Therapeutic tools that can be self-administered and implemented fast, with rapid results.
A previous therapy client, let’s call him Marcus, began the first session with, “Doc, I need you to help me get my shit together. I drink too much, fight with my wife constantly, and am angry all the time. It’s like sometimes I watch myself behaving like an asshole and I can’t stop it.” I asked Marcus what he had tried to fix his problems. Marcus responded that he told himself to “suck it up and act like a man.” I asked Marcus if this was working and he angrily responded with, “Well I’m here, what do you think?” He paused, sighed, and then said, “that’s the asshole I’m talking about.”
After further questions, a common theme emerged for Marcus. If he was struggling, he would tell himself, “you’re weak.” If he snapped at his wife, he would think, “I’m an asshole.” If he raised his voice and scared his kids, his guilty thoughts questioned, “what kind of man scares children?” Marcus, like everyone, had a lot of things on his mind with complex issues. But across all of his issues, he demonstrated a common theme of treating himself like an abused horse. If the carriage wasn’t moving fast enough, hit the horse harder and the carriage moves faster. Problem fixed. Except, Marcus’ problems weren’t getting fixed and he was only getting angrier.
A different strategy involves treating yourself with compassion, which involves three aspects: i) noticing your suffering, ii) treating yourself with warmth and caring regarding your suffering, and iii) offering understanding and kindness. Self-compassion is not about lowering your standards or “letting yourself off the hook.” It’s about recognizing mistakes and bad decisions as a universally human condition with the understanding that times of pain are best treated gently just as you would with someone you love.
Marcus didn’t like the sound of self-compassion at first. I suspect it sounded too soft for him. But he took a chance and tried it out. I posed a series of questions and thoughts I will present to you, with the challenge that you pause your reading, and think thoughtfully about each one before continuing.
1) Who are you closest to? Who do you talk with the most and who do you care about the most? *If there are several people, just try and pick one.*
2) Now pick a recent situation regarding yourself that you are unhappy with and recall how you responded to yourself. What specific things did you think? It will help to take a moment and write them down now.
3) Imagine the person you chose from question 1, did the action or was in the situation from question 2. You may need to adjust your answers to 1 and 2 to make this more realistic.
4) Would you react to your loved one in the same way you react to yourself? How do you think they would react to your self-critical comments if it was said to them?
I want you to really imagine what it would be like to say those harsh statements you say to yourself, but to your loved one. The more critical your self-statements, the more painful this scenario will be. For example, Marcus called himself an asshole and weak on a regular basis. After he completed this exercise, he realized that if he used this language with his wife after her missteps, she would be very angry and hurt. In this way, Marcus found a link between the way he talks to himself, and the anger he feels on a regular basis. As he started to call himself an asshole less, his anger decreased. In fact, it seemed rather obvious to him after this exercise, that consistently being called an asshole made him consistently angry.
That first exercise was designed to build awareness of self-critical statements and suggesting an alternate route of self-compassion. Building awareness can often increase self-compassion, but it is just the beginning. After that first exercise, it’s common for people to get angry with themselves for being mean at themselves. If this is you, take a moment to notice the irony. It’s okay to make light of this! Taking oneself less seriously can be tremendously helpful! Crafting a better more compassionate relationship with yourself simply takes discipline and willingness to change. The following exercises may help to that effect.
1) Self-compassion journal. Journal about your day with 2 distinct parts.
a. Part 1, write about the most difficult experience you had that day and how it made you feel (I’m aware, cliché therapist question but for good reason). Record your self-talk including all the self-criticism.
b. Part 2, consider the alternative self-compassionate way of reacting to yourself. If you are feeling stuck, imagine a loved one was going through what you are going through. Then write how you would respond to them.
2) Apologizing. Typically, people start to identify their self-critical thinking more and more after being introduced to the concept of self-compassion. If you notice yourself saying something mean, try apologizing in a thoughtful way just as you would someone you loved that you wronged. Try and mean the apology with a commitment to making changes.
3) For more exercises, visit the following link for free exercises from leading expert on self-compassion, Dr. Kristen Neff. http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
I hope this quick fix was helpful. For more in-depth training in self-compassion or comprehensive mental health treatment, call (316) 854-1227 to make an appointment with Jeff Swails, LMLP.