Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Chapter 8

Setting up your Secret Lair with Self-Compassion

C’mon, you coward! Stop being so whiny and go out there!” Doctor Semper’s Shame monster is nearly hoarse yelling at him today.

A strange thing happens when we struggle with a physical or mental difficulty. Rather than being kind and compassionate to ourselves, we tend to attack ourselves when we are feeling bad. We kick ourselves while we are down and rather than addressing the situation, only shame ourselves for feeling bad. Kristin Neff, a famous self-compassion researcher, says that when we are being hard on ourselves, “we are both the attacker and the attacked.”

On the one hand, it might seem that by criticizing ourselves we are getting more motivated to get going. In fact, that’s what a lot of people believe. But is that really the case?

Doctor Semper sits on the floor of the Simulator. His chest feels tight and empty at the same time. He feels a lump in his throat as he is fighting back tears. His Depression monster is already telling him about how hopeless his situation is and how he will never get better.

Criticizing ourselves at a time of crisis creates a setback so aversive that we might not be willing to try again. Think about it. If every time you didn’t succeed in something, your friends or parents shamed you for it, making you feel guilty and worthless on top of already feeling devastated about the loss, how would that feel? Sadly, I know that for many of you this might not be an unfamiliar feeling. So often we get put down when we need support and encouragement.

Whether or not you had the level of support that you needed during some of the most difficult times of your life, we can try a new skill, a skill of self-compassion. Self-compassion refers to providing ourselves with kindness and support when we are going through a hard time. In fact, I believe that most of us are far more supportive of the people we care about than of ourselves. Think about it—when your friend has a bad day, how do you treat them? And how do you treat yourself?

Most people tend to be very supportive when a friend or a family member is struggling, perhaps offering a hug, encouragement, or a shoulder to lean on. However, when we ourselves are struggling, we tend to yell at ourselves, feeling ashamed for feeling bad. But what if we treated ourselves with the same level of compassion as we treat our favorite people (or pets)?

It might look something like this: we might notice that painful emotion, thought or physical sensation in the body. We might offer ourselves some words of encouragement, such as “It’s OK. I know this is scary. Many people get anxious sometimes.” We might even offer ourselves a little hug by placing the palms of our hands on our heart in order to further support ourselves. Or perhaps we would notice that we need some social support or a little break and perhaps be able to honor these needs. How would that feel?

Over the years of me talking about self-compassion with my patients and students, I’ve experienced mixed reactions. Some people love the idea of self-compassion and are excited to try it. At the same time others are apprehensive, stating that it feels “fake” or “too fluffy.” There are also people who get very sad as they realize that they have never been compassionate to themselves before, while others believe that self-compassion is “selfish.”

Whichever category you fall into (including a completely separate one), you are not alone. Some people are excited about self-compassion while others are hesitant to try it. However, most people who practice self-compassion report feeling better.

Elements of self-compassion

Self-compassion consists of three elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. You have already learned about the superhero skill of mindfulness in chapter 3. In this case, “mindfulness” refers to the ability to notice when we are going through a hard time, when we might feel sad or anxious or experience physical pain. Most of us, when we experience some kind of a painful physical or psychological difficulty, might try to avoid it or push through it. Unfortunately, as we saw in chapter 2, avoidance does not work very well, and in fact can make us feel worse in the long term.

Instead of avoiding painful experiences, self-compassion teaches us to offer kindness to ourselves. Self-kindness could mean offering ourselves a hug; hugging a pillow, a pet, or a stuffed animal; breathing; meditating; taking a break; drinking tea; or another self-care practice.

In addition, self-compassion teaches us about common humanity, which refers to the idea that we are not alone in our painful experiences. In fact, many other people also struggle with things like this, meaning that this is a very human and a very real experience. Having a sense of our common humanity can help us feel less alone in our struggles while we offer ourselves the support that we might really need at that time.

Some of the common obstacles to self-compassion include:

·               • The belief that self-compassion practice might make us lazier, more indulgent, and less likely to continue pushing ourselves to succeed

·               • The belief that self-compassion is “weak” or “selfish”

·               • The idea that self-compassion takes a long time to practice and that the average person does not have time for it

Interestingly, while these obstacles tend to be among the most common reasons why people struggle with self-compassion or simply do not practice it, research points to the opposite being true. Specifically, the research suggests that people who practice self-compassion are likely to be more resilient to a setback and are therefore less likely to give up. In addition, these people seem to have an easier time being compassionate and supportive to others.

If you have ever flown on an airplane, you might remember the flight attendants’ message that if the cabin pressure should drop, oxygen masks will be made available. Passengers are instructed to secure their own mask before assisting others. This is because if we are unconscious, we are unable to help others. When we practice self-compassion, we are in essence building resilience against many potential stressors and challenges that we might face, potentially allowing us to be more helpful to others. Think of it like a healing potion in a video game, one that replenishes your health back to full potential.

Finally, self-compassion does not have to be time-consuming. Of course, extended vacations can be replenishing; but if time is limited, we can practice self-compassion on the go. This includes brief self-care practices, such as:

·               • Placing your hands on your heart

·               • Breathing exercises

·               • Hugging a pillow

·               • Cuddling with your pet

·               • Taking a one-minute (or even a thirty-second) stretch or walk break

·               • Performing an activity you like (such as singing) while doing an activity you have to do (such as driving or showering)

·               • Talking kindly to yourself, such as saying, “I know this is hard, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. I’m here with you.”

If, however, you find that you have a few extra minutes, a very helpful self-compassion practice involves writing letters to yourself. In this exercise, you would first write a letter to yourself from the point of view of a self-critic, listing all the mean, nasty things that you might say to yourself. Then write another letter to yourself as if you were writing to a dear friend speaking to him- or herself in that way. Notice how it feels to write each and how you feel after you have completed the exercise.

Some people report feeling a mixture of sweetness and sorrow when they complete the letter-writing exercise, while others might feel deep emotional pain. Either of these reactions is normal, and sometimes when we open up an old wound it might initially hurt, until we allow it to heal properly. When we first begin to explore an extremely painful topic, we might sometimes be overwhelmed with emotion. This is called backdraft. At times when it hurts so much to open up to a specific emotion, we can also offer ourselves some self-compassion through a personal hug and a gentle message. It is also not necessary to push ourselves beyond our limits. We can open our heart to the extent that we are able and then close it again, and continue to practice opening it as time passes. This is a softer, gentler approach to facing our traumatic losses and other painful experiences, one at a time.

For Shadow, her anger at herself for not being able to protect herself from Lorion caused her to develop self-hatred. Both Drovin and Doctor Semper experienced the same thing about their inability to protect the people they cared about. However, by practicing self-compassion, they were, in a way, able to comfort and soothe their own monsters and begin an internal healing process. In fact, practicing self-compassion and compassion toward others has been shown through research to be extremely beneficial to our health. Specifically, practicing compassion allows our body to release a special kind of hormone, oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” or the “cuddle hormone.” This hormone is often released when we are hugging someone or when we see an adorable little kitten, puppy, or other cute thing. This hormone makes us feel safe and supported and has positive effects on our heart and immune system. In addition, compassion practices have been shown through research to reduce PTSD, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain symptoms, and make it easier for people to reduce cravings, including drug and food cravings, as well as make it easier to socialize with others.

In a way, practicing self-compassion is kind of like being in our own safe space, in our own superhero lair, except that you can take it with you anywhere. Creating a safe environment for yourself can allow you to find the strength and courage that you might need in order to grow as a superhero.

Therefore, this week we are going to practice the most courageous step yet: self-compassion.

Superhero Steps

Practice embracing your monsters by supporting yourself when difficult emotions show up—by embracing yourself (hands on heart), hugging a pillow, breathing, or another exercise. In addition, see if you can practice writing a self-compassionate letter to yourself. Finally, practice doing something nice for yourself without having to earn it and, as always, practice mindful gratitude daily.