How Does Self-Compassion Help with Overwhelm?
“…self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being….”
Kristin Neff writes this in the first chapter of her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
I’m in the middle of reading this book. It’s the current book in my BodyIntelligence Book Club, and the subject of self-compassion is exactly right for me at the moment.
I recently returned from an intense visit with my ailing parents in the UK, and continue to deal with the ongoing matter of their care even 4,000 miles away. I’m also in the middle of planning a new course on another subject very dear to my heart – overwhelm.
I believe self-compassion is an important factor in being able to manage overwhelm and stress effectively – you might even say a critical factor. Indeed, Self-Compassion (the book) is confirming this, and adding new insights into why.
Neff defines self-compassion like this:
“Self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”
I found this enlightening.
Previously I thought of self-compassion and self-kindness as the same thing. Neff’s definition, however, makes a lot of sense to me, and makes it clearer to me WHY self-compassion is so helpful in the management of stress and overwhelm.
Let me explain.
It seems to me that what we need in the face of potentially overwhelming circumstances or situations, is resilience.
Self-compassion – that combination of self-kindness, mindfulness and recognizing common humanity – helps us build this resilience. It gives us the emotional intelligence to deal effectively with the stresses of being human.
I’ve been musing on HOW it does this.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
When we practice self-compassion, we don’t get dragged under by our own negative reactions to overwhelming or stressful circumstances and events.
One symptom of overwhelm, is our own tendency to “catastrophize.” Mindful, objective awareness of our own thoughts, enables us to stop intensifying the reality of our situation with even more awful predictions of what could go wrong, as we extrapolate out to worse and worse scenarios. Instead, we are able to stay calmer, routed in present, and better able to cope with whatever we are facing.
Not only that, we are able to reduce our judgement of ourselves – the negative self-talk – that can exacerbate our situation. When we notice we are having “self-harming” thoughts – such as “I’m so stupid. How could I do that,” or, “I’m such an idiot – no one else would make such a basic mistake” (you get the idea) – we are able to meet these with self-compassion and stop them in their tracks. In fact, the more we practice mindful self-compassion, the more this will become our go-to state of mind.
And, to make matters even worse, when we’re feeling overwhelmed and we get into this negative self-talk, we can also start berating ourselves for doing it – adding insult to injury, so to speak. However, instead of beating ourselves up for this we show ourselves compassion and diffuse situation. It is a practice we have to repeat over and over again, but which gets easier over time.
This is so in line with key Alexander Technique principles, whereby you learn to stop and notice what you are doing and thinking in the moment, so you have the opportunity to choose a different option if you wish. I believe that non-judgmental self-compassion is actually an inherent part of this process. Consciously, or overtly, adding self-compassion in the way that Neff advocates only enhances the process.
Neff developed a practice to help her remember to be self-compassionate. She describes it as a “sort of self-compassion mantra” which is “highly effective for dealing with negative emotions.” Whenever she notices something she doesn’t like about herself, or when something is going wrong in her life, she repeats to herself silently, the following phrases:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
Each line contains an important component.
The first acknowledges your suffering and brings a moment of mindfulness to this fact.
The second reminds you that you are not alone, and this is part of being human.
The third is to help you bring caring concern to your present experience.
And in the fourth you clearly set an intention to be compassionate to yourself, and are reminded that you are indeed worthy of receiving self-compassion.
Suffering, of course, takes many forms. Being stressed and overwhelmed is most definitely one of them. If we can lessen our suffering then we lessen our stress. Self-compassion is one way to do that.
Neff suggests that we all create our own “self-compassion mantra” using words that feel right for us, and that we memorize it, so we have it easily available in moments of need.
I created this one, specifically to help with the suffering caused by overwhelm and stress. I use the BodyIntelligence approach to effective thinking and self-care in how I structure the phrases.
I am free to notice my suffering.
Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes.
I am free to be kind to myself.
I am free to give myself the compassion I need.
It’s a work in progress. There are additional thinking strategies I could add that are also helpful, but for now I want to stick with Neff’s self-compassion model.
Having years of practice being aware of my own thinking patterns from my Alexander Technique work has been hugely helpful to me as I am dealing with caring for my parents – certainly a potentially overwhelming situation for me. I realize I am still prone to think about what I “should” or “should not” have done or be doing – the subtext being that I am not good enough. Recognizing this, it is so helpful to treat myself with compassion for what I am going through, and acknowledge that I am not alone, and that I am doing my best.
My work includes many other tools that help us deal with overwhelm. Until now I haven’t explicitly included self-compassion among them. It is a useful addition to the BodyIntelligence overwhelm “tool box.”
I’d like to finish with two questions, that take into account that our mind and body are not separate, but a unified whole.
What happens in you physically when you feel stressed or overwhelmed?
What changes in you physically when you offer yourself self-compassion?
I’d love to hear what you notice and experience when you give yourself self-compassion (and when you don’t!), and I very much hope you find these ideas helpful.
Image © aquariagirl1970 / 123RF Stock Photo
Imogen, this is just perfect, and incredibly timely for me as well. Thank you so much. I wish you luck, self-compassion and much kindness of all kinds as you go forth down this road with your long-distance parents. <3
Thank you, Robbin. Wishing you luck, self-compassion and kindness, too. <3
I really like the mantra. It takes me back to the metta meditation I have done on retreats…
My I be happy; may I be well; may I be free from suffering.
May he/she be well etc
May they be well etc
…emphasising that compassion for others begins with myself.
Being totally frank I’m not able to put self-compassion into practise when I’m overwhelmed, stressed or upset. With that tight feeling in my chest and my mind hopping around like a grasshopper it’s a big ask to focus on yet another thought. What works better for me is (just) mindfulness, focus on the physical feeling – where it is and how it feels, and notice the grasshopper mind. When I’m calmer (chest eases, mind cooler) I can take a clearer view, and what really helps me then is free-writing. To that end, here is my attempt at a personal mantra…
I am free to notice where my mind is.
Stuck in the same old cruddy ruts.
I am free to notice where and how it feels
Or simply take peace in mindfulness.
I agree. Simply noticing comes first and foremost. In Neff’s definition, mindfulness is definitely a part of self-compassion. Neff suggests you practice your mantra often, so it is more likely to be accessible when the time comes, which makes sense. I would also advise people to be aware of their contact with the ground, or surface beneath them, for instance – something physical that roots you in the here and now.
The “metta meditation” you describe sounds like the Loving Kindness Meditation which is lovely.
I needed to read this today Imogen, your own mantra is lovely and gentle, I’ve written in down😊…..our body believes every word we say. Alexander Technique for me is a wonderful tool….I’ve been a pupil for many years, enjoy reading your blogs, thanks for taking the time to write them and for being so honest.
You are welcome, Karen. I’m so glad this came at the right time for you, and that you like my “mantra.”