This blog post talks about self-compassion and mindfulness in the context of mental health and well-being. Much of the research and writing on compassion and mindfulness in Western psychology has been informed by Buddhist teachings and traditions. As part of practicing cultural humility rather than cultural appropriation, it’s important to learn about where different practices come from, 1, 2, 3 and situate knowledge in the complex history and systems of power that continue to have lasting impacts on social inequality. Especially in light of the rise in anti-Asian racism, some readers may find this article by Due Quach helpful in providing “a guide on tending to the traumas of anti-Asian racism and violence.”
Coping with Uncertainty
I’ve spent the majority of the pandemic training as a psychotherapist in a tertiary care centre, focusing on treatment of anxiety disorders. One of the core features of anxiety is difficulty tolerating uncertainty. Living through a pandemic, we are all navigating uncertainty (how many times have we heard these are “unprecedented times”?).
It makes sense that uncertainty makes us anxious. Uncertainty can be interpreted as a threat. It can also be exciting (some people really do love surprises), but in general, being unable to predict what will happen and feeling as though you don’t have control does not contribute to a sense of safety. Over time, this added stress takes its toll on physical and mental health.
While we are all living with the threat of uncertainty, the pandemic has demonstrated that this risk is not shared equally. Media coverage has highlighted social injustice including racism and structural health inequalities, domestic violence, and the risks faced by essential workers. The intersection of race and gender is clearly visible in the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta, amidst the rise of anti-Asian racism across the United States and Canada. March also marked the anniversary of the murder of Breonna Taylor, highlighting the disproportionate threats faced by women of colour.
A year into this pandemic, we need strategies to build resilience and prevent burnout—not only to cope with uncertainty, but to engage in the high stakes, difficult conversations and actions necessary for social change. Just when it may feel easier to zone out, we are all being asked to show up. Not only is avoidance not an option for many people, it also tends to only work in the short term. The human brain is highly adaptive, and uncomfortable feelings will find a way to get your attention.
So how do we turn towards our discomfort, rather than avoid it? And, how can we cope when the odds feel stacked against us?
Self-compassion refers to being kind and understanding to oneself when faced with personal suffering4. Research has shown that people who are more self-compassionate report lower levels of stress, decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increased well-being5, 6, 7. Research has also shown that people can learn to become more self-compassionate8, 9—it’s something we can all practice.
What about Complacency?
One of the main concerns I hear from people about practicing self-compassion is that they’ll become complacent and fail to achieve their goals. However, research shows that self-compassion increases motivation for self-improvement and personal accountability—it even makes people more likely to apologize for transgressions.10 Being compassionate towards yourself helps to provide a sense of safety that promotes a growth mindset—it’s difficult to learn when you feel like you’re under threat. And right now, we could all benefit from finding ways to soothe our threat responses.
3 Ways to Practice Self-Compassion
1. Connect with your body
When we’re stressed or overwhelmed, we can become disconnected and zone out from physical sensations. Have you ever been concentrating on a difficult task, only to notice that your shoulders are tense, and you’ve been frowning at your computer screen? Alternatively, we can become more sensitive to physical sensations, noticing every muscle twinge.
These are normal responses to stress, and can be understood in terms of the human body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. Reconnecting to your body can be a powerful way to soothe the threat response. For example:
Take a walk, without headphones
Give yourself a hand or foot massage
Take a warm shower or bath
See if you can notice sensations in your body, without judging or adding an explanation. It can be helpful to practice using the statement, “I’m noticing…” For example, shifting from “my shoulders are so tight because I’m always working too much and should really exercise more and that deadline is coming up and…” towards, “I’m noticing tightness in my shoulders.”
2. Notice how you respond to yourself
This practice involves paying attention to how you speak to yourself, or how you feel about yourself—while many people relate to the idea of “negative self-talk”, for some people it feels more accurate to think about responding to themselves through images or feelings. We tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on other people.
3. Activate compassionate feelings
We have likely all had an emotional response when watching a movie or TV show, listening to music, reading a book, or looking through photos. The first step is to notice a feeling, without labelling it as good or bad. Do you notice any physical sensations associated with the feeling? These might include: tightness, ease, tingling, warmth/cold, heaviness/lightness, and (a common one), numbness. Now that you’ve tuned in to the feeling, the next step is to cultivate a sense of compassion or warmth.
There are many meditative practices focused on cultivating compassionate feelings. For example, Loving Kindness Meditation (examples from UCLA Health and the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation), or RAIN by Tara Brach. You can find more free online options through the Centre for Mindful Self-Compassion.
Imagery can also be a powerful tool, either real or imagined. Project Soothe gathers soothing images online—you can scroll through and rate the images, and also submit your own. You can also try this guided compassionate imagery exercise through the Compassionate Mind Foundation.
If meditation and imagery aren’t your thing, a simple practice I learned from Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer is to use “gentle vocalizations and soothing touch.” In a room of over 100 people, we each placed our hand somewhere on our own body that felt comforting and practiced saying “aww” together—at first, there was laughter, but with practice it was surprisingly effective.
Practicing self-compassion can be tough! It can feel unusual to respond to ourselves with kindness, especially as this is often not the type of messaging we receive from the outside world. Go gently, as we navigate these unprecedented times. We need each other, and we are in it for the long haul.
Learn more, and access free online resources and guided practices:
1 Khoury, B. (2019). Compassion: Embodied and Embedded. Mindfulness. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01211-w
2 Makransky, J., Germer, C. K., & Siegel, R. D. (2012). Compassion in Buddhist psychology. In C. K. Germer & R. D. Siegel (Eds.), Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice (pp. 61–74). Guilford Press.
3 Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(2), 123–137. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035859
4 Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032
5 MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545–552. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2012.06.003
6 Marshall, S. L., Parker, P. D., Ciarrochi, J., Sahdra, B., Jackson, C. J., & Heaven, P. C. L. (2015). Self-compassion protects against the negative effects of low self-esteem: A longitudinal study in a large adolescent sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 74(Supplement C), 116–121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.09.013
7 Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The Relationship Between Self-Compassion and Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12051
8 Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-Compassion Interventions and Psychosocial Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of RCTs. Mindfulness, 10(8), 1455–1473. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6
9 Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A Meta-Analysis of Compassion-Based Interventions: Current State of Knowledge and Future Directions. Behavior Therapy, 48(6), 778–792. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2017.06.003
10 Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599 (available for download: https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/selfimp.motivation.pdf)
Kyla Brophy is a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the Department of Counselling Psychology at McGill University. She holds an MSc in Gender (Research) from the London School of Economics, and an MA in Counselling Psychology from McGill. Kyla is currently a member of McGill’s Science and Practice in Psychology (SAPP) Research Group, where her work investigates how self-compassion fosters resilience and well-being.