Becoming your own friend in times of challenge and difficulty: the importance of self-compassion

 A Native American wisdom story tells of an old Cherokee who is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” 

I was in the midst of a coaching session with Jennifer, a high performing Chief Executive of a public service organization; this was our second session and we were working together with the aim of developing her personal resilience and wellbeing. In our previous session, I had introduced her to mindfulness practice as a way of helping her step out of her continuous loop of doing > delivery > faster > doing > delivery > faster —  to build her capacity to observe habits, become more present within her life and step out of automatic pilot.

There had been a recent safeguarding issue within the organisation, and in this session I had been witnessing her inner critic taking hold and expressing everything she had done wrong; what everyone would think of her; and the bleak outlook for her future career.

As I listened to Jennifer’s thinking, I experienced my forehead become tighter and my breath became shallower and in my throat; I noticed an urge to take a deep inhalation to breathe again. I paused for a moment, and wondered how this might reflect her experience now, and when this situation was happening.

I could see how ‘the tyranny of the shoulds’ was taking effect; with this catastrophic thinking her mood and energy were dropping considerably.

I gestured Jennifer to pause, and asked her if I could share some feedback of what I was noticing. She agreed, so I specifically shared the words I had heard her say to herself, the impact this was having on my physiology as I listened, and followed this with a question: “What would happen if you spoke to your family or friends in this way?” 

Jennifer paused for a while — as though she was trying to make sense of this — then took a deep breath and said “Well, I wouldn’t – would I?” This was the moment within our coaching relationship that she realised her self-talk was a central cause of her current low personal wellbeing and resilience.

This way of being with ourselves is not uncommon; in fact, research has shown that we are likely to naturally default to judging ourselves harshly for our performance. Culturally, one factor associated with the rise of the inner critic in the West is social comparison; think of the wonderful lives we see daily on social media.  

And yet often when coachees explore their experiences of supporting others through challenge or difficulty, they notice how they support them with encouragement, empathy and kindness.  It is curious how we find it easier to show kindness to others and yet so hard to treat ourselves in the same way.  

One of the benefits voiced by coachees about their inner critic is that it stops them from being complacent (especially where high achievers like Jennifer are concerned). There is a sense that without it, they may lose their edge. I supported Jennifer to help her realise that letting go of her inner critic was not about positive thinking and ignoring areas where she could make improvements.

Rather, it is about becoming aware of how this corrosive inner dialogue impacts our emotional climate, creative ability and mood at a time when more then ever we need to be resourced — and able to respond with greater clarity to find a solution. Without this realisation, we will be operating from within a stress-induced cocktail that makes balanced, objective decision making more difficult.

Let’s pause for moment and reflect on two different scenarios:

  • Imagine that you are discussing a recent challenge with a group of peers and they provide you with support and encouragement to work through the difficulty you had experienced, and help you learn from this. As you imagine this, what do you experience in your mind and body? What are you noticing?
  • Now imagine the same situation and this time your peers react harshly and criticise you for not being good enough. What happens in your mind and body this time?  What are you noticing?

Using this simple visualisation exercise, I’m sure you can identify the experience that would provide you with the conditions to access your higher, more executive centres of the brain — rather than the lower and survival responses of fight, flight or freeze. Research has demonstrated the way we think clearly impacts what is stimulated in our biology and it is important to remember the brain does not know what is real or imagined.

“You can’t choose the music, but you can choose how you will dance.”

— Jack Kornfield

Dr Paul Gilbert describes self-criticism as being part of the human monitoring system, detecting what is wrong. The problem for us is that this way of thinking will trigger the threat system (think fight, flight or freeze) and we end up fighting and beating ourselves up, or ruminating constantly about not being good enough, so in times of crisis we are in fact pulling the rug out from under ourselves!

A metaphor I often share with coaching clients to help them understand the downward spiral of this way of thinking is from mindfulness training, and is called the ‘2 arrows’:

‘When the unmindful person is struck by an arrow, he or she is rapidly struck by a second arrow – “That hurts,” or “why does this sort of thing always happen to me!” or “I shouldn’t have come here!” The mind goes on producing further arrows that add to the pain of the first one. 

When the mindful person is struck by an arrow, they said in ancient times, they feel the pain of the arrow – and it stops there.’

In their book Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman explain how harsh self-criticism often plays a key role in a wide range of mental health difficulties, such as depression. Much of the time this way of judging oneself is so familiar, and culturally-fed, that we’re not even conscious that it is taking place.

