Let your compassionate writing lead you from dark, stuck places to fresh, better perspectives

Today I’d like to share with you a technique I’ve found very helpful when feeling overwhelmed emotionally…

Just because I’m a therapist doesn’t mean I don’t experience my own challenges! I’m human too and experience difficult times and emotions just like anyone else – though I’ve learned ways of dealing with such disappointments, hurts and frustrations far more effectively than I would have done in the past.

I find writing stuff down really helps

Negative thoughts have a tendency to go round and round in the mind, over and over, one after another, in a way that just makes us feel worse, don’t they? Generally we rely on something outside of ourselves for comfort and/or reassurance… talking to a trusted, understanding friend for example. Or maybe those are the times you turn to food for comfort, or just one more glass of wine – suppressing rather than expressing those emotions? Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to comfort and soothe ourselves? Interesting thought – isn’t it? We all have the innate ability to do this, yet it’s generally not something we’re taught. In fact we’re more likely to do the opposite – to be self-critical and give ourselves a hard time when things aren’t going so well for us…. “I always say the wrong thing,” “what a stupid thing to do,” or “I’m just not good enough” are just a few examples. Note the tone of your inner voice or thoughts at such times – does it sound harsh, brusque or critical? Is there anything else about that voice or thought? Does it remind you of anyone…. a critical parent or teacher perhaps?

Writing about your thoughts and feelings has been scientifically proven to be beneficial for health and well-being (check out the work of Dr James Pennebaker who has dedicated the last 30 years to this). One method of doing this is to write a letter to yourself, taking a kind, gentle, compassionate approach. This can be a very helpful way of acknowledging painful feelings and self-soothing. Before beginning it’s a good idea to focus on your breathing for a few moments and bring to mind someone who loves you unconditionally – focus on their facial features, the tone of their voice, their caring, compassionate nature. With this in mind write your letter with the same tone they might use towards you or that you would adopt towards a friend in distress who you really cared about. Aim to be non-judgmental, sensitive, gentle, kind, caring and understanding.

Be mindful of your distress and don’t block it – express your feelings fully allowing understanding and acceptance. Validate those feelings in a sensitive, caring and observant manner. For example, “It’s understandable you’ve been feeling so anxious or rejected, or sad, or frustrated because…” It’s important to recognise that your feelings are natural and that many people feel this way – it doesn’t mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you or that you’re inadequate in any way – it’s simply part of being human and experiencing life.

Focus on providing gentle, caring advice on how best to cope, mentioning previous experiences of coping well and what you’ve found helpful in the past. Kindly and gently suggest small, immediate steps that can be taken. There’s no place here for cold-hearted directives – “pull yourself together” is not going to be helpful and is hardly compassionate! Taking a step back and viewing your situation as if from a distance can be helpful in weighing up alternatives. You may want to brainstorm options, comparing the pros and cons for the best way forward for yourself. This doesn’t necessarily all have to be done at once – you may want to write several letters to yourself. Focus on gently encouraging and supporting yourself – avoid using words such as should, need to or have to.

From this distant, objective viewpoint it may also be helpful to ask yourself if your strong, present emotions are affecting how you view this situation:

Are you seeing things in black and white terms?

Be mindful of whether you use words such as never, every and always – for example, “this always happens to me,” or “I’m never going to be good enough.” If your performance falls short of perfect, do you see yourself as a total failure? If you have a tendency to think in terms of good or bad, success or failure, take some time to consider the middle ground.

Are you over-generalising?

Do you tend to see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of negativity and defeat – for example being rejected by someone you’re dating, an indication that you’ll never find a partner.

Are you imagining the worst case scenario?

Does a small mistake at work becomes “I’ll lose my job and then I won’t be able to pay the bills/mortgage.”

Is it possible you’re assuming what other people are thinking or feeling about you?

For example, perhaps you feel awkward in social situations and assume others think you’re boring, or judging you in some other way?

From this distant and objective perspective, how else might the situation be interpreted?

How would someone else see this? As kindly and gently as you can – write about alternative perspectives, pointing out where your thinking may be unhelpful.

The tone throughout your letter should be kind and caring, focusing on a desire to help and non-judgmental understanding.

You can use either I or You – whichever is most helpful… so you could say; “You’ve coped with rejection before” or “I’ve coped before” Experiment and find what works best for you; there’s no right or wrong way of doing any of this! If you’re finding this difficult at any stage focus on how you would comfort and support a friend in distress.

Finally, read your letter through to yourself in a gentle, kind, soothing voice.

Your final letter should convey warmth and compassionate understanding. I’ve found this very helpful and I hope you will too 🙂 I’m grateful to Kristen Neff and Paul Gilbert for their work on compassion focused therapy and from whom I’m continuing to learn so much through my reading.

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