Practicing Self-Compassion When You’re Struggling with Anxiety
People who struggle with anxiety often beat themselves up about it. I should be able to handle this. There must be something seriously wrong with me. Why can’t I just be normal?!
Ali Miller’s clients often say these statements in their sessions. If you’re struggling with anxiety, you probably utter something similar. A lot.
“Anxiety can feel so unpleasant that our tendency is to try to get rid of it. And one way we try to get rid of it is by criticizing ourselves for feeling it,” said Miller, MFT, a therapist with a private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif.
Unfortunately, this leads to inner conflict. One part of yourself feels anxious; the other part judges the part that feels anxious, she said.
This only amplifies your anxiety. In essence, when we berate ourselves, we abandon ourselves, Miller said. So on top of our anxiety, we feel alone because we aren’t receiving the soothing support we need, she said.
What’s more helpful is to practice self-compassion. “When you’re feeling anxious, you need soothing first and foremost. Self-compassion is a highly effective, efficient, non-harming self-soothing tool, that has no negative side effects.”
Miller defined self-compassion as: “a way of relating to yourself and all of your experiences with care, love and kindness, particularly when you are suffering.” This is very different from criticizing yourself for feeling anxious or ignoring your anxiety.
When you’re self-compassionate, you “turn toward the emotion with interest and care.” Miller likened this to turning toward a child who’s in pain. She suggested these strategies for being self-compassionate.
1. Give yourself compassionate attention.
When you notice your anxiety is present, Miller suggested this soothing gesture: Put your hand on your heart. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself a compassionate statement silently or out loud, such as: “Oh, sweetheart, I see you are feeling anxious. I’m here for you. You are not alone.”
2. Explore your fear.
“Anxiety is often unfelt fear,” Miller said. For instance, you might fear being alone, uncomfortable, humiliated or abandoned, she said. You might fear losing your job or losing a relationship. Once you identify your fear, you can return to the first tip, and comfort yourself, she said.
3. Talk to your anxious part.
Have a conversation between the anxious and non-anxious parts of you. First ask the anxious part to explain what it’s experiencing and what it needs. Then take action to meet that part’s needs. Miller shared this example:
- Non-anxious part: “Oh, sweetie, it seems you’re feeling anxious. Is that right? I’m here for you. Tell me all about it.” (Such statements convey presence, care, curiosity and interest. You can use any loving term to address your anxious part.)
- Anxious part: “Yes, I’m so uncomfortable. I’m crawling out of my skin.”
- Non-anxious part: “Yes, I’m hearing how uncomfortable you are and that it’s so hard to be in your body. Is that right?” (Here you’re not trying to fix or change what’s happening; you’re trying to be empathetic and understanding.)
- Anxious part: “Yes, and I just want to die! It’s so extremely uncomfortable. I don’t see how I’ll ever feel better.”
- Non-anxious part: “Yes, I’m hearing how terribly, terribly uncomfortable you are and how hopeless you’re feeling about ever feeling better. Are you desperately longing for relief?”
- Anxious part: “Yes! Gosh, I just want some relief.” (Here, the anxious part of you is voicing a need.)
- Non-anxious part: “Really longing for relief. Is there anything I can do to support you in finding relief in this moment?” (This speaks to how you’ll take action to meet this need.)
- Anxious part: “Can we go to another room to get away from all these people for a minute? I just need to be alone.” (Your anxious part might not be able to think of relief strategies. So the non-anxious part can make suggestions and see how the anxious part responds.)
- Non-anxious part: “Absolutely. Let’s do that now.”
4. Try the Buddhist practice of Tonglen.
According to Miller, this practice is about showing compassion to yourself and others when you see you’re suffering: On your inhale, breathe in anxiety as you imagine all the other people who are struggling with anxiety in this moment. On your exhale, breathe out peace of mind, or whatever else you need, for yourself and others who also are longing for relief.
Most of us want to ignore or eliminate our anxiety, so it might feel counterintuitive to breathe it in, Miller said. However, this practice meets you where you currently are: accepting that in this moment, you and countless others are “having this particular human experience called anxiety.”
For Miller, this practice instantly helps her feel less alone and more connected to her humanity.
5. Refocus on self-care in each moment.
Remember that you are not your anxiety, Miller said. You are feeling anxious — maybe very, very anxious — in this moment. But this anxiety will pass, she said. Try to focus your attention on how you’ll care for yourself in this moment. “Just this moment. One moment at a time.”
According to Miller, you might take several deep breaths, a walk or a bath. You might journal or call a supportive friend. She also suggested this grounding exercise: Imagine that a string is connecting the bottom of your feet to the core of the earth. Also, massage your forearms. Or notice and name all the colors you see.
Being self-compassionate may not feel natural. It might feel more natural to criticize and berate yourself, especially because you’re just so tired of struggling. It might seem odd to talk to yourself or offer soothing gestures.
Try the tips that resonate with you. And remember that self-compassion means acknowledging that you’re struggling — and that it’s hard. It means being curious about your anxiety, about what you’re experiencing. It means suspending judgment and remembering that you’re doing the best you can. It means trying to treat yourself like you would a hurt child or a loved one who’s in pain.
Woman having tea photo available from Shutterstock
Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Practicing Self-Compassion When You’re Struggling with Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/practicing-self-compassion-when-youre-struggling-with-anxiety/