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This article comes from EDV’s Recovery Newsletter, Sending Hope, and provides subscribers with recovery support directly to their inbox. To subscribe to this newsletter, please see here.

Unlocking the transformative power of self-compassion

I’m Gabs, a member of the SE-ED team and Masters of Counselling student. I’ve recently been reflecting on my own recovery journey, as well those within the EDV community that I have had the honour of hearing. In listening to these stories, I feel that one particular theme has stood out to me – self-compassion.  

Hear me out (I rolled my eyes when my therapist brought self-compassion up with me)…

In our fast-paced and demanding world, it is easy to overlook the importance of self-compassion. We may often find ourselves caught up in the pursuit of perfection, striving to meet societal expectations and harshly judging ourselves when we fall short. It is crucial, however, to pause, reflect, and cultivate self-compassion, as it not only serves as a balm for our souls but also helps us understand why coping strategies, such as eating disorders, come about.

In this edition of the Sending Hope, I want to explore the transformative benefits of self-compassion, delve into the origins of coping, and offer insights on having empathy towards your younger self.

So, what is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is the practice of extending kindness, understanding, and love to ourselves, especially in times of struggle or perceived wrong doing or failure. It involves treating ourselves with the same warmth and compassion we would extend to a dear friend.

Research has shown that self-compassion offers numerous benefits, including reduced stress, improved mental well-being, increased resilience, and healthier relationships. When we embrace self-compassion, we create a safe space within ourselves where we can acknowledge our vulnerabilities, mistakes, and pain without judgment, fostering a deep sense of self-acceptance and inner peace.

Self-compassion and recovery

Coping strategies, such as eating disorders, often arise as attempts to manage overwhelming emotions, distressing life circumstances, or deep-rooted insecurities. They can serve as a coping mechanism to regain a sense of control, numb emotional pain, or seek validation. However, it is important to recognise that these strategies, while initially offering relief, can ultimately perpetuate harm and further disconnect us from our true selves. By developing self-compassion, we cultivate a compassionate understanding of the underlying pain that gave rise to these coping strategies. This understanding empowers us to seek healthier alternatives and embark on a journey of healing and recovery.

How do I even start to find self-compassion?

Self-compassion is something that may not come easily at first if we are not used to it, but we can practice and strengthen.

My “go-to” is rubbing my hand on my heart, accompanied with a self-compassionate thought. This could be anything from “it’s ok to be scared”, “I know it feels tough, but you’ve got this” or even showing understanding for you past and present self. For me, physical touch allowed me to access the emotional and mental benefits of self-compassion at any given moment. Touch activates the care system and the parasympathetic nervous system to help us calm down and feel safe. It may feel awkward at first, but your body doesn’t know that. It simply responds to the physical gesture of warmth and care, just as a baby responds to being cuddled in its mother’s arms.

For others it might be starting with just one element, for example:

  • holding awareness or mindfulness of what is happening for you in the moment,
  • neutral or compassionate self-talk as you would say to a friend,
  • touch, holding a hand on your heart, giving yourself a hug or even gently rubbing your palms together

When we start to explore and understand why these coping strategies have come about, it is essential to extend empathy to our selves both in the past and in the present. Our past actions and choices are often influenced by our knowledge, familial or societal pressures, biology or emotional turmoil that we are experiencing at that point in time. By starting to demonstrate empathy and care towards ourselves, we can start to release the burden of guilt and shame, acknowledging that we did the best we could with the resources available to us at the time. Self-compassion enables us to view our younger-selves with empathy, recognising our struggles and honouring our journey. It allows us to embrace personal growth, self-forgiveness, and a newfound sense of self-worth.

Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. Yes, self-compassion is aimed at the soothing suffering, but we can’t always control life. So, when difficult times arise (as is life), self-compassion allows you to accept your humanness. As the Godmother of self-compassion, Kristen Neff, says

“Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself”.

As we navigate the complexities of life, let us remember the transformative power of self-compassion. By nurturing self-compassion, we not only offer ourselves the love and understanding we deserve but also gain insights into the origins of coping strategies. Through self-compassion, we can embark on a path of healing, fostering resilience, and start to explore and replace harmful coping mechanisms with healthier alternatives.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions has produced an in-depth, comprehensive PDF self-compassion workbook (access it here).

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