Critical Monster or Compassionate Self Talk?

Failed deadline? Compassion, isn’t that letting yourself off the hook?

So welcome again to my blog. Firstly, just to say a big ‘well done’ to everyone that took part in activities for Mental Health Week in May. It was great to see the work that is being done to raise the profile of mental health issues and let’s keep this on the agenda for 2017.

Apologies for anyone who was interested to hear my thoughts on coping with exam pressure. The phrase of ‘I think I missed the boat’ comes to mind but I do hope that you checked out BBC Bitesize which provides practical and supportive information for young people.

The topic for my blog this month is ‘How do you cope with situations where you don’t meet deadlines, or perform below expectation?’ Do you criticise yourself, perhaps even saying that you have failed or are in fact a failure, or do you adopt a more compassionate approach?

“Compassion”, I hear you say, “isn’t that just letting yourself off the hook and condoning poor performance?” Believe it or not, it isn’t! As a therapist, I routinely incorporate compassion focused techniques into my work when it becomes apparent that self-criticism, high expectation of self or others or difficulties coping with emotions are part of what maintains a client’s distress. Therapy sessions help clients to understand and develop the skills of compassion, helping them to develop a more compassionate way of talking to themselves and acting when life is tough and doesn’t go to plan.

For me, the first step is to help clients to recognise their tendency to have self-critical thoughts. What situations trigger them and what do they say? I often refer to this as the ‘monster’ or ‘poisoned parrot’ that sits on your shoulder giving you a running commentary of your faults and things to be afraid of. How does this monster sound? How do you feel when you listen to it? How do you respond to it? Does your monster remind you of events or people in your life that have been critical or not particularly nurturing? The reality is yes, that our past life experiences and social relationships will have affected our brains and our ability to be compassionate towards ourselves and others.

So can we change things? Yes, with a desire to want to, hard work and perseverance. It involves understanding what it means to be compassionate and developing some of the qualities of compassion such as empathy, sympathy, forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance, developing feelings of warmth and taking responsibility for our actions.

Compassion focused therapy involves many stages but a useful tool, that I often use with clients, is to consider the idea of a compassionate image.  If you could develop a compassionate image, of someone or something that is non-judgemental, warm, wise and has strength, that you could relate to when life is tough, what would this look like? Would they be male, female or even an animal? How would they sound? How would they talk to you and relate to you? If they could hear you being critical of yourself, what would they say?

Remember, a truly compassionate image or friend is kind and understanding, not dismissive or critical, but also tells you how it is. They help you to acknowledge when you have not achieved things, consider why this is so and help you to take actions to improve your situation. They recognise that we are humans and as such behave as humans, having emotions and making mistakes. They recognise that whilst it’s human instinct to sometimes want to avoid difficult situations, they know that this only makes things worse and they motivate us not only to take action, but also to take responsibility for our actions.

In learning to be compassionate to ourselves we might also want to look at how compassionate we are to others in our lives. How do you respond to others when they are in distress, make mistakes or perform badly?  How might your new compassionate image respond to others if they were guiding you?

As a therapist and mother with teenagers, I don’t profess to be compassionate all of the time, far from it! But what I do know is that learning to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others can only be a good thing; it improves our mental health and is therefore something worth investing time in.

If you are in interested in learning to be less critical of yourself and others then please contact me at my website www.feelwelltherapy.co.uk . For more general information on compassion, you might be also interested to look at the Compassionate Mind foundations website here.

For now, have a good summer.

Michelle.