Reduce Negative Thoughts and Feelings Through Self Compassion

Consider the effect of another person constantly putting you down, undermining your confidence, becoming annoyed with you when you don’t do things the way they think you should. Most of us can imagine (or have experienced) how this could have a negative effect on our well being. However, we also need to be aware of the similar effects that can be brought about by our own self talk, thoughts, memories and the internal pictures we create. They work in the same way as those external forces, so why do we communicate with ourselves in this way with such negative thoughts and feelings?

All too frequently we take ourselves into our thoughts and place our focus on our problems and our perceived difficulties, this alerts our threat system, leading to the release of stress chemicals, which in turn leads to more  stress and fear, beginning a vicious circle that can produce a downward spiral that can feel impossible to get out of.  One of the causes and effects of this is rumination, where we reflect on our mood, continually asking ourselves questions such as “how did I get here? “ “Why does this keep happening to me?” We might continually mull over why it is our own fault or that we are a bad person, generating increased feelings of guilt, questioning our sense of self or even have a feeling that we have lost who we really are. Research has shown that feelings of shame and inferiority can be a focus of such rumination (Cheung, Gilbert and Irons, 2004)

There is more to 'shame' than most of us think of when we here the word. Shame is made up of internal and external parts, a person experiencing external shame focuses their thoughts and feelings on what others think of them, often believing that others see them negatively or as having undesirable characteristics. This can make the person with external shame feel as if the social world is unsafe and they may want to just hide away, staying at home not wanting to go out or take part in things (Gilbert, 1998, 2006). While a person with internal shame places the focus on the self, focusing their feelings and attention inside themself, becoming very self critical, seeing themselves as incompetent, bad or imperfect. A person suffering from shame can feel overwhelmed and shut down, the threat system is placed on high alert, and they do not feel safe or calmed on the inside or the outside. Overall they find it difficult to like themselves or to give themselves feelings of warmth or reassurance (Gilbert, Clark, Kemple, Miles, & Irons, 2004; Whelton & Greenberg, 2005). Sometimes these individuals may have a past where they experienced bullying, abuse, neglect or a lack of affection (Kaufman 1989; Schore 1998), which may lead them to become excessively fearful of rejection or criticism from the world around them. This in turn, can lead to self-criticism, shame and the perception that the world is a dangerous and intimidating place leading to further difficulties in feeling content, safe or warm in their relationships with others or within themselves.

An awareness of how our negative thoughts stimulate the threat system in our brains allows us to realize that if we practice focusing our attention positively and generate compassionate thoughts and images, we should be able to stimulate and develop the soothing and safety centres of our brain instead. Compassion involves placing a focus on alleviating distress and encouraging development and growth. Research has shown many benefits for individuals who are more self-compassionate: they have higher rates of life satisfaction, social connectedness and happiness,  positive effects on the immune system and lower rates of depression and anxiety (Barnard & curry, 2011; Mills, Gilbert, Bellew, McEwan & Gale,2007; Lutz 2008; Gilbert 2009; Neff, Rude & Kirkpatrick, 2007). 

Research shows that people who have high levels of self-criticism and shame can have difficulties in being kind to themselves or being self compassionate (Gilbert 2006). However, the skill of compassion can be learnt, it involves creating feelings of warmth, kindness and support by engaging mindfully with a variety of therapeutic activities that focus on thoughts, feelings and behaviours (Mace 2007; Williams 2007) for example, it may involve something as simple as remembering times when we were kind to others or when they were kind to us (Gilbert 2009). It also involves focusing on our positive qualities, our skills and our strengths, to refocus our attention and direct it towards how we want to be. This can be achieved through; increasing positive behaviours (such as, taking up an activity we used to enjoy, or finding a new one); keeping our interactions with others as positive as possible; learning a new appreciation of the  savouring of experiences, appreciation and gratitude (such as, in the keeping of a gratitude journal. These are important as people who are self critical usually do not appreciate the effort they put into things, increasing our focus on the process, rather than the result, allows an appreciation of our efforts no matter how small, rather than focussing on how far away from our goal we are. 

If you wish to learn more about utilizing these process and others to move towards more positive thoughts, turn around negative emotions and to wonderfully  improve your life just  contact Susan and arrange a brief informal chat over the telephone or for an appointment for a free initial consultation. If you would like to know a bit more about me first, check out the about me page.