Self-critical thinking often arises automatically in the mind when we are experiencing difficulty — so for my coachee Jennifer, the first step was to help her to recognise this (getting her to write all her thoughts down) and evaluate the impact this was having on her resilience. We then experimented with learning a different way of relating to the difficulty she was experiencing in order that she could respond with skill and ease.

So what would happen in moments of challenge and adversity if we spoke to ourselves in a similar manner to how we would speak to a good friend? As you consider this proposition, notice any reactivity in the mind and body – what permission would you need to give yourself to truly show yourself the same kindness and support?  

“Kindness transforms things: the ‘aversion’ pathways in the mind are switched off and the ‘approach’ ones switched on instead. This change in attitude enhances openness, creativity, and happiness, while at the same time dissolving the fear, guilt, anxiety and stresses that lead to exhaustion and chronic discontent.”

— Mark Williams and Danny Penman

There are now a number of training programmes such as Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff’s  ‘Mindful Self Compassion’ that support us over an eight week period to develop a more friendly and kind (warm hearted) response to our challenges, suffering and difficulty.

Research demonstrates that developing practices of self-compassion trigger our soothing system; this is similar to us receiving caring signals from others, turning on physiological systems in the brain to calm us down. This means that we experience feelings of contentment, groundedness and peace. Research also shows us that self-compassion also helps us cope with adversity, leading us to become less-likely to be depressed; more likely to be happy; and experience positive mind states such as gratitude and kindness.

So what do we mean by compassion?

Here are two definitions:

  • “Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.” – Thupten Jinpa
  • “Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.”  ― Kristin Neff

Kristin Neff has developed a 3-component model for developing Self Compassion that reflects the above definitions:

  1. Self-kindness – this practice develops our capacity to be kind, open hearted and tender to ourselves. The aim is to alleviate our own suffering.
  2. Common humanity – this helps us recognise that everyone is imperfect and no-one is in control of their whole life. It allows us to accept that difficulty is part of the human experience rather than resisting it with ‘this should not be happening’ mindset.
  3. Mindfulness – this helps us to pay attention to what we are experiencing as we are experiencing it, non-judgementally; being present with our experience as it is; and turning towards it. Moving towards our suffering with an open heart and a balanced awareness so we can be present with what is there, letting it be without getting fused or over-identified with any difficult emotions.  

Developing a more self-compassionate way of being needs training and practice. In the words of Sharon Salzberg, “self-compassion is like a muscle. The more we practice flexing it, especially when life doesn’t go exactly according to plan (a frequent scenario for most of us), the stronger and more resilient our compassion muscle becomes.”

Returning to my coachee Jennifer, once she had realised the impact her critical thoughts were having on her personal well-being and ability to respond skilfully to the organisational challenge we were discussing, I introduced the mindfulness self-compassion exercise you will find below.

This provided her guidance on how to step out of her automatic and habitual way of responding, recognise how she was relating to her experience and herself, and in the moment choose a more skilful way to take care of herself.  

“As you face loss, frustration, hurt, and conflict, invite a sense of your own dignity. Sit up, stand up tall. Have respect for yourself, and patience and compassion. With these, you can handle anything.”

— Jack Kornfield

Download our self-compassion exercise

To see how self-compassion can make a difference, we’d encourage you to stream or download the below MP3 using the link provided below.

Jennifer practised this self-compassion exercise daily along with her formal mindfulness practice between sessions as a way of her developing a greater capacity for self-observation, meta cognition, stepping out of the second and third arrows, and connecting with her more creative thinking in times of difficulty.

She fed back to me at the end of our coaching programme that as a result of our coaching sessions, this exercise, journaling and her mindfulness practice in times of challenge, she had become more of a friend to herself.  

As a result, she had noticed significant changes in her personal resilience — the biggest change was her not feeling the same sense of loneliness as a leader. She now supported herself in the same way she would a friend; she had her own back.  

In such a period of blame, hostility and a clear lack of compassion in our political system, it is easy for us to be contaminated by this, being critical of rather than supportive to others and ourselves. Our encouragement is to practise this exercise on a daily basis for the next four weeks so you can learn the inner moves, and develop the muscle of self-compassion to enable you to be in a more resourceful state.

During this practice, after a period of grounding, you will experience being supported in the moment to develop a more self-compassionate way of relating to yourself and your experience of difficulty.

The intention here is that by practising it, you will remember this guidance for when you are in the grip of your inner critic.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness or training as a coach to support others, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

References / further reading

  • Dr Paul Gilbert and Choden: Mindful Compassion
  • Mark Williams and Danny Penman: Mindfulness a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world
  • Chade-Meng Tan: Search Inside Yourself
  • Christopher Germer and Sharon Salzberg: The Mindful Path to Self Compassion
  • Kristin Neff, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. 

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