Misunderstandings of Self-Compassion

Session Details - May 2nd, 2016 - Misunderstandings of self-compassion and fears of compassion

In this session we discussed some common misunderstandings regarding self-compassion, such as; confusion with self-pity, feeling we need self-criticism to keep us motivated, that it is self-Indulgence and may lead to us making excuses for poor behaviour.

Our threat system is a key driver here. Criticizing ourselves can also give the illusion of control, like there is a chance of ‘perfection’, if we just keep striving. Reality is so many things are at play: genetic, social, environment etc.

True self-compassion is not about self-improvement – more about acceptance.


Keeping our self-compassion firmly grounded in the 3 elements can really help here:

  1. Mindfulness Vs over-identification / pity
  2. Common Humanity Vs feeling different / isolated / separate
  3. Kindness Vs criticism / judgments / striving for a better version of you


Paul Gilbert’s research on fears, blocks and resistance to compassion:

Positive emotions (like the ones we encourage in MSC) can be conditioned and associated with, aversive outcomes. Since affiliative emotions are positive emotions that are associated with interpersonal closeness, then one can anticipate that aversive backgrounds may well lead to fears of affiliative emotions.

Gilbert suggests that capacities for compassion are rooted in, and developed by, the attachment system. However, the attachment system can operate like a book, closing down due to abuse or neglect but that compassion can reactivate the attachment system. When it is opened it opens at the place that it was closed. Hence, if the attachment system became closed because of emotional conflicts, neglect, or abuse, reactivating the system will reactivate these emotional memories.

Gilbert’s studies developed measures of fear of: compassion for others, compassion from others, and compassion for self.

His studies suggest the importance of exploring how and why some people may actively resist engaging in compassionate experiences or behaviors and be fearful of affiliative emotions in general. This has important implications because affiliative emotions are major regulators of threat-based emotions (as mentioned above).


Tips to working with fears, blocks and resistance to compassion:

Understanding our own inner resistance to compassion is very important, a key to the melting away of the layers of armoring we may have needed to place around our heart. Compassion cultivation is not one size fits all, so we tread gently and mindfully, dipping the toes in, opening slowly with the knowledge that compassion looks and feels differently for each of us.

Mindfulness practice can assist to gain insight into what sits behind the resistance. Understanding the facilitators and the inhibitors to our flow of compassion.

It is compassionate in itself to be reminded that ‘it’s not our fault – we just find ourselves here…’ This looking deeply into our humanity takes deep courage and is often best done with the trusted support of a trained therapist.


Mindfulness Meditation:

Familiarization (insight, awareness, discovery)  + Cultivation (learning, practicing, rehearsing)


Sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to seek to alleviate and prevent it. Courage and commitment for wise action.

Compassion is a flow:

1.     From you to others     2. From others to you      3. To yourself

Emotional systems involved with the flow of compassion:

Compassion uses all 3 emotional systems (drive / threat / soothing). We emphasize the soothing system in compassion practices as it increases our ability to problem solve; act responsively and creatively in times of difficulty. This is mainly via increasing our vagal tone (Gilbert, Compassion Focused Therapy).


Words from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 


Overcoming objections to SC, Kristin Neff YouTube

Fears of Compassion, Development of three self-report measures, Paul Gilbert, Kirsten McEwan, Marcela Matos & Amanda Rivis. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice (2011), 84, 239–255, The British Psychological Society

Comments from participants

“I have found mindfulness a key to coping." 

“Learning to be still and kind to myself." 

“Tina, you create a safe, warm, kind and comfortable environment."

“I could not think of a better way to start my week." 

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