How to respond to anxiety with compassion
Learning how to respond to anxiety with compassion is an important skill that can relieve some of the pressure and criticism that anxiety tends to carry. While it might be hard to let go of the critical voice, believing that it is helping you and that you deserve it, shifting from criticism to compassion will make the experience of anxiety less harsh and overwhelming. Compassion encourages growth while criticism stifles it.
Criticism and Judgement
“I should be able to do this.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“I always do/say ____________.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“I’m a horrible mother/daughter/friend/spouse________________.”
“I make everything hard.”
“I can’t handle this.”
Do any of those sound familiar? I’ve talked before about some of the common thinking patterns that get us in trouble. You can see a few of them reflected in the above statements, all-or-nothing, discounting the positive, magnification, etc. Remember that cognitive distortions are often to blame for our heightened suffering. Being anxious is hard enough as it is and to add critical self-talk and judgement adds layers of guilt, shame and isolation.
Compassion and Kindness
Dr. Kristin Neff is a prominent voice and educator on this topic. Here is her definition of self-compassion,
“Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”
Shifting from critical self-talk to compassionate self-talk is simple but not easy. When you are used to a certain pattern of communicating, it will take intentional planning and action to begin communicating in an entirely different way. You will not always get it right and will be tempted to respond with that familiar critical voice.
Instead of, “Why can’t I do this?” try “I’m learning something new and its normal to mess up and make mistakes in the process.”
Instead of, “What is wrong with me?” try “Everyone struggles when learning something new. Good things take time.”
As I’ve said before, life is full of challenges and everyone will be anxious about something at some point. Anxiety is normal and at times necessary. We aren’t trying to get rid of anxiety altogether. That’s not possible. We do want to lessen the toll that anxiety takes on us. Responding to our mistakes and shortcomings with compassion instead of criticism is one way we can do this.
You can view my current schedule and make an appointment online if you are ready to get started working on your self-compassion.