Back in the day, and probably still in some offices, therapists would often treat anxiety disorders by exposing the patient to the feared situation. They had a treatment called “flooding”, which meant that they would just throw them right in with what scared them the most. Perhaps they would take them up to the top of a high building or have them hold a snake. This method tended to work but I always thought it sounded rather mean.
Let’s not be mean to ourselves. As it turns out, the key to getting better across all mental health problems involves changing our automatic tendency to be harsh and critical with ourselves.
Think about it, does criticizing yourself for being anxious actually help you to feel better? No, this doesn’t even make sense. Whether anxiety or depression, judging, criticizing, and pushing ourselves to feel better is going to fail. But why do we do it?
Our culture, in particular, is a breeding ground for “low self-esteem” and self-hatred. We are often told to “get over it”, either directly by a parent, or indirectly through messages that we get from others. If we don’t reach a list of expectations and demands, then we consider ourselves failures.
With anxiety, the problem is that when we get angry at ourselves for feeling anxious, we actually create an inner environment that lacks safety.
What happens when you don’t feel safe?
Perhaps you don’t feel that you quite hate yourself, or you don’t even feel that you are particularly mean to yourself. But take a moment to reflect on whether you say things to yourself that lack kindness. You might say to yourself something like, “Why can’t you just get over it and be like other people who are strong?”.
These messages, even more subtle ones, are quite damaging over time.
In order to shift this pattern, I highly recommend something called Self-Compassion.
Self-Compassion means pretty much what you might think. It is an attitude of compassion that we have toward ourselves. It involves 3 components.
For example, if we are feeling depressed, we do the following:
1. Acknowledge that we are sad by saying something like, “Wow, I’m really hurting today.”.
2. Recognize that its ok that we are hurting and that other people hurt this way as well (we are not uniquely flawed for feeling this way)
3. Do something that helps to alleviate our suffering. For instance, soothe ourselves by quietly sitting with the feeling, or taking a stroll outside.
Engaging in other self-care activities is the behavioral component of self-compassion. Please see my blog post on self-care for more ideas about what this might look like.
Dr. Kristin Neff, based at the University of Texas, has developed this concept and has researched it extensively. She has found that people who are already high in self-compassion, or who have been formally taught self-compassion, have significantly lower levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Self-Compassion can indeed be taught. It is actually connected to mindfulness, and can be incorporated into mindfulness practice. I will be covering self-compassion in my online mindfulness program, and I will also provide guided meditations that will focus on increasing self-compassion.
Going from being self-critical to self-compassionate does not occur easily or quickly. It is a process, and it is cultivated over time. Like tending to a garden, we tend to our own needs. The garden will then start to grow and flourish.
Today you can start the garden by planting a few seeds. When you are feeling bad, practice using kinder and softer language with yourself. Imagine talking to a dear friend who is down. What would you say to this friend to make them feel better?