Counselling · Psychotherapy · CBT · Art Therapy · Mindfulness · Compassion
Carbury, Co. Kildare · Tels: 0873977828 / 0862272917
Compassion and Mental Health
"When we focus on ourselves,
our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands.
Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection -
or compassionate action"
More and more research studies are demonstrating the benefits of practicing compassion and self-compassion for our mental health. Kristin Neff, Paul Gilbert and Christopher Germer are psychologists who are pioneering and promoting at international level the benefits of compassion for mental health, and we would highly recommend reading some of their books and articles. Antonia and Damien have both found the practice of self-compassion and compassion for others to be really beneficial. They both engage in mindfulness and mindful-compassion practices daily and, if you decide to attend the practice, we will invite you do some of the practices with us, and try them for yourself at home in between sessions, if you are open to this. We have found that most people we work with that have tried these practices have reported huge benefits both in their mental and emotional wellbeing and in their relationships with others. It is important to remember that research has found that developing a more compassionate attitude toward oneself actually does not necessarily require meditation practice, so if you are not open to meditation, this might be something you could try instead.
What is compassion?
Compassion is defined as "being sensitive to the suffering of (one)self and others with a deep commitment to try to prevent and relieve it" (The Dalai Lama, 1995). Even though this is the definition given by a well-respected Buddhist monk, you do not have to be open to Buddhism to benefit from its practice. If you are Catholic, for example, it could be argued that this definition is not so different to the concept of "love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark, 12:31). And if you have no religious beliefs, this is still the definition that is currently being used by psychology researchers and neuroscientists currently studying compassion, which means it is actually (so far!) backed up by science. This definition implies that our own suffering is as important as that of others, not more or less important, but of equal value. It could be argued then, that being truly compassionate means including ourselves in our circle of compassion. The Dalai Lama's definition also implies that compassion as two elements: On the one hand, compassion involves an ability to recognise the presence of suffering (either in ourselves or in another). We have to be aware and mindful that suffering is present. This is where mindfulness as a 'being aware of what is happening in the here and now" is a very important element in compassionate practice. And on the other hand, compassion also involves an actual response to this suffering, a commitment to action intended to relieve this suffering, whether this suffering is in ourselves or in another. Compassion, then, is not only being sensitively aware and feeling empathic towards suffering, it means that we also do something to prevent or relieve that suffering.
How can I be more self-compassionate? Will this not make me selfish?
Compassion is a skill that can be learnt, like playing an instrument, and this applies also to self-compassion. Often (especially if we are struggling with mental health issues), we can be very hard on ourselves, and we can mentally speak to ourselves in ways that we would never dream of speaking to someone else in. Self-critical thinking can often be present in psychological or emotional distress, and is one of the symptoms of, say, depression. Imagine, for example, when you are experiencing a difficult emotion (deep sadness, loneliness, anger, etc.)... Research shows that avoiding it, wanting it to go away, criticising yourself for feeling that way, or completely 'wallowing' in it, are reactions that are simply not helpful. In fact, they can backfire and make everything worse. Practicing compassion towards ourselves instead might be a more appropriate and helpful response, and is not viewed as selfish, but healthy. It could be argued that if you are attuned to yourself and your suffering and become skilled at responding to your own suffering appropriately, you are more likely to be attuned to the suffering of others and to know how to respond more skillfully.
As explained above, in order to be self-compassionate, the first element (mindful awareness) is necessary: we need to be attuned and sensitive to our difficult emotions (what do they feel like exactly, where are they in the body, etc.), as avoiding, ignoring or repressing our emotions it is not helpful and backfires. The first step with self-compassion is to turn towards our own suffering or unpleasant emotion and, as best we can, be aware of and accept it with kindness and without judgement. Then, the second element of compassion comes in, "the commitment to prevent or relieve it". This does not mean that we try to 'fix' it as an aversive reaction to it, but that, again, we turn towards it and, perhaps then, we can respond to it in a more kind and skillful way. This more skillful response will depend on the moment and on the person: it might be a slight change in our attitude or thinking, such as: allowing the feeling to be there while being kind and curious, or self-soothing (while, say, placing a hand in the area of the body where the unpleasant feeling is), or speaking kindly to ourselves instead of harshly, or telling ourselves that this will pass and it is not our fault. It might, on the other hand, be an action or behaviour that we know will be beneficial in the long run, such as: doing some exercise, having a rest, saying no to something we don't feel able for, eating a healthy meal, having a nice treat, talking to someone, being kind to another person, etc.
Whether you decide to attend our practice or not, please check out Kristin Neff's amazing website www.selfcompassion.org, which is full of free resources, such as current information and self-compassion exercises and meditations. She is one of the leading researchers on the mental health benefits of self-compassion
Compassion for others - does it affect my mental health?
Being compassionate towards others is a key social skill, and recent research suggests that engaging in actions that benefit other people gives our lives more meaning and improves the quality of our relationships (Van Tongeren). This, in turn, will affect our mental health positively. If you constantly think of yourself and satisfy your needs and avoid your own suffering, but do not do this for others, you are more likely to feel like your life lacks meaning or that the quality of your relationships is superficial, you might also be more likely to feel disconnected socially or lonely, and less likely to receive the kindness of others. Similarly, if we only experience the first step of compassion (empathy or sensitive attunement) and really feel deeply for the suffering of others, but don't follow up with the second step (a commitment to try to prevent/relieve it), we might feel over-burdened with the suffering of others, and this could lead to feeling more sad or depressed or anxious. Likewise, if we engage in actions to help others but are mean, critical and neglectful of ourselves, we could very quickly become over-tired, drained and burnt out. It seems that including ourselves in our circle of compassion (making ourselves a part of our compassionate practice to others) is more likely to benefit our mental health. Obviously, this is not possible all the time, and sometimes we will put our own needs aside for the benefit of others. So, imagine for example that you are a parent caring for a young child who is completely dependent on you... there will be many times where you will have to sacrifice your own well-being to comfort and care for your baby (you might not be able to get enough sleep in order to give your child what it needs, for example) and this is appropriate and skillful behaviour. The problem might arise when this is a chronic trait: giving to others all the time while constantly neglecting your own needs (constantly being unkind to yourself but being kind to others, engaging in destructive behaviours while behaving kindly towards others, seeing the worst in yourself but the best in others, etc.). If this happens, you are more likely to be unhappy and unfulfilled, and perhaps suffer with mental health issues. The key seems to be that there is some sort of balance or 'middle way', where we can be kind to ourself and others, when appropriate and depending on the circumstances in any given moment.
What seems undeniable, judging by the results of research on the science of compassion, altruism and gratefulness, is that practicing compassion both for ourselves and other people, is more likely to lead us to a more fulfilling, healthy and connected life.