Post 33 – Just how critical is this ?  (Compassion part three)

There are many aspects to depression. Amplification of emotions and thoughts that every one has is one of them. We all have the inner voice that is critical and another that pushes for perfection. Both can be helpful in small doses and when listened to with compassion and kind understanding. If not they can lead to rumination, feeling of inadequacy and unworthiness, resulting in poor mental health well-being.

And I do mean serious problems within depression. The critical voice is the one that tells you that you are not worthy (despite what anyone else can say) and nothing you do will ever be right. These thoughts start to lead to a path downwards, which sadly can end in self-harm and suicide for too many.

Over the last two posts I have looked at what self-compassion is, with some suggestions and invitations to try some Jedi mind tricks to help. This week let’s look at how compassion can specifically address that insidious Sith, the self-critic.

Now if you have been reading along with these you may know that I use visualisation to sometimes “see” the emotion or thought, to help defuse its potency. I am now progressing to then use those characters in a useful way.

So the critical voice was the raging, grumpy bear, Judge Bear, who would listen to the prosecution a lot and overrule the defence even more. As I shared a few posts back by turning that visualisation from a big grizzly bear into a cuddly bear (with a bow tie) was helpful to defuse, but the next step and relevant to self-compassion is to then get the bear to help.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with reviewing and thinking how you could do something better or learn from a mistake. It’s part of the growth mindset which is part of thriving and is healthy for our mental well-being.

But a lot of that is done on the rumination train, without clear intent and happens automatically (often at night, right?) which isn’t helpful or healthy. If we can change that into the reflection train and with an intent to be kind to ourselves, to learn and be curious then it can be much more helpful.

I thought this might be best explained with an example and using some of the compassionate engagement and alleviation concepts from Professor Paul Gilbert. So here is a scenario and how the compassionate self can change that critical voice:

I have done something I believe to be a silly or stupid mistake. Bear puts on the judge wig and we board the rumination train . The internal monologue goes something like “Why did I do that, what will others be thinking, what was I thinking, it was obvious it was wrong, as usual done the stupid thing, no-one else makes mistakes like that….” And so on for about an hour or five.

Let’s take some breaths and focus on being here, right now, off the train. To help, consider how the compassionate self could help, to become kindly engaged with the thought process. We shall leave Bear spinning his bow tie over in the corner, being quiet.

I allow myself to be :

  • Motivated – to help myself not feel stupid and self-critical
  • Sensitive – being properly aware of the real experience that has lead to this monologue
  • Sympathetic – being aware of and moved by the pain I feel
  • Distress tolerant – not turning away from the pain
  • Empathatic – consider what I may need or require to help
  • Non-judgemental – don’t blame anyone (including myself!) for the pain

Now, what can help me:

  • Attention – what would be helpful to me right now, so perhaps to soften the tone, ask a question to bring a pause to the thought
  • Thinking – Is there really a mistake here? If so can I, if I want to, address it? If there wasn’t actually a mistake, note what emotions I am feeling and be curious about why they are present.
  • Behaviour – consider the steps to address the mistake or consider what you could do to address the emotions, by accepting they are present and deciding if you need to act upon them
  • Feeling – a heartfelt wish to be easy on yourself whether you made a mistake or not
  • Sensory focus – being aware of your emotions, as they change, come & go, during this thought process

That might sound a lot to remember. Perhaps a summary I could offer is to bring a kind intention to the thinking (the first set of points) and a self-aware knowledge of how you use, act or not act upon the thinking (the second set of points.)

It’s turning the unhelpful into the useful. The unhealthy into the healthy. The difference between thriving and living.

And always, always, no matter how well you did with being more compassionate towards yourself, celebrate and thank yourself for doing so.

“You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” (I can’t recall where I saw this quote)

This week’s Jedi mind trick is via Dr James Kirby, another member of the Compassionate Yoda’s. In the highly recommended podcast The Alphabet of the Heart James was in conversation with Dr James Doty and shared this brilliantly simple tip for when first waking up:

“also welcome yourself to the morning. I know when I welcome myself to the morning it’s often ‘Oh, do I have to get up now’. So it’s already setting the tone of irritation, annoyance and frustration. Whereas if we can just take a moment, wake, settle into the breath, for a minute or two, nothing long, just a short time and perhaps then welcome ourselves with a friendly voice, internal monologue of ‘Hello James’. Now that may seem silly and awkward at first but it’s setting the tone and the intention of the day…”

It does work, you can’t help but smile when you do it- and isn’t that a kind, compassionate way to start your day ? You deserve to start the day the best way you can.

Lastly an invitation. Please could you spare twenty minutes to support research work on compassion and kindness by Professor Paul Gilbert and James by undertaking a survey available here Several friends (thank you,!) have done it and found it really interesting to do.

Love to hear any thoughts, questions or feedback if you try it via the blog (WordPress), Twitter or Facebook. Next post will look at that other Sith, the self-perfectionist.

Have a lovely week of being kind to yourself, Chris


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