A lot of my posts and stories recently have been focused around self-compassion. I am not expert in it, nor am I saying everyone should be nicer to themselves NOW or else. But Actively Autoimmune is about sharing what I'm going through and find helpful, as well as helping use movement with chronic illness. I have started seeing a pain psychologist because I felt my resilience of pain, medical procedures, infections and chronic illness life basically was getting worn down.
As a physiotherapist and a patient with chronic pain for over 15 years I thought I knew most things about pain management. I understand the physiology and the fact it is affected by our experiences, fears etc. I know mindfulness/meditation, relaxation activities and movement are all good in managing pain. However what I didn't know was this link between self-criticism and the ongoing affect this has on our body.
When you say you should speak nicely to yourself? I am sure you are like me and agree thats great and easy to suggest but find its a lot harder to do. You wouldn't tell a friend who was struggling she is being lazy, useless, not trying hard enough would you? But yet this kind of negative talk is often the first thoughts we have if we make a mistake or when we don't like our appearance, or things go wrong for us. I then found that I was being even more critical because I was being critical..it seemed like I wouldn't break this cycle!
However the more I have learned through this 'journey' about WHY we are so self critical and then WHY it actually its better for us both mentally and physically to be kinder to ourselves, the easier I've found to implement it.
What is self-compassion?
Compassion is a basic kindness with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish & effort to relieve it. It is made up of 4 components: 1. Awareness 2. Normalising 3. Kindness 4. Alleviation
What does this actually mean?
Self compassion is about doing all four of these things for ourselves when we are struggling. To be aware of our pain, understanding that whilst this pain is hard, it is a normal experience , not a failing on our part and we are not alone. It then involves directing feelings of kindness and care towards ourselves, just as we might to someone else we care about who is struggling. And finally focusing our attention and energy on how we might improve our pain and move through the struggle we are facing.
Why is it important?
1. It has an evolutionary importance - care of ourselves and others is vital for our survival
2. Self-compassion is linked to our mental health and well being. Studies show those who are more self-compassionate have less mental health issues
3. Its been shown to help balance our emotions. There is a theory we have three symptoms known as 'threat, drive and soothe'. I am going to explain this in more detail
P. Gilbert (2010) has created a theory called 'threat, drive and soothe' which each play a role in balancing our emotions.
Threat = protective mechanism thats hard wired in us in order to survive However it sometimes becomes the default setting so we repetitively think about bad stuff. This means it can be overactive and in overdrive as even small mistakes or flaws can be seen as threats to our life, success, finance etc. Pain is seen as a threat to the body so in chronic pain particularly, our threat system is on high alert most of the time.
When we are the threat mode our thinking quickly becomes narrow and negative. Its difficult to have balanced rational thoughts as in threat mode our brain doesn't have time for sophisticated thoughts as it feels its in danger and needs to react quickly. As such thats why the negative irrational thoughts are first to pop up, which is important to understand so we don't berate ourselves for irrational thinking but its our mind thinking we are in danger!
Drive = what motivates us to get things done and be active in life
Without our drive system we would feel lifeless and directionless (often seen in depression) so its a really important emotional state. However similar to threat mode, this can go into overdrive, especially if we compare ourselves to peers or society. We feel we should constantly do more and be better and if not then there is something wrong with us, we have failed.
Soothe = to manage distress and calm the threat and drive systems down
The soothe system is at work when we are relaxed, feeling safe, calm and content. You cannot be in threat mode and soothe mode at the same time, nor can you be in drive and soothe mode at the same time.
Experiences of kindness and care tend to stimulate the soothe system which is where self-compassion comes in.
How can I stop being so self-critical?
For most people being compassionate towards themselves and activating the soothing system doesn't come easily. However the opposite of this, self criticism is easier involving internal negative self-talk. This negative talk can in turn active the threat system which just adds to the body jumping into danger mode, but its a hard task to change this around.
- Firstly you aren't alone, most of the population struggle to be more self-compassionate, but even more so in the chronic illness community as we experience higher pain, trauma, and are unable to achieve and do like our 'drive' system wants.
- As mentioned our body is hard wired to shift into threat mode pretty easily to protect ourselves so seeing the negative is our default
- Many of us don't stop to consciously recognise we are struggling or that we speak to ourselves in such a harsh way. Imagine speaking to a friend the same way as we speak to ourselves?
- We may hold negative beliefs around self-compassion that its indulgent or weak. Equally we may believe our self-critical voice is important as without it we would be lazy, unproductive or not good enough
All these factors feed into a cycle (see diagram above) that continues the threat system to be activated. So if we can learn to turn down that negative voice and talk to ourselves with kindness we can shift into the soothing mode which in turn helps the body calm down, reducing the experience of pain.
Know we understand WHY we need to be more self compassionate, now its important to learn HOW we actually do that which will be up on next weeks blog! I know I have written a lot, but understanding this and linking the brains responses to pain and stress have really helped me see where self-care and self-compassion fit in and how it can help so hopefully it will do the same for you too!
Lots of love, Zoe xx
Model of emotional behaviours, Gilbert (2010)
Self-compassion modules, CCI (2017)