Compassion in Action: Mental Health and Compassionate Thinking by KirstenWritten by Kirsten MacQuarrie
Compassion, noun. From the Latin, compati, ‘to feel with’.
Anxiety has been a feature of several periods throughout my life, and I’m not alone. Studies report that anxiety disorders (an umbrella definition encompassing a range of conditions from generalised anxiety to OCD) affect 60 million people across Europe, and women are twice as likely to face debilitating anxiety as men.
Anxiety can make those experiencing it feel isolated, cast adrift from the world around them, yet in reality it seems clear that many women – just like me – find themselves bound by the weighty chains of fear. It’s complex. It’s painful. And it’s clearly very human.
I’ve mentioned my own anxiety issues once before as part of a YWCA blog (glad to be back, guys!). For me, they often centre around perfectionism and worries about what other people think of me. A personal crisis point came back in 2013. I had recently begun a PhD and, although that might sound impressive, it wasn’t a choice I made for positive reasons. I had little inner value but a great deal of outward anxieties: the only way I felt like I could allow myself to live freely was if I was sure of having other people’s validation.
That left the outside world with excessive, anxiety-provoking power over my life, and left me with deep sadness at the disconnect between how I felt each day and how my heart hoped things could be. Even when my work was going well (and with a PhD, the work is hard!) I realised that somehow it would never be enough. I would simply never achieve enough to claim the permission I believed I needed to live. And I could not go on much longer without feeling like I was living.
After a few false starts, I had the immense good fortune to meet a psychologist who introduced me to techniques designed to help with anxiety and depression. CBT, for example, is the relatively well-known Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: it encourages patients to observe how their thinking impacts on their emotions and consider the most positive behaviours available to them. A complementary approach is assertiveness training: learning how to own your perspective rather than being passive, aggressive or (you’ve guessed it) passive-aggressive!
And yet my psychologist also had another trick up her sleeve: a relatively new technique known as CFT. CFT stands for Compassion Focused Therapy. Wait, don’t go! I understand the name sounds a bit off-putting: when you feel like you’re already failing to achieve enough, the last thing you fancy is being kind to yourself!
But CFT has its origins in the work of experienced researchers like Dr Kristin Neff and Professor Paul Gilbert (a British clinical psychologist and the long-time head of the NHS Mental Health Research Unit). During their decades in the field of depression and anxiety, they recognised that many sufferers were often severely self-critical, judging themselves to the point of self-hatred. Significantly, the stress of this self-criticism could exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety, which in turn had a negative impact on how successful methods like CBT and assertiveness could be.
I love how many YWCA social media posts focus on love, self-care and compassion. It seems to me that this blog might be a great place to share what I’ve learned so far in ‘the art of self-compassion’. Perhaps there’s a wiser way to face our fears than simply pushing ourselves harder – and perhaps we can use that wisdom to give compassion to others too!
Step one in CFT is getting to understand your emotions, and to do this we draw from evolutionary psychology. For example, one distinctive feature of anxious thinking is the tendency to leap to the worst-case scenario. Your friend hasn’t called when she said she would? Definitely an argument/ accident/ alien abduction (delete as appropriate).
But CFT encourages us to see that this catastrophising instinct could actually have roots in hard-wired behaviour that was once designed to protect us. After all, if you were a human in the earliest societies and heard something rustling in the bushes, those who jumped to the worst-case-scenario of a tiger might be the only ones who survived! Another slightly more sophisticated example might be familiar to people suffering with social anxiety: we hear a group laughing nearby and assume we’re the butt of the joke.
Yes, we’re jumping to conclusions, but as a social animal it makes sense for us to be very sensitive to the approval of social groups. Rather than chastising ourselves for ‘being silly’ or ‘overreacting’, we can have empathy for the ancient emotional systems trying – however bluntly – to keep us safe. And without the shame of having to apologise for we feel, we can often free ourselves up to focus on how we interpret and respond to those powerful ‘archetypal’ feelings.
This recognition of how instinctive and automatic our emotional responses are is an important reason why it’s not only gentler but smarter to treat yourself compassionately. Whenever you bully or berate yourself, remember that your mind (and body) don’t know the criticism is coming from the inside!
They automatically respond with all the stress and suffering we’d feel if another person walked up to us with those insults. ‘Idiot! How could you? What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you?’ And when your body feels under attack, it triggers all the threat protection systems at its disposal: one of which is increased anxiety! It seems that it’s not only kinder to treat yourself compassionately when you feel anxious – it’s more constructive too.
Ultimately, CFT encourages us to recognise that how we feel and how we think are truly not our fault. When you experience anxiety, or anger, or any other emotion under the sun, you’re a creature doing its best to survive. You’ve found yourself here on your individual path – with an individual mosaic of learning, background and genes – and your life is every bit as valid as the many lives around you.
This was a particularly important step for me. Gaining a sense of myself as something natural and normal helped me to have confidence that ‘I’ can mean more than simply the sum of my parts. I can have value that runs deeper than just what other people think of me.
And so here comes to fun part: compassion in action! CFT exercises might be imagining what your ideal compassionate image looks like (this could be another person, an animal or even a natural force like the wind or the sea), practicing writing compassionate letters (what would a compassionate person say to you right now? How would you feel as they said it?) or considering what it would be like to extend compassion to others in need.
Like many people with anxiety, I can do my homework and learn the ‘common thinking errors’ of CBT easily enough, but it’s a different kind of habit to learn what it is to treat yourself better. And yet every time I do, I’m sending my mind the signal that my life – and all the lives around me – are worthy of compassion. I’m no better and no worse than anyone else: all that’s in me is all that is meant to be.
If you’ve experienced anxiety or another mental health challenge, like me and so many young women and girls, perhaps compassion could play a part in your journey. A well trained counsellor or psychologist should be able to direct you towards the most helpful resources (and there are some extra links at the bottom of my blog).
In an age where selfies shield our self-consciousness and world leaders body shame one another on Twitter, could we make room for greater compassion? A call for compassion: that’s my kind of revolution.
Kirsten MacQuarrie is a writer and artist who lives in Glasgow. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Vogue Young Talent award, and in November her poem ‘On Knowledge’ won the Glasgow Women’s Library 25th Anniversary prize. Her favourite things to do in her spare time include watching classic movies (hello Audrey Hepburn!), working on her first novel, and above all else hanging out with animals like her BFF Gypsy! Follow Kirsten on Instagram @glasgowgallerina.