By Dr Hayley Quinn
On a recent flight interstate I once again realised the importance of welcoming and trusting my compassionate self.
I had woken at 5am with a headache and feeling rather nauseous. My initial thought was "No way, I can't be feeling like this" my mind wanted reality to be other than what it was. My husband and I were heading away for a few days to see some dear friends. My initial distress was strong due to the importance of these relationships and not wanting to miss out on time with these special people in my life. Thankfully after falling back to sleep for a short time my headache lifted and the nausea settled and we left for the airport as planned.
With time to spare we settled at one of the airport cafes and had a coffee and enjoyed just being together chatting and looking forward to the days ahead. I was feeling relaxed and calm. I then noticed a rising feeling of anxiety. My mind got busy again,” Why am I feeling anxious?” “What's going on?” As I looked up I noticed large groups of people moving towards us from both directions. I'm not a big fan of being in large groups! That's when I heard the soft, comforting words of my compassionate self. It's alright it's just your threat system. You just feel a sense of threat and unease because of all the people that have suddenly appeared. It's ok, it's not your fault. I focused on slowing down my breath and tuning in to the comforting words and tone offered to me by that wise, calm, courageous part of me.
What is your compassionate self you may ask? According to Prof Paul Gilbert, Founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, compassion is a sensitivity to suffering in ourselves and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it. Often people think of self compassion as just being kind to yourself, and of course being kind to yourself when you’re suffering is certainly part of it. There’s more to the story though. At the core of compassion is courage. The courage to be close to your suffering; to recognise that being human is hard; to understand that we have been born with a brain that reacts in ways that are not our fault; and to not behave in ways that reinforces our suffering. It involves acquiring the wisdom to address the causes of our suffering. When we are self compassionate, we are able to be with how we are feeling rather than engage in behaviours to avoid which may be hurtful or harmful to ourselves or others. We are less likely to be self critical or “snappy” at those around us, and we can remain calmer and look at helpful ways to manage how we’re feeling. We can treat ourselves more kindly, in a caring manner that we might treat a loved one.
Once on the flight the nauseous feeling returned, cramped in a small plane my mind started with it’s thinking... “What if I need to vomit?” “What if I have a seizure?” That one got my attention, I've never had a seizure in my life so why on earth would I have one now! Then I remembered I'd recently watched a movie where one of the characters had seizures. “Ok that makes more sense.” “Wait what's that noise? I don't remember the plane sounding so noisy last time I flew?” “Wow how do these huge metal boxes stay in the air anyway?” You get the picture, my mind was busy doing what the mind does and all the while I was still feeling nauseous.
It was then I remembered I could welcome and trust my compassionate self, that part of me that is wise and calm and courageous. I again noticed my breath starting to slow, I recognised that I needed to adjust how I was sitting in my seat, I rested my head on my husband's shoulder and allowed myself to feel connected to him and my compassionate self. I reminded myself that what my mind was doing was a normal consequence of living with a tricky mind.
Our minds can get stuck in loops of rumination and worry and that's not our fault, it's just our mind doing what it does. We can however learn to be aware and understand how this tricky mind operates and with compassionate mind training we can learn to develop ways to offer ourselves support, comfort, courage and wisdom in our times of need.
Dr Hayley Quinn is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice, and President of the Compassionate Mind Australia Committee.