Your Therapy

By Kathy Netten

This morning, I noticed how dark the sky was when my alarm rang. Summer is slipping into fall. Pandemic protocols will once again be part of the return to school. This fall, fires, extreme weather events, and the crisis in Afghanistan are weighing on my mind. In response to the heaviness I feel, I have started to offer myself compassion.

Compassion is defined by emotion researchers as: the feeling that occurs when confronted with another’s suffering, and the motivation to relieve that suffering. Scientists believe there is an evolutionary purpose to compassion. When someone feels compassion their heart rate slows, they excrete the bonding hormone oxytocin, and areas of the brain involved with empathy, pleasure and caregiving activate.

These feelings lead to action and to care. Although humans are a caretaking species, we often don’t extend compassion to ourselves. This can lead to self-criticism and negative judgement, which are often found in the company of anxiety and depression.

Essential components of compassion

Research has identified three essential components to self-compassion. Self-kindness, the first component, involves actively soothing and comforting oneself. Harsh self-judgement is suspended and the drive to alleviate one’s suffering is activated. The second component, common humanity, validates the idea that life is imperfect, and suffering is experienced universally. That is, suffering is not abnormal, but rather a shared human experience.

This perspective reduces feelings of isolation, and increases feelings of connection. Finally, mindfulness is the third component of self-compassion. Mindfulness teaches us to allow the experience of painful emotions such as shame, grief and lack of connection. Self-compassion has been shown to be an antidote to shame, and a protection from burn out. In addition, people with higher levels of self-compassion score lower on scales of post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-compassion also drives our ability to protect, provide and motivate.

As I reflect on the uncertainty ahead, I plan to actively boost my self-compassion practice. Walking in nature, doing yoga, owning a dog, showing compassion toward others, and psychotherapy all increase our self-compassion. Hopefully I will be walking in the forest with my dog more. When life is hard, self-compassion can provide comfort and opportunity for growth.

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