I remember the first time I really thought about the word ‘compassion’. It was in a Religious Studies lesson at school. Our teacher explained that it has its root in Latin, where ‘com’ means ‘together’ and ‘passion’ means ‘suffer’, so being compassionate means, suffering together with someone, feeling someone’s pain, understanding, even experiencing, what they’re going through. I’ve never forgotten this way of thinking about compassion – it’s stuck with me because it evokes such a powerful feeling within me … to choose to suffer what someone else is suffering is an amazing act of love.
Fast-forward thirty years to the Compassion-Focussed Skills workshop I attended in hospital. There, we talked about how a compassionate person isn’t just a nice person; there’s an element of bravery, courage and strength in the way they support people. There’s a willingness to take responsibility and an ability to face and tolerate distress. They understand the problems people are facing, but they have a way of helping those people to help themselves. Sounds a lot like what my RS teacher said!
So, how does this relate to being self-compassionate? After all, if you’re suffering, you’re already suffering with yourself.
When it comes to mental illness, one of the main ways I’ve learned to be compassionate towards myself, has been to learn about my brain and understanding how it works. In last week’s post, I wrote about the drive, threat and soothing systems that we all have. It should have been obvious, especially as I have two children who I’ve had to soothe too many times to count, but I’d never really thought about humans having a soothing system. As a sufferer of anxiety, the threat system – flight, fight, freeze and appease – was all too obvious too me, but the idea that I could regulate it by activating my soothing system was a revelation. When my children were babies, I’d activate their soothing systems with cuddles or milk or a nappy change, but I didn’t twig that I could do the same for myself as an adult, even as a life-long comfort eater. Two and two just hadn’t made four in this area of my thinking. I wonder if it’s because society often tells us that comfort-eating is bad, and that spending time and effort on ourselves is selfish. To quote Daft Punk: everything needs to be done harder, better, faster, stronger. Slowing down to take a breathe is routinely frowned upon.
But I digress. The main points of the Compassion-Focussed Skills workshop were that people in crisis can often be very hard on themselves, but what they need to get through the crisis is support and encouragement, and that the best person to give them support and encouragement is themselves. Often, people can be good at looking after others, but not so good at looking after themselves – hands up if you can relate to that! What really helps is if we think about ourselves as our own best friend and find ways of thinking about ourselves and treating ourselves as if we were.
In the workshops, to help us become our own best friends, we learned a number of strategies. One of them was to engage in Compassionate Thinking/Self-Talk when we find ourselves thinking negatively about ourselves. For example: you realise you’ve forgotten to reply to a text message from a friend, and you start to criticise yourself and tell yourself that you’re a bad friend. Instead of thinking in that way, you could try to be compassionate toward yourself, as you would be to your best friend. Tell yourself that everyone is forgetful sometimes, and that when you’re busy or ill things can easily slip your mind. Tell yourself that your friend will understand, and that they’ll just be glad to hear from you – it’s better to reply late than not at all. This way of thinking acknowledges our common humanity, is non-judgmental, is encouraging and takes responsibility. It’s self-compassionate. Easier said than done, I know, but it just takes practice.
Another strategy we talked about was using a self-soothing smell. Apparently, our sense of smell has the fastest route to our brains than any of our other senses. Smells can trigger off our threat system – for example, the smell of rotten food will stop us from eating rotten food – but they can also be a good trigger for emotional memories. Smells can result in us remembering happy events or times which in turn can trigger our soothing system. I’ve always loved the smell of lavender; it reminds me of childhood visits with my grandma and picking lavender in my parents’ garden and hanging it up to dry in Dad’s shed, so, during the workshop, I chose lavender as my soothing scent and inhaled it during the relaxation exercises we did. When I first came home from hospital, I’d carry a pouch of dried lavender everywhere I went, so I could sniff it if I felt anxious. I can’t say it triggered off any specific memories, but just the act of slowing my breathing and inhaling a pleasant scent made me feel a little better. Even now, I put a few drops of lavender essential oil on my nightshirt before I do my morning mediation and evening relaxation exercises. It’s become part of my routine. It is a twice-daily reminder that to really take care of myself, I need to get into good wellness habits and that I shouldn’t stop doing what makes me well if I want to stay well.
Oh dear, this has turned into another long post, and I haven’t said everything I wanted to say about self-compassion yet, so it looks like next week’s Mental Health Monday post will have to be Part Three. Until then, what strategies do you have for activating your soothing system and being compassionate toward yourself? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading! See you next time. xxx
(Image Credits: Pixabay)