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Self Help Compassion Exercises

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

What is compassion?

“A sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try and alleviate it and prevent it”

Paul Gilbert

Many of my clients share one thing in common. They struggle to have compassion for themselves. A lack of self compassion can create:

  • Worries or anxiety

  • Low mood

  • Low motivation

  • Difficulty getting on track

  • Difficulty adhering to goals (especially nutrition and exercise goals)

If you find it hard to be compassionate to yourself you may notice that it is hard to sustain a lifestyle that is healthy and nurturing as the moment that you "slip up" or do something that you perceive as "wrong" then you think "what's the point I can't sustain this". So many of my clients have spent their life cycling through different diets and the reason they have not sustained a change is either they are doing something unhealthy and unsustainable or they are having hard time forgiving themselves so are not able to allow for times when they have "fallen off the bandwagon". This blog provides practical ideas as a starting point for developing compassion and at the end I list some of my favourite resources for further information (none of which I am affiliated to).

Many of us are too used to disliking and criticising ourselves. From an early age, we are taught to be hard on ourselves and to feel a sense of shame. When we are young if we try to protest or assert our needs we can often experience negative consequences of being punished or ignored. We are also often taught that self-criticism is a road to success and that it can motivate us to do better. This leads us to magnifying anything that makes us feel shame or anxiety.

Senario one: I was feeling stressed and I comfort ate cake and then felt ashamed. I wanted to hide away. Because of this desire to retreat I didn't go out. Because I didn't go out I was then feeling even more low I comfort ate more food despite not being hungry. I critisised myself as I was behaving in a way I did not want to behave.

Senario two: I was feeling stressed and I comfort ate cake. I was compassionate and recognised that I was eating, not out of hunger or enjoyment but because of stress. I recognised the situation so I called on a nearby friend and went for a walk. The walk and talk helped alleviate some of the stress.

There is a stark difference in the response to the same situation. It would have been preferred if I had noticed that I was stressed prior to comfort eating but at the point of noticing by being compassionate you can change the outcome.

In fact self-criticism is not an effective motivator because it makes you fear failure and lose faith in yourself. Even when you experience success you feel miserable anyway or it may be hard to recognise your achievements.

Compassion is like the most nurturing person you can imagine. That person is supportive even if things aren’t going well. There is unconditional support and love. It can be hard to recognise compassion in others when you don’t feel it for yourself. You may feel unworthy or that the person is not genuine. So to experience compassion we must foster self compassion.

Strategies for self-compassion:

Step 1:

Compassion involves sensitivity to suffering so the first step is to acknowledge suffering:

A. Notice your language:

Pay attention to the words you are using about yourself. If this is language that you would not say to your friends or colleagues then chances are you are being self-critical. You don’t need to beat yourself up for these thoughts, as humans we are often conditioned to think in this way.

B. Notice your feelings

Even unpleasant feelings serve a purpose - they are trying to guide us to safety. Bring your attention to your breath. Your breath is consistent and indicates that right now you are safe.

Step 2:

Step two is a commitment to trying to alleviate suffering:

C. Address shame:

If you are feeling ashamed by a situation, firstly identify if the shame is well placed for the situation. If it feels out of proportion or misplaced then create permission to dismiss the feeling. Identify that it is your anxious mind creating this and give yourself comfort. If the shame feels well matched to the situation, identify a tangible way of making amends and make steps towards actioning this.

If the thought returns then remind yourself that you have already addressed this and do something soothing.

D. Identify a list of things that you can do that soothe you:

Physical gestures, movement and exercise:

Sometimes our minds run away with stories. We need to “drop out of our head and get into our body”. Examples of a physical gesture that can sooth include:

  • Placing a hand on our alternative arm.

  • Rhythmically tapping our elbows or wrist pulse point

  • Firmly pressing our hand towards our heart.

  • Throwing a ball

  • Walk or jog

  • We often hold tension in our shoulders or hips, stretching these areas can release this stress and soothe

Connecting with others or yourself:

  • Cuddle a pet

  • Text a friend

  • Speak in a nurturing way. Repeat a compassionate phrase such as:

“This a moment of suffering - it will pass”
“Painful experiences are inevitable at times, it’s ok not to be ok”
“May I be kind to myself in this moment”

Do something you love or is joyful each day for at least 3 minutes:

  • Get outdoors

  • Make your home cosy and a sanctuary

  • Play a song you like

  • Make some energising food

Be bold, brave and courageous:

Even more than kindness being courageous is the most important part of compassion. If something feels hard then it is hard. Identify what brave move you can take. Sometimes you need to take a step towards the difficult thing. Sometimes the bravest thing that you can do is to give yourself a break and identify that it is ok to not to go there.

Sometimes we struggle to identify courageous things we have done as we feel that these hard tasks “should be easy”. If you have overcome an impossible task or made steps towards something that scares you then you are bold.

Examples could include:

  • Booking in for personal training even though you do not like the feel of your body

  • Speaking up even though you are not sure you will be listened to

  • Gone to the gym or an event even though you have not wanted to be there as you are ashamed of what others may think of you

E. Gain evidence

My final step involves making a record so that you have tangible evidence. Make a record of when you have given care, impacted on others positively have been kind to yourself, or had an achievement.

Self Compassion Record

Contact me if you would like a free copy of this template:

Many Thanks to Dr Bobby Sura for sharing this template resource with me.

The headings are: Date. What I did /achieved/ offered. Who gained and benefited?

By following these tasks you can build up a sense of compassion which will enable you do do the things you want to do and will reduce the impact of criticism when you experience failure or obstacles.

There are a whole host of resources on the web about #selfhelp and #compassion. Here are a few of my favourites:

Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Chodin

The Compassionate Mind Foundation website

If you have a resource you like or a strategy that helps you be self compassionate please leave a comment or message me!

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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