Healing With Love : The Case for Self-Compassion in Recovery

As a board certified health coach, it might surprise you to hear that, when it comes to healing the body, I don’t believe food is always the best medicine.

Let me explain.

In the main, I work with women dealing with food intolerance, histamine imbalance and chronic fatigue syndrome. While much of my work centres around helping them learn a new way to eat, what I’ve come to realize is that food alone doesn’t heal.

Self-compassion, that is the practice of being kind and gentle with oneself, is a powerful medicine proven to have a positive and restorative influence upon brain, hormone and immune system functions.

Every emotion you experience ultimately belongs to one of three main emotional systems: threat, drive and safety. Whenever these systems are activated in response to our emotions, a cascade of chemicals is released into the bloodstream, to regulate their affects.

self-compassion

The threat system is designed for self-protection. Feelings of fear, anger and overwhelm, release cortisol into your bloodstream, causing you to feel stressed out, anxious and unable to relax no matter how tired you are.

The drive system manages pleasure. When you experience feelings of excitement, achievement or pride, dopamine is activated. Over time our bodies establish a tolerance for dopamine and the things that once gave us pleasure or reward stop doing so which can lead to patterns of unhealthy striving.

It is only through the safety system that we experience a sense of relief.

The safety system helps maintain a sense of equilibrium. Feelings of contentment and wellbeing counter-act cortisol and dopamine, your body’s happy chemical, takes over.

Over-stimulation of any of these systems can cause imbalance, but practicing self-compassion can help restore balance, and therefore should be considered crucial to any healing journey. 

So how do we go about activating the safety system?

It’s simple. By practicing kindness, more specifically, kindness towards ourselves.

We are self-compassionate in the moments when we know that we are experiencing pain, disappointment or a sense of failure, but can love and accept ourselves anyway.

By making the conscious decision to be kind to ourselves in the moments when unpleasant feelings arise, we are less likely to internalize those feelings, and instead see them simply as moments of suffering.

Compassion or the act of being compassionate is not a personality trait though. It’s a learned skill. If you’ve not yet learned it, then you can do so now.

The skill of compassion involves creating feelings of warmth, kindness, and safety within your body to activate the flow of feel-good chemicals via the safety system.

Here are five things that I do regularly to activate self-compassion:

Use my nurturing inner voice:

It’s not just about what others say or do, it’s also about our own compassionate thoughts, memories and the images that we visualize.

Our own dialogue can create changes in our biology that profoundly affects our wellbeing. By subjecting ourselves to constant self-criticism, self-blame and judgment, we can literally bully ourselves into ill health.

Compassion starts with the relationships that we have with ourselves and can be found in the subtleties of our inner voice. Being warm, compassionate and nurturing instead of harsh, critical and bullying helps rebalance us.

If this feels unnatural at first, imagine you’re speaking to the kindest person you know, write a letter or journal about yourself. With consistency you will find your own inner nurturing voice.

Imagine acts of compassion:

Recalling compassionate memories and images can be an incredibly powerful way of activating self-compassion.

For me, one of the most powerful moments of compassion I can recall was with my dying cat. He was dying and he knew it, yet we shared a moment of profound compassion for one another. I snapped a picture of us in that moment and whenever I want to imagine what it is to be compassionate, I visualize that image and then take that feeling down through my body.

You may not have a specific memory that you can recall. If that’s the case, start with a visual image that creates a feeling of safety, comfort and support.

Practice compassionate attention:

It’s a proven fact: what we focus on grows.

Constantly ruminating through negative thoughts about ourselves stimulates stress responses and leads to a swell of negative emotions.

Making a conscious decision to stop our negative self-talk gives us the opportunity to replace our inner-monologue with examples of how we’ve been kind to others or how others have been kind to us. In doing so we shift our attention and seek out moments of compassion instead.

Prior to jumping out of bed I decide on one or two focuses for the day ahead. Every day I set the intention to be compassionate.

Taking the time at the end of each day to be still, reflect and acknowledge ways in which you’ve experienced compassion, is a simple yet highly effective way to create a compassionate attention practice.

Practice deep rest:

Self-compassion is a body-based feeling and our body can soothe our minds. One of the best ways to develop a sensation of safety and compassion in your body is through a deep rest practice.

Deep rest allows the body to move out of stress (sympathetic response) and into relaxation (para-sympathetic response) creating a sense of profound safety.

This level of rest can be achieved through a combination of restorative yoga, mindful embodiment, somatic movement and re-patterning – a multi-disciplinary approach currently being pioneered in Australia.

Meditation:

Meditation is perhaps the most popular method of developing compassion but it is far from the only one.

New to meditation or just not sure how to do it?

There are some great links to guided meditations on self-compassion at the end of this post to help you get started.

Do you deserve self-compassion?

One of the biggest roadblocks to self-compassion is believing we’re not deserving of it.

Perhaps you believe you deserve to suffer? Perhaps you can’t step outside of your situation long enough to realize that there is another way to approach your situation?

If you find yourself sabotaging your efforts to be compassionate, it is important to unpack the beliefs that are stopping you from expressing or feeling self-compassion. Matrix Re-Imprinting™, an advanced form of EFT that I practice, is an exceptionally effective solution for this.

Whatever you’re feeling, the simple truth is this: good people suffer. All people suffer. There is nothing more to understand – it just is.

When all is said and done the only thing left is to feel our suffering and decide to be compassionate anyway. Then through focusing on self-compassion we open up the possibility of compassion for others.

So what will you choose?

Self-monitoring, self-criticism and fearful images? Feeling afraid, ashamed and desperate to avoid your feelings? Or will you choose self-compassion?

It’s your choice to make after all.

 

Additional Reading

The Centre For Compassion Focused Therapy, New York

Compassionate Mind Australia

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  • Philip Clax

    Thankyou for this article Alison. I’m recently learning how critical self compassion is on my healing journey, it has helped me engage with the world more, and reduced the stress surrounding my food intolerances by making them less magnified in my mind. I’m not used to being self compassionate as I grew up in a very critical environment, so it takes me a lot of practice and reminders to make this a way of life, but it’s worth the effort. Have you heard of Acceptance and commitment therapy? They have a model of showing how to let go of the struggle with negative emotions, it’s very useful.

    Thankyou for this blog and all your helpful posts on healing, I’ve learnt so much from it!

    • thanks Phillip I am glad you found it useful. I have heard of acceptance and commitment therapy but never looked at in detail. I will try and do so.

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