Self-compassion is meant for you

I too often hear in my clinical work that compassion towards others is good but it is not 'right for me'. This can be a very common belief, however, I wanted to write a brief overview of what compassion is and why it is meant for you.


Humans are complex, we have the capacity to do awful and wonderful things. Our nature allows many paths but one of those paths is to be compassionate towards ourselves and this can be the very state that allows us to flourish.

What we mean by compassion 

When you hear the word compassion, what thoughts come to mind? It is interesting the ideas we have around compassion, gathered through various information feeds. When we talk of compassion as a psychological concept, we are very clear to begin with what compassion is not.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) is not about scented candlelit bubble baths with sounds of the rainforest on in the background, not that there is anything wrong with this, nor is it concerned with letting ourselves off the hook or taking an easy way out. Notions like these are very distant from the compassionate mindset that we seek to nurture in CFT. CFT is about regulating threatening emotional states so we can move out of anxious, shameful, angered or guilty modes and into states of clarity and contentment.

This then opens the mind to information and perspectives that are just not available when in threatened emotional states. With this change, our mental and physiological processes shift, we can diffuse negative emotions, feel secure, and then be empowered to make conscious choices which better serve ourselves and others. These choices may simply be to put a full stop to worrying, hurting others or criticising oneself.

The human dilemma 

Many of us have hypersensitive threat systems, which is through no fault of our own. We have inherited through millions of years of evolution a part of our mind that is reactive to any perceived danger and whose mission it is to keep us safe. This is good because we need to respond to threats.

The common behaviours we all share which are thrust upon us when threatened can include to run, attack, hide, freeze or whatever it takes to be okay. We cannot help this; it is just with us, like other species on earth. The cat that hears a loud noise late at night in the alley is probably going to respond in similar ways to us, startled, rapid check-in about what’s going on (blink and you'll miss it), and then off it goes. The human problem is that we have a brain with added stuff the friendly cat does not.

The human mind is unique and capable of complex cognitive processes. We can think back over the past, we can think forward into the future, imagining, planning, and problem-solving. This lovely quirk has enabled us to advance as a civilisation, however, it comes with trade-offs. We worry, we ruminate, and we go over what was and what could be. This can interact with our threat mind, bringing anxiety, shame, guilt, and anger.

I doubt our cat is sitting around thinking about if they made a fool of themself the other day in front of the neighbours’ dog or wondering if the dog dislikes them, igniting threat-based emotions. Other species have nervous systems which cool down and get back to the business of snoozing or eating, not so simple for us.

Our minds can continue to fuel threat long after any danger, real or imagined, has gone by. Even talking to ourselves in a critical way will activate our threat system. We may think being self-critical helps, however, you may find it remains a weight tied to your feet when seeking to swim. For many of us, the self-critic, worries, and ruminations leave us stuck.

If we feel threatened, our thoughts will be limited to seeing danger and keeping safe, leaving us with very limited responses: we run, attack, hide, freeze, whatever it takes to be okay. The search for safety often keeps us feeling threatened causing life disruptions across the spectrum of being. 

Pushing through 

We humans are clever; we have this trick to feel good or get out of feeling so bad. Even if we are very self-critical, we might have a get-out clause. We can drive away into action, chasing a job, relationships, excelling in a hobby, exercising or getting on with the tasks we need to do. By pushing forward to achieve, we may feel excited and motivated, and our body might be feeling energetic. This is good; we need to drive and achieve; that is what we humans do.

However, what happens if we think it is just not good enough, we depend on this approach to keep negative emotion at bay, we do not achieve our goal or we compare ourselves to others unfavourably? We might be stuck in a back-and-forth between feeling threatened and needing to drive forward. We end up exhausted or burnt-out, demoralised and disconnected from others. We need threat and drive systems, but we need something else too, we need balance and regulation between these states. The thing we need is compassion. 

Compassion is part of us

The compassionate mindset is another evolutionary quirk we have built into our brains, it is the regulator and soother of emotions, it brings feelings of safety, containment, empathy, and sympathy with a motivation to help alleviate suffering, not perpetuate it.

This part of our mind is something akin to a flower; it needs water, sunlight, and good soil in the right environment to bloom. We humans have needs, as children, while our minds are still growing, we require nurture and having our emotional needs met in consistent ways. We need to respond to suffering with qualities of empathy, sympathy, and understanding. We need compassion modelling for us so we can then internalise and allow the flower to bloom.

Many of us have had experiences of threat growing up, inconsistent care, neglect and trauma in a variety of forms. This can impact our ability to develop compassion towards ourselves. This is not to blame others but to understand why it may be that threat and criticism go off on rampages in our lives as adults or we depend on driving forwards as a strategy to manage negative emotions. It may be because we have the threat and drive programs without having fully installed the self-compassion software. This is out of our control and thus it is not your fault if self-compassion feels hard to create as an adult. 

We have the compassionate mind to step in when things get too hot, this is the mindset that lets us reduce suffering without exhaustion, this is the mindset that says we matter and we can make new choices that serve us, even if difficult. This is the mindset that lets us feel safe and then connect with other humans.

The compassionate mindset is the balance we need; we have it because we are not meant to live in constant threat and drive states even if our inherited mental programs say so. Compassion is built into us but sometimes, some of us may need a bit of help to find it for ourselves. Even if we have struggles with self-compassion, we still naturally have the capacity to be compassionate to others. Often those who punish themselves can demonstrate great compassion towards others, we might just need to shine some of that light within.

States of drive and threat will never go away, but we have options. When we activate the compassionate mindset, our thinking opens; we see broader options, and are better able to tolerate tough times and make new choices. Sometimes these choices are very tough, but because we matter, and it will serve to alleviate pain, we can make brave choices.

Examples of compassionate-based choices clients have made in my clinical work include leaving a stressful job for something completely new, setting boundaries in relationships with friends, family and partners, deciding to communicate their needs to others, and going into social situations which are stressful but are important to be in. A compassionate mind is a courageous mind. 

In CFT we build skills to grow our compassionate mind to support ourselves. Examples of tools we use in therapy include breathwork, imagery work, letter writing, compassionate reframing, role play, problem-solving and compassionate behaviour change.

The good news is that it is never too late to allow the compassionate self to flourish. Humans are built resilient, the compassionate program is one that can be installed, updated, or adapted and is available to us all. Suffering will always be with us but with compassion, we can face it head-on. If you feel chronic anxiety, low mood, shame or self-criticism you may benefit from CFT and activating the mindset you naturally have to soothe these pains. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE4 & WC2N
Written by Mitchell Osborne, PGDip, BSc (hons)
London SE4 & WC2N

I am psychotherapist working both in the NHS and private sector for over 10 years. I have worked with a great number of clients over the years and have a passion for providing evidence based therapies.

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