented. Many people I see are striving to achieve this sense of contentment.

Have you recognised yourself? Are you someone who can benefit from self-compassion and self-soothing? Ask yourself what makes you happy and how you can recognise when threat and incentive system become overstimulated at the detriment of the very important soothing system.

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