The importance of self-compassion

- June 13, 2023

The importance of self-compassion

Here at New Life Portugal, we believe that cultivating compassion and self-compassion is fundamental to one’s personal growth and overall well-being. The importance of self-compassion is what we like to point our in this article.

In one of our  themes of the week we offer tools and perspectives for exploring the benefits of compassion and mindfulness based approaches to empower individuals to develop a deep sense of empathy, kindness, and understanding towards themselves and others.

As a counsellor here at New Life Portugal I draw on a range of modalities and methodologies that stem from contemporary Western Psychology as well as Eastern contemplative traditions to support the development of this practice.

Learn more about our vision and mission.

The Science Behind the Benefits of Compassion

Let’s explore some of the scientific and psychological research behind the benefits of self-compassion practices. The human brain has evolved over millions of years, and we have developed what is known as a ‘tricky’ brain.

This means that although it’s doing its best to serve us and has an incredible capacity to process information, our brain can also produce a whole host of unwanted emotions, feelings, and thoughts.

The importance of self-compassion

Paul Gilbert, a leading researcher in compassion, has highlighted the incredible benefits of compassion-focused practices for helping people manage stress, depression, anxiety, and other emotional challenges.

Paul Gilbert proposes that there are three systems that motivate human behaviour: the threat, drive, and soothing system.

Most psychological difficulties are caused by an over-arousal of the threat and drive system and an under-use of the soothing system. Self-compassion practices aim to reduce the activation of the threat and drive system and increase the activation of the soothing system.

In our introduction to the theme of the week, we explore these three systems in more detail to understand why self-compassion practices, something we cultivate here at New Life Portugal, are so important for regulating our nervous system and well-being.

Interesting article about “The importance of self-compassion”.

The Threat System and the-importance-of-self-compassion

The threat system acts to keep us protected from dangers. When we are under perceived attack or facing a threat, the amygdala (the oldest part of the brain) triggers the flight or fight response and increases cortisol, blood pressure and adrenaline.

Our brain responds to internal and external threats in the same way, which means our brain can’t tell the difference between internal memories, judgment and self-criticism (the opposite of self-compassion!) and the actual sensing of a threat in our external environment.

Either way, when we encounter a perceived threat, our sympathetic (flight or fight) system will be activated along with stress hormones that include cortisol and adrenaline. We’ll feel anger, anxiety, fear, or, if we enter into a state of freeze, we may feel shame or a sense of needing to withdraw from a situation. Many people who come to attend our resilience or wellness path at New Life Portugal are struggling with these all too familiar feelings. The importance of self-compassion is key.

Our brain has evolved to respond to threats very quickly, which has advantages in terms of our survival. We tend to experience something called ‘negativity bias’, meaning that we tend to pay close attention to threat-based emotions such as fear and anger because they are actually trying to protect us from perceived threats and keep us safe.

The Drive System and the-importance-of-self-compassion

Our drive system motivates us towards what we think we need to be successful. It pushes us towards pursuing goals, striving and achieving.

Our drive is essential, but it can have a detrimental effect on our health when it over functions or is motivated by the ‘threat’ system. This can happen when we are over-working and doing too much to pursue achievement, promotion or success at work. The importance of self-compassion is what we love to point out.

The drive system is related to the chemical dopamine, a ‘reward chemical’ which means when we achieve a goal we set out for ourselves, we receive a ‘reward’ through the release of dopamine! This can become addictive and even lead to compulsive behaviours.

The importance of self-compassion

How do these systems interact?

When we are feeling stressed, burnt out or overwhelmed we are usually moving between the threat and drive systems and are often motivated to take action based on our threat system telling us that we’ll be in danger if we don’t.

However, when we’re motivated by an internal threat such as our inner critic, we end up feeling more anxious and stressed – leading to higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. When we’re in this state of high alert and arousal and we are using our drive system to escape from the perceived threat, we are more likely to make mistakes. This can aggravate our inner critic and lead to a vicious cycle of threat and drive to keep us away from danger!

This movement between threat and drive is likely to keep us stuck in a cycle of anxiety, shame, anger and a sense of hopelessness; we are motivated to take action from a place of fear, anxiety and self-judgment rather than from a place of calm, care or acceptance.

The importance of self-compassion for your mental health.

The importance of self-compassion

The Soothing System and the-importance-of-self-compassion

Through self-compassion practices we are focussed on activating the soothing system. The soothing system releases hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, which deactivates us from the fight or flight response.

Oxytocin is also known as the cuddle or love hormone, which is released when we engage in physical contact with others! The soothing system is related to feelings of peace, serenity and safety. We tap into this system when we give and receive care, acceptance, kindness and feel part of a community, which is one of the primary benefits of attending New Life Portugal.

The soothing system helps us form connections between ourselves and others and enables us to be hugely resilient. We are more likely to accept ourselves for our mistakes and not feel demotivated, anxious or give up when we feel overwhelmed. This soothing system is actually a source of strength rather than vulnerability.

Accessing our soothing system is something that can be learnt and cultivated through the act of self-compassion. When we practice self-compassion, we work with fears, blocks and resistance; we are working to be-friend the parts that we sometimes disown, such as the inner child that feels afraid; our inner critic; the part that judges or the part that feels ashamed.

When these parts are in the driving seat, we will stay stuck in this vicious cycle rather than approach our life from the rest-and-digest soothing system. The importance of self-compassion in the following part.

Self Compassion and its importance

Self-compassion is one of the core tools we practice at New Life Portugal; we spend a whole week focussing on ways in which we can cultivate this attitude of understanding and acceptance rather than self-criticism and judgment. Contrary to the belief that being compassionate might mean ‘giving up’ or being passive and complacent – research has shown that we actually take more, not less, responsibility for our actions.

From a place of self-compassion, we are also more likely to reflect on our actions, learn from our mistakes and accept that we are simply human – we all make mistakes, and we can’t possibly be ‘perfect’ all the time!

Research has shown that self-compassionate people are less likely to feel guilt and shame, therefore; less likely to be pushed into the drive system to overcome what they perceive as their failures.

The importance of self-compassion at New Life Portugal

Self-Compassion Practices

We can activate our soothing system through self-care activities, breathwork, grounding techniques, meditation or walking in nature. At New Life Portugal, you have the opportunity to engage in all of these activities through our holistic and integrative resilience or wellbeing programme.

These activities activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which means we feel relaxed, safe and have less tension, physical pain and lower levels of psychological distress. Levels of anxiety, depression are reduced, and we are more likely to feel open, expansive and connected to the world around us.

A daily self-compassion or self-care practice will help us move into the soothing system. Compassion is not just a concept to be understood intellectually but a quality to be lived and embodied in every interaction, both with ourselves and with others.

Through our holistic programme here at New Life Portugal, we aim to create a space where compassion thrives in our community. We hope you can join us here at New Life Portugal to experience the incredible benefits of cultivating a mindfulness based self-compassion practice.

Written by Jules De Vitto
About The importance of self-compassion

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