Everyone has an inner critic that sneaks up on them. The voice that kicks you when you’re down, hissing you’ve failed, you’re not good enough, you’re useless. For people with anxiety disorders and depression, this voice can become a 24/7 commentator, an inescapable hum of shame and criticism. I call my inner critic Gremlin. For a long time dictating my thoughts, mood and generally making me fucking miserable. While I’d liked countless posts on Instagram imploring ‘be kind to yourself’, I had no idea how? ‘Think positive,’ sounds great, but what if your brain seems stuck on a default setting of ‘you’re shit’?
Enter compassion focused therapy (CFT), something I’ve been practicing for two years now and, truly, it’s been a game-changer. Sure, my Gremlin still lurks in the shadows, but when the Bad Feelings start swirling, CFT means he doesn’t fully take over.
Developed by British clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert in the mid-00s, CFT isn’t about chanting positive affirmations or adopting a relentlessly #blessed attitude. It’s not even about silencing your inner-critic (CFT recognises that suffering and feeling inadequate are part of being human). Instead, it teaches you to be more understanding of your shortcomings, and rather than beating yourself up, find ways to comfort, soothe and motivate yourself, breaking a vicious loop of self-loathing. “We can deliberately shift our mental states, and create new ones which facilitate a wiser, more courageous approach to life’s difficulties,” Prof Gilbert tells me.
You do this by actively creating a new voice in your head, a ‘compassionate self’ that steps in when your inner critic is kicking off. CFT teaches you to “practice and develop these compassionate mind states, which can then be used to engage with distressing situations,” explains Gilbert. Having reached peak mindfulness, self-compassion is fast becoming the Next Big Thing in emotional wellbeing. Several NHS trusts now offer CFT. “Research has found that it’s helpful for a variety of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, trauma and eating disorders,” says Dr Chris Norris, clinical psychologist and director of Balanced Minds.
Just like mindfulness, self-compassion can help those without mental health conditions, too. “People who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to have higher levels of happiness and cultivate healthy relationships,” adds Norris. The mainstream wellness sphere has taken note: this summer has seen a slew of self-help books on the subject, from ‘Self-Compassion for Dummies’ and the ‘Self Compassion Workbook’, to ‘Fierce Compassion’ by psychology professor Dr Kristin Neff, who’s TED Talk on self-compassion has over 1.8 million views.
You likely already know how to be compassionate. Confronted with an upset friend — or even a sobbing stranger in the pub loo — we automatically reach for our compassionate skills. Flexing our patient, understanding, caring and encouraging self. We try to make them feel better, without passing any judgment. A big part of CFT is training yourself to turn this compassion inwards. This could be as simple as asking yourself: what would I say to a friend in this situation? How would I treat them?
To make self-compassion less of a slippery concept, some CFT practitioners break it down into three elements: strength (the ability to tolerate difficult emotions), wisdom (understanding why we struggle) and caring commitment (the motivation to help yourself). “Each of these support each other,” explains Norris. “The key to the compassionate self is working on each of the three characteristics and weaving them together.”
My Virgo nature likes the structure of this triple-pronged approach. It also helps me neutralise my Gremlin, by killing him with kindness essentially. “With self-compassion we see some of the vulnerabilities behind the hostility and anger of the self-critic,” says Norris. “We can bring support and understanding to its fear of failure and making mistakes. Once you do that, there’s less energy for the critic to work with.”
Think about a small, stressful life event. Feel the emotions that come up. Anxiety? Irritation? Then, sit upright, breathing in through your nose for a count of five, then exhaling through your nose for a count of five. “As you're breathing, create a gentle voice in your mind, imagine a friendly smile as if you’re with somebody you like,” says Gilbert. “Then focus on the qualities of compassion: courage, wisdom, groundedness... Focus on the desire to be as helpful and supportive as you can. When you've created this mind state, go back to thinking about the stressful event, with this compassionate lens. Notice how you see the problem differently.”
Balanced Minds has free guided audio practices, where you use visualisation techniques to practice directing compassion towards yourself. (I personally found these really useful.) You start by imagining how you’d treat a stranger who’s upset, then a friend, and finally, if you met yourself having a bad day.
You can find more free videos and audio guides from the Compassionate Mind Foundation, and Dr Kristin Neff has a whole page of free exercises you can try, from letter-writing and journaling to guided meditation. “Research has showed that even a small amount of compassionate mind training — four online sessions, just 30 minutes each — led to significant reductions in shame, self-criticism, relationship insecurity and psychological distress,” says Norris. Simply, being kind to yourself matters. Think of self-compassion as an emotional arsenal to help you live alongside your Gremlin, and find a little more inner peace.