Self-compassion is the attitude that underpins all other depression-beating strategies, and can simply be defined as giving attention to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of others, and especially ourselves. If we can learn to treat ourselves kindly and support ourselves though our struggles, then everything else becomes a lot easier!
Are you your own worst enemy? It is very rare for depression to exist without a certain amount of ‘self-bullying’. Depression is a bully, and it preys on and reinforces the habit of self-bullying. To beat depression, you need to sort your inner bully out! Self-compassion is a skill that you can learn and practise without having to actually ‘believe’ it at first – we can train our minds to bring greater compassion to all our thoughts and feelings.
1. Tune In
First you need to notice just how self-bullying you can really be, because we very often do this without even realising it. Spend a day, or even a week, writing down some of the things you say to yourself as part of your inner running commentary when you are feeling low. Just write it all down exactly the way you speak to yourself, with the words you use – the name-calling, the self-blame, the criticism of specific things that you do – everything!
Also make a note of the tone that you use with yourself. It might be interesting to hear if you sound like anyone in particular in your past (a critical parent or teacher, for example). Write down the most prominent phrases you use towards yourself – some really common examples include “pathetic”, “useless”, “failure”, or often focus on some sort of negative comparison of oneself against everyone else.
Now look back over what you have written, and ask yourself if you would ever speak in this way to someone else that you cared about, especially if that person was feeling low – unlikely! You may feel that your critical voice is trying to ‘help’ you – to keep you safe or help you improve as a person – but it is important to recognise how ineffective it is to do so in this harsh, self-critical way. Being caring and encouraging in your tone is much more effective.
3. Try Something Different
See if you can change the tone and the words you use when you speak to yourself – think about how someone else would speak to you when you are feeling low, someone who really cares about you, accepts you, and is always kind and gentle towards you.
Practise it by writing it out. It may feel very strange and unnatural at first, if you are used to taking a harsh tone with yourself, and is the sort of thing you might have to treat as an academic exercise to start off with.
4. Keep a self-compassion journal
Another way to extend this exercise is described by the leading US self-compassion researcher, Dr Kristin Neff, who suggests keeping a ‘self-compassion journal’ for a week (or longer), in which you write down the things in your day that have caused you pain, that you felt unhappy about, or that you judged yourself for, and then to use her 3 components of self-compassion to process the event:
5. Next steps
Find a self-compassion test, more self-compassion training exercises, and some MP3 downloads with self-compassion meditations on Dr Kristin Neff’s website at www.self-compassion.org. A very good way to develop more self-compassion is learning the skill of mindfulness – learn more on the ‘Practising Mindfulness’ page of Dr Kristin’s website and look out for courses or workshops run by your university or college counselling service.