Self-Compassion For Dummies
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Whether you’re struggling with shame and self-criticism or simply want to bring more compassion into your life, compassion focused therapy (CFT) is here to help.

This Cheat Sheet offers details about how CFT can be helpful in different aspects of your life. You will find the many great personal benefits associated with CFT — benefits you may feel regardless of your circumstances.

Also, learn specific ideas about how athletes, schools, and parents can benefit from using CFT, and the benefits that compassion-focused approaches may bring to the people around you.

Exploring the personal benefits of using CFT

You can think of compassion as a set of skills that you can utilize in a beneficial way, and CFT trains you in how to strengthen this skill set. As a result, you will notice benefits to your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attention.

The following points are fundamental to CFT, and help to illustrate the many benefits you may experience by making CFT a part of your life:

  • CFT helps us to prioritize what is important to us, develop the motivation to overcome our difficulties, and find the strength, courage, and commitment to see these changes through.
  • Exercises aimed at extending compassion to other people have been found to increase our empathy for others, lead to positive social behaviors, and enable us to create meaningful connections with others.
  • The practice of compassion focused exercises has been found to positively influence our physical as well as our mental health. Our bodies not only feel better but our nervous and immune systems work better, too!
  • Shame and self-criticism significantly impact our well-being, so it’s important that you address and reduce these difficulties. CFT can help you to overcome shame and self-criticism.

Shame and self-criticism underpin a number of psychological difficulties, such as anxiety disorders, depression, eating-related difficulties, and psychosis. Addressing shame and self-criticism reduces such difficulties and promotes wellbeing.

Using CFT to improve athletic performance

So, what does Compassion Focused Therapy have to do with sports? Athletes who are psychologically well are likely to feel and perform better. Since two of the greatest barriers to well-being are shame and self-criticism, CFT is perfectly placed to address the effects of these feelings on sporting performance.

An increasing number of athletes have found that CFT can help them enhance their performance. Consider these pointers for using CFT to get the most out of your sporting endeavors:

  • Overcoming shame and self-criticism: Athletes can suffer from the effects of shame and self-criticism, just like everyone else. CFT can help everyone, including athletes, to overcome such difficulties.

Self-criticism before, during or after a performance places us in a threatening state of mind. People literally bully themselves and feel worse for it. This state of mind and physiological response can be referred to as our threat system. It can sap your energy — energy that would be better put into your performance. It can also stunt creativity, which is a vital factor for many sports. It’s, therefore, helpful to develop a more supportive and compassionate relationship with yourself — one that gives you positivity, energy and flair.

Shame can prevent you from accessing the input you need from others. By addressing shame, athletes can begin to feel better, open up to others and get the support they need to excel.

  • Combating the frustration of being injured: Injuries can bring frustration (as well as physical pain) for athletes in particular, especially when they block you from achieving your goals! This frustration can also lead to anger (with yourself and/or with others), sadness, and anxiety. By exploring your competing emotions, and using your compassionate mind to good effect, you can prevent frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety from taking over and ruling the show.
  • Getting a good night’s sleep: Practicing CFT exercises, such as soothing rhythm breathing and compassionate imagery, before bedtime can help you get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is an extremely important aspect of your life, and poor sleep may affect your performance.
  • Dealing with pain from sports injuries: Pain is, unfortunately, a common aspect of an athlete’s life. Although medication can help, some medications may be prohibited. Also, medication cam trigger digestive difficulties and, perhaps, even lead to addiction. CFT has been effectively used by a number of athletes to help reduce the experience of pain and reliance on medication.
  • Maintaining a smart, strategic perspective of your training: Your capacity to push yourself with a sense of excitement and passion is hugely important, especially when you’re in pursuit of success. However, sometimes our inner drive, and the drive of those around us, can be problematic and lead to exhaustion. CFT can help you to organize your training and keep the balance in your life — in a strategic way that utilizes your inner drive effectively and prevents exhaustion.

Athletes are usually highly driven and competitive, and this clearly has its benefits. But how do you switch out of this mindset with your friends and family? If you can’t keep these different elements of your life in balance, this may lead to significant relationship problems. Mindfulness, soothing rhythm breathing, and imagery are just some of the exercises that form part of CFT and can help you to switch to a more beneficial mindset, bringing harmony to your relationships.

Balance is important in whatever you do for a living and however you choose to spend your spare time. CFT can help you to find this balance, whether you’re struggling to fit work and family time together, battling to extricate yourself from the office each day, or simply finding that you have too much to do and too little time.

Cultivating compassion in schools

Compassion Focused Therapy can be a useful tool in schools. In recent decades, research has shown a dramatic increase in mental health problems experienced by children. Low mood, depression, anxiety, self-harm, anger, violence, eating-related issues, and addiction are just some of the difficulties young people face.

Research also suggests that people who work in education settings operate under intense stress. This comes at a personal cost, but it also affects performance and retention (and, therefore, continuity) of staff.

As schools are places of learning, what better place to learn about yourself, and find out about the difficulties human beings face and what you can do to improve your own and other people’s well-being!

cultivate compassion classroom
© Shutterstock/Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich

Here are just some of the many good reasons for cultivating compassion in schools:

  • People do much of their growing up in school. Experiences at school set the scene for how you feel about yourself and how you will interact with the world in the future. The world needs more compassion!
  • Whether you’re a member of staff or a student, school can be a stressful place. As such, having a sensitivity to your own and other people’s difficulties, paired with a motivation to prevent or alleviate them, is a no-brainer.
  • Although shame was once considered by schools as a way of reducing “problematic” behaviors and increasing desirable ones, the damaging nature of shame (and shaming) is now well-recognized. As a result, educational settings benefit from strategies aimed at reducing the experience of shame.
  • Teachers are leaving their profession in droves, which suggests that more emphasis on staff wellbeing is vital. Developing your compassionate mind may help you to handle the challenges of this rewarding profession.
  • Children often create imaginary friends, but somewhere along the line people also develop an inner self-critic. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if both staff and students could discover a more compassionate relationship with themselves and find a way to put the self-critic’s words and hostility into perspective? CFT provides you with plenty of guidance on responding to your self-critic.
  • When children are stressed, they are less able to participate, learn and recall information. If teaching staff are also experiencing poor psychological wellbeing, this affects their ability to teach, manage behavior and inspire others: staff are simply less able to teach the knowledge and skills that they were originally passionate about. In contrast, people that are psychologically well are more likely to convey and develop a passion for learning, and as such staff and student performance may increase.

In a nutshell, “performance follows passion.” Therefore, compassion focused approaches in schools can also protect and enhance the school’s priorities. When you’re feeling well, staff and student performance increases, so therefore your mantra should be “performance follows comPASSION!”

In the UK, many schools are developing compassion in education initiatives. These are whole-school approaches that involve training and initiatives for staff, students, and parents. Also in the UK, compassion focused approaches have been tailored to different age groups and conveyed via assemblies, active tutorials, and individual, group and Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education sessions. Check here for more information about Compassion in Education.

Taking a compassion focused approach to parenting

It’s easy to see why compassion — defined as sensitivity to distress and a motivation to prevent and alleviate it — is central to parenting. But it’s also important for parents themselves (as self-compassion), and exercises used in Compassion Focused Therapy can even help pregnancy rates. Well-being in pregnancy is also important, not only for parents, but also for developing babies.

Here are just a few of the ways that CFT may be of benefit for parenting:

  • Studies show that stress can reduce the likelihood of conception. Many people, when attempting to conceive a child and finding it difficult, are told “relax, don’t get so stressed.” This is easier said than done! Because CFT aims to improve well-being and decrease stress, it’s just one of the many ways you can get your mind and body ready for conception.
  • During pregnancy, the mother’s and baby’s physical and psychological well-being are affected by the food the mother eats, the fluids she drinks, the exercises she does, the stress she’s under, and even how she relates to herself (critically or compassionately). CFT aims to improve the mother’s well-being by motivating her to make helpful choices that are important for her and her developing baby.
  • CFT focuses on understanding yourself in the context of your life, and it places considerable emphasis on your early life experiences and your attachments. Learning more about bonding can help you as a parent and, in so doing, can help the children that you parent.
  • Unfortunately, shame and self-criticism, anxiety, and depression are common human experiences. Such difficulties can become more pronounced, or begin, during pregnancy, and a number of new moms experience trauma symptoms, mania and/or psychosis following childbirth. CFT has been found helpful for such difficulties.
  • CFT emphasizes the concept of common humanity and the common difficulties people face. Focusing on how people are similar rather than different can help you to develop social networks and a profound sense of connection with others.
  • A new baby can trigger parents to reflect on their own early life experiences and their relationship with their parents. It can also change the dynamics between couples, and between parents and the extended family, and this can bring strain and conflict. CFT can help us understand such difficulties and work through them.

Michelle Cree wrote an excellent book in 2015: The Compassionate Mind Approach to Postnatal Depression. Although focusing on those who suffer low mood following childbirth, the book is also packed with information of relevance to all parents and is well worth a look.

Building better relationships by extending compassion to others

Compassion Focused Therapy can be used to improve relationships — and relationships, be they with family, friends or partners, are the key to well-being. No matter how happy and content you are with the important relationships in your life, there’s always room for improvement.

Here are a few suggestions that may help you extend compassion to others and improve your relationships:

  • Compassionately bring to mind someone you know and care about, and consider that they, too, have a tricky brain and are a product of their experiences and influences. They wish to be happy and free of suffering. Focus on your feelings of compassion for them. Based on this compassionate understanding, consider what you feel motivated to do.
  • Bring to mind a relationship you have and consider an aspect of the relationship that you find difficult, perhaps relating to something that the other person does that you find challenging. Compassionately consider why they may behave in this particular way. What may be influencing them? How may they be feeling? What may they want out of life?
  • If you want to broach a difficult subject or assert yourself with a family member, friend or partner, compassionately consider what it may be helpful to say and how best to say it. Use compassionate practices to build up your strength, courage, and commitment to address the issue.
  • Stop for a moment, maybe sitting on a park bench, and compassionately look around you at the other people passing by, engaging in their everyday experiences. Consider that they, too, have tricky brains and are a product of their experiences and influences. They, too, wish to be happy and free of suffering.

Notice how practicing compassion for others makes you feel and what you feel motivated to do. Consider making time to practice these compassionate exercises daily. You may want to make acting with compassion for others part of your regular practice.

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