I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome twenty years ago, and fibromyalgia a little over ten years ago. Fibromyalgia is a painful and debilitating disease and has a lot of overlap with chronic fatigue syndrome. Clinical research has begun to provide some answers for what has been a largely misunderstood condition. It is currently considered a disorder of the central nervous system; some consider it a rheumatoid condition. However, the variety of complex symptoms and the judgment often accompanying them can be devastating and isolating.
Due to different reasons, life can be busy, stressful, and at times hugely challenging for each of us. It can be difficult to manage the daily routine of internal and external pressures that life’s responsibilities bestow upon us. Even reading articles of interest that might uplift and inspire requires putting time aside – time that we can often struggle to find. However, I want to share with you what over the years has enabled me to heal a great deal of physical and emotional pain, to become mobile again and to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding life. That’s the integral practice of mindful self-compassion.
The origins of compassion and mindfulness
Although compassion and mindfulness, which stem from Buddhists traditions and Eastern philosophies, have been around for thousands of years, it is only recently that their benefits have been brought to our attention by researchers and teachers who have adapted its principles to western society.
Mindful Self-Compassion and its benefits
Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) has been defined by Dr. Christopher Germer as the practice of “bearing witness to one’s own pain (mindfulness) and responding with kindness and understanding (compassion)”. According to Prof. Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion has 3 components: self-kindness; a sense of common humanity; and balanced, mindful awareness.
“Kindness opens our hearts to suffering, so we can give ourselves what we need. Common humanity opens us to our essential interrelatedness, so that we know we aren’t alone. Mindfulness opens us to the present moment, so we can accept our experience with greater ease.” ~ Kristin Neff
As an integrative psychotherapist and ‘trained’ Mindful Self-Compassion teacher, I have seen the benefits of the application of self-compassion both through my teaching, and my clinical practice. I have found compassion to play a beneficial part in helping clients resolve emotional conflicts with spouses and in family relations. I have also seen a reduction in anxiety and improvements in self-confidence in my clients through the application of a compassion focused therapeutic approach.
You might think that this is anecdotal evidence. However, the effectiveness of MSC programmes is empirically supported. Structured therapeutic programmes such as the Mindfulness-based stress reduction programme (Williams et al., 2007; Shapiro et al., 2007) and Compassionate Mind Training (Gilbert & Proctor, 2006) have proved to be successful in helping people gain emotional strength and resilience. Research indicates that self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional well-being, less anxiety, depression and stress, maintenance of healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and satisfying personal relationships. But where can you start from in your self-compassion practice?
Taking care of yourself first
Self-compassion is not as easy to apply as compassion for others, but it is vital for our survival as it enables us to build emotional resilience and well-being. You might think of it as selfish, and yet research indicates that when we take care of ourselves we are more able to take care of others and to be compassionate.
Whatever our roles in life are – we are human beings first and have the same needs to be met and the same emotional systems as everyone else. Before we can provide limitless compassion we need to top up our own reserves; therefore, self-care is vital. Just like a car needs petrol to run, our reserve tanks have to be topped up by acknowledging our needs and that our lives can be stressful and challenging. By addressing our needs as best we can, we are then more able to maintain compassion and empathy, and to communicate mindfully and effectively with those around us.
Paying attention to your body and meeting your physical needs is a good starting point. There are many practical self-compassion practices you can apply, and here are just a few:
- Plan your time – Make time for fun, family and friends
- Pace yourself – Create that work-life balance
- Assert yourself – Learn to say no, don’t over commit
- Get as physically active as you can – Release mood-lifting hormones
- Relax – Find what works best for you – a warm bath, a gentle walk in nature? We think most positively and creatively when relaxed
- Learn – Practice mindfulness and meditation
- Go on retreat – Take a self-compassionate break
- Practice sleep hygiene – A good night’s sleep reduces many symptoms of stress and increases emotional and physical well-being
- Focus on positive nutrition – A healthy diet leads to a healthy mind and body
- Focus on all your achievements and all you are thankful for – At the end of everyday
Retreat: A self-compassionate break
If you find yourself in need of more breathing space, a self-compassionate approach can be to simply ‘retreat’ from your everyday life for a few days – responsibilities permitting. I could not manage my daily routine and busy work schedule without having some regular retreat time, whether that is through my daily meditation practice or by going on retreat each year periodically.
I have benefited in symptom reduction through employing both meditation practice and the practice of mindfulness for a number of years. However, my journey is not complete: it is fluid, ongoing and lifelong, and deeply rewarding too. I have come full circle from child to adult – returning to the simplicity of childhood, living more fully in the present moment with acceptance and interest in the world around me. My genuine desire to care for others has deepened through my personal journey on the Mindful self-compassion path.
It is with deep gratitude for all I have achieved, overcome, and learnt on my journey that I have shared with you my own insight and some of the uplifting and empowering strategies for emotional resilience that I have gained. But as Einstein once said, “Information only becomes knowledge through experience”. So I hope you will follow the signposts to some of the practices outlined in this article and enjoy discovering the healing and empowering nature of self-kindness.
Gilbert, P., and Proctor, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and Pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 13,353-379. Published online at www.interscience.wiley.com
Shapiro, S.L., Brown. W., and Beigel, G. M. (2007). Teaching self care to care givers: Effects of Mindfulness-based stress reduction on the mental health of therapists in training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 1, 105-115.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. The Guilford Press. New York. London.
Gilbert, P. (2010). The compassionate Mind.
Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion.
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness.