If your compassion does not include yourself then it is incomplete
This is one of those phrases that is easy to say but very difficult to do. In my face to face compassion fatigue training I ask those attending to take a selfie over lunch and then in the afternoon we use it for a self-compassion exercise. It’s very simple, I ask them to take out the picture, look at it and then say something, nice, kind and encouraging to themselves. Easy? Well apparently not! People genuinely cannot think of anything to say, won’t speak or sometimes get very emotional and even cry! What is this about? Why can’t we be nice to ourselves? I remind them that if I had asked them to look at a picture of the person next to them they would have immediately thought of something nice to say so why can’t we do it for ourselves.
It’s partly a cultural thing; the British are not very good at ‘blowing our own trumpets’. You only have to watch someone squirm when they are given a pubic compliment to understand that. But it is also partly biological; if I asked people to name some of their faults or mistakes they would find this much easier as we are genetically programmed to look for mistakes. We dwell on them, for example after an appraisal we drive home thinking of the one thing our boss said that we did wrong rather than the ten we did right. As humans we are supposed to think about errors otherwise next time it could be more serious (oh, I thought it was a snake/tiger!) and it seems this trait is very hard to shake.
In the book, The Happiness Trap author Russ Harris says 80% of everyone's thoughts contain some sort of negative content. So it is normal to have negative thoughts. It's part of our evolutionary heritage. We’re constantly scanning our environment (generating negative thoughts all the while) looking for problems to fix.
In the Pixar movie Inside Out we meet the ‘emotions’ in the little girls head and see how they control her and how things go wrong when one goes ‘missing’. But did you know that you don’t have to listen to the voices in your head? The negative ones are so very loud sometimes, so loud in fact that they can drown out all the others if we let them. A psychologist I did some training with said something that has stayed with me, he said “all events are neutral, they don’t mean anything until you put your own thoughts to them”! The example he gave was this:
‘You are driving to work when suddenly out of a side road a car pulls out straight in front of you causing you to have to brake hard’ Now, depending on who you are, your past experiences and what kind of morning you’re having these are some of the things that might go through your mind:
“Wow that was close, thank goodness we are both ok”
“Oh no, oh no, not again”
“I wonder why he’s in such a hurry”
“Right I’m having you my friend”
“I’m taking his number and calling the police”
“It’s my lucky day”
“Why do they always pull out in front of me?”
That’s just a few. There are literally hundreds of possible thoughts you can have as a result of just one action from someone else. The point of the story was that we can only control our reactions, the ‘Locus of Control’, we can’t control other people. But we do try and it generally makes us very unhappy and frustrated when we do.
But the problem is we do listen to those voices in our heads especially when we have made a mistake and one thing can lead to another until we are seriously beating ourselves up for actually just being human. This can lead to a downward spiral where one mistake or misunderstanding leads to another, eventually turning into a major trauma and we conclude that we must be a terrible person. Some people are much more inclined to do this than others.
So, what can we do? Basically, it’s about being as nice and kind and compassionate to yourself as you are to the people or animals that you care for. It’s about giving yourself a break, you are only human and you’re not completely ready for everything that life can throw at you. It may be the way you were brought up, that you have very high or unrealistic expectations of yourself or simply that you had an off day.
Next time this starts to happen to you I want you to try one of these things.
Catch yourself starting to say the negative things and quickly say STOP. You can say it out loud if it helps (unless you are in a public place or at work!)
Write down the thoughts, screw it up and throw it away, or burnt it!
Thank your mind for having the anxious thought as it’s trying to keep you safe, then add in a little dose of reason e.g. “thank you mind for worrying about the pilot of this plane but I’m sure they’re very qualified to do their job”!
There are lots of others you can try of course and some really good advice on psychology websites and in self help books. You need to find what works for you and keep practicing – challenging your unconscious thoughts requires conscious action. If though you do find you cannot change the way you feel and are constantly very negative and lacking in self-compassion please go and see your GP or look for a suitably qualified counsellor.
When you are doing a very emotionally demanding job, juggling many different roles or caring for humans or animals, self-care and self-compassion are not an option; they are a necessity so start practicing.
“be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening”
Lisa M Hayes
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