ACT on Self Compassion

There is a saying that “What we resist persists”. It basically means that by resisting thoughts and feelings that we don’t want, they tend to hang around. This resistance refers to any efforts we undertake to avoid pain. This is a common strategy for dealing with pain, which, unfortunately, is not effective in the long run. We actually prolong suffering. ( CK.Germer PhD. )

During the CoVid period you may have noticed an increase in reminders that we should practise Self-Care. Which means undertaking behaviour to improve our own wellbeing. This is a great idea, but is it enough? More and more people have started noticing a general sense of unease, despite practising Self-Care. So how about taking it up a notch? And practise Self-Compassion. 

There are many definitions of Self Compassion. One that I particularly like is very simple. Self compassion means Acknowledging Suffering and Responding with Kindness. In other words, extending the same warmth and kindness to self as you do to others. ( Dr. Russ Harris)

We all hurt at times and now during CoVid, we’re becoming aware that we have to find new ways of dealing with our thoughts and feelings, as our old ways, such as favourite past times, are not available anymore or are not as effective anymore.

There is a lot of research indicating that Self Compassion is a great antidote to depression, anxiety, trauma, feeling disconnected and experiencing self-doubt. It plays an increasingly important role in psychotherapies. In ACT, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, (the acronym is pronounced as one word to highlight the importance for behavioural change), it is an intricate part of each step of the process.

For many people Self Compassion may be new, as we often don’t take the time to stand still to experience the impact of certain events, thoughts and feelings on ourselves. People may think it is not so important and prefer to skate over thoughts and feelings rather than taking a moment to stand still with them.

Funnily enough, when we do stand still, we often feel lighter, freer and more in tune with ourselves. You may feel that this is not your cup of tea. You may have even tried meditation and you’re just not cut out for that. The good news is that you do not need to meditate, be aware of your breathing or close your eyes.

Just sit quietly for a few minutes. Remember a time when you cared for a loved one and recall that feeling. You can look at your hands that provided the care for your loved ones. Now extend that same feeling to yourself. Simply by placing your hands on your opposite upper arms or on your chest. Feel the warmth of your hands and how you are present in that moment.

As you feel your body, how you sit in your chair, be aware of whatever shows up in your mind. Continue to extend the same kindness to your thoughts and feelings without pushing them away or engaging with them. Even thoughts of resistance to this exercise are great to practise with. Just give it a go and see what happens.

Now this is a more structured exercise, there are plenty of other ways how you can acknowledge suffering in your life and respond with kindness. Feel free to reflect on how you can bring more self-compassion into your life. When you put it into practice be aware of how it makes you feel. This is a great way to lay the foundation for experiencing more self-compassion in your daily life.

Written By:
Allard Mueller
Psychotherapist  and Counsellor


• The mindful path to Self Compassion, Christopher K. Germer, PhD
• How to develop Self-compassion – in just about anyone, Dr Russ Harris

ACT and Uncertain Times

ACT is an apt acronym for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which broadly sits under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT).

Someone remarked to me recently that they were surprised by how many different kinds of Anxiety had passed through their lives recently. They are clearly not alone in that – to catalogue all the things that we could be anxious about here in November 2020 could take longer than counting the grains of sand on a beach, or stars in the sky. Traditional CBT seeks to create a dialogue between oneself and the Worries that may stop by, settle in or have taken up permanent residence. It asks us to consider each thought in the light of helpful or unhelpful thinking patterns, find ways to separate and identify them – are they (to name just a few) ‘castrophizing’, ‘black and white thinking’, ‘making mountains out of molehills’ are they ‘predicting the worst’??? Or are they one of the other many ways that we have identified that our mind works to understand and make a narrative of its experiences (past and present)?

ACT however, is less concerned with disputing, refuting, looking for evidence for or against the thoughts, it does not want to debate or generally struggle against thoughts. ACT holds that Anxiety is both useful, necessary and