When things go wrong for you or you make mistakes do you automatically begin to shame and criticize yourself? If so then compassionate imagery might be a helpful strategy for you. I've tried this strategy in the past and have resurrected it recently because I like it a lot. One thing to know about building self-compassion is that it's sometimes difficult, and not every strategy works for every person. I've found it's always good to try a few times to see if something is a good fit, but it's okay to move on to a different one if it isn't clicking for you.
Paul Gilbert created Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) for people who frequently experience intense self-criticism as a strategy to learn how to help counter all of the harmful impacts of it. It can help create an inner sense of safety, assists in soothing oneself when distressed and, eventually, after repeated practice, can help create the infrastructure for self-compassion. Gilbert, Baldwin, Irons, Baccus, and Clark (2006) found that self-criticism was associated with difficulties in generating images of self-compassion. Gilbert is also known for developing Compassion focused therapy ( CFT) based on the idea that skills that make us compassionate towards others are also adaptive and helpful for life's challenges.
When we criticize ourselves, another part of the self responds in the same way as it would to someone on the outside abusing us. It does that by becoming stressed, anxious, or depressed. We know that our physiology responds to self-criticism as if we were under attack.
Just as our physiology responds powerfully to critical self- talk, it responds powerfully to imagery. Part of Compassionate Mind Training is the imagery exercise of creating a compassionate being. You can use this exercise and I do often to help myself through times when I am having difficulty.
The first step is to imagine and create your compassionate image. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and loosen and relax your body. When you think of compassion, safety, and unconditional love what image and feelings arise? The image may be of a real or imagined person, an animal or anything that embodies compassion for you. It may be an image from the natural world. The image must, however, be able to "be compassionate."
Think about an image that :
You may want to spend time drawing the compassionate image or writing about your ideal compassionate image if you are the creative type.
There may be particular qualities of compassion that stand out for you that are most important such as kindness, nurturing, safety, tolerance, understand, unconditional love. You can focus on those qualities when summoning up your image.
For me, I have an image of all of my dogs sleeping around me in my bed.
Ultimately, whether we feel difficult emotions, experience life circumstances that are hard, or make mistakes and become self-critical, we want to generate self-compassion instead of self criticism. This image can be part of the process of beginning that experience.
Kristen Neff has done tons of research on self-compassion she has operationalized this definition.
She divides it into three components:
Kindness -Being able to be kind and understanding towards yourself when experiencing something difficult, having a failure or setback rather than critical or judgmental
Common humanity- Understanding that experiences, mistakes, and situations are not personal and you are not alone in your experience ( which often decreases isolation and shame.)
Mindfulness - Being able to be aware and accepting of painful thoughts and feelings rather than pushing them away.
Our compassionate being should have these attitudes towards us, say things that help us feel this way and create a sense of safety and calm to help us feel this way towards ourselves. It may be bits and pieces of ideas you have of compassion, for example, your therapist, a religious figure, a pet, all rolled up into one. A compassionate coach that can help you through difficult times to create a voice that can help you talk more nicely to yourself and feel safe and supported through difficulty.
Once you have come up with your image which may take a couple of tries, you may want to practice daily in the morning and night, recollecting that image for 3 to five minutes, and letting that feeling of compassion wash over you. If your mind wanders from it, bring it back. Essentially doing a mindfulness meditation on the image. After you feel more secure in the image, you can bring it to mind specifically when you are having a difficult feeling or you have a hard time, make a mistake, or experience some distress. Observing the impact it has on your body and your mind as well as your thoughts of self-critical thoughts.
I have found with self-compassion strategies that some work well for me and some don't. It's trial and error, and a lot of experimentation so if it doesn't work, or you don't like there are many more you can try.
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Compassionate Mind Training references
Gilbert, P., Baldwin, M., Irons, C., Baccus, J., & Clark, M. (2006). Self-criticism and self-warmth: An imagery study exploring their relation to depression. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 20, 183–200.
Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 13(6), 353–379. doi: 10.1002/cpp.507
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