Self-Compassion - Brisbane City Psychologists

Six Steps to Ally to Yourself

by Dr Tracy Butterworth, Brisbane City Psychologist

Is compassion a weak indulgence or a more meaningful way to achieve well-being?

When I introduce ‘compassion’ in therapy or with my friends and family, there is often resistance to the idea. I hear, ‘but if I don’t push myself, I won’t get anything done’ or ‘kindness is weak’. It seems we are much more comfortable with our inner-critic than our inner-ally.

As a society, we are faced with so much unhappiness, anxiety and discontent. It seems to me that the motivation of the whip may be a fundamental cause of this dis-ease. 

We are driven by perfect outcomes (which rarely exist) instead of being the best version of ourselves throughout the process. Some successful friends and clients will say, ‘but the inner-critic got me this far’ however, they will also often acknowledge it has caused suffering and the process has been miserable.

Criticism vs Supportive Encouragement

I regularly hear stressed parents berating themselves for being ‘bad parents’, with no acknowledgment that every day they try their best. Tragically, some people reach a point where they hate the thing they once loved (work, being a parent, gym, self-improvement). The enjoyment is taken out of it by constant internal bullying to be better.

It is reasonable to be engaged in personal goals and bettering ourselves in any sphere of life (love, work, parenting, sport, recovery). But what if the most successful path to our hopes and the most effective way to motivate ourselves is to be our own support system or an ally to ourselves?

This point was illustrated beautifully to me while recently watching my 7-year-old son play soccer. The teams were evenly matched.

Team A

My son’s soccer coach was shouting warm and supportive encouragement from the sidelines; ‘great pass Alex’.

My son’s team were trying hard, having fun and won the game.

Team B

The other team’s coach was shouting exasperated criticisms at his children; ‘you need to move faster Shaun!’. These children were also trying hard, but their unhappiness increased as the game progressed, they became physically tenser, and they were not having fun!

Bullies, including internal ones, take the pleasure out of whatever endeavour we are engaged in, and we stop being able to respond and play creatively.

Beware of the ‘Smoke Detector’ of Your Mind

I know that adult life is not a soccer game; it’s tougher, and the demands are more significant. However, it is critical and revealing to consider questions like:

  • ‘What do I do when I encounter suffering and struggle in myself and others?
  • Do I criticise myself when I’m struggling?
  • Is this a reasonable response?
  • Would I want my friends, family or children to talk to themselves like this when they are down?
  • Would I speak to a friend, who is struggling, like this?

The problem with an inner-critic is that it will often trigger our amygdala: our threat system or the ‘smoke detector’ of our mind.

  • The amygdala can perceive the criticism as an attack, and it will react accordingly by releasing adrenaline and cortisol.

  • That can cause anxiety and reinforce beliefs of not being good enough, smart enough, fast enough, etc.

  • That can create shame, which causes us to hide what we consider our weaknesses.

  • It can make us feel less connected to others around us (‘I am different, everyone else seems to be doing this better’) and can create ‘imposter syndrome’ (‘if other people knew how bad a parent I am if my colleagues knew how stupid I am!’).

Compassion: The Courageous ‘Firefighter’

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, described it as, ‘a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others and a motivation to make it better.’ We struggle to create genuine contentment (for ourselves and others) without being able to non-judgmentally and sensitively be present to our struggles.

I know so many people who say, ‘I meditate, I exercise, I do yoga, but I don’t feel better’. These activities have become tasks on the modern to-do list or improving our performance rather than considered responses to the question, ‘what do I need, based on a non-judgemental and empathic consideration of how I feel?’

Compassion is a skillset and consists of six attributes: care for wellbeing, sensitivity, sympathy, empathy, non-judgement and emotional courage.

Paul Gilbert recently described compassion, at a conference in Brisbane, as a firefighter’s sensitivity to suffering and motivation to run into a burning building to rescue someone, despite their fears. Compassion requires us to be emotionally courageous and consciously aware.

Therefore, compassion is not pity or weakness. It is not about never having difficult emotions again, nor is it selfish or underserved. Compassion is not always putting others needs above our own, and it is not abdicating responsibility. Compassion is not too hard or overwhelming or setting you up to fall, and it doesn’t make you more vulnerable to other people. (Mary Welford, CFT for dummies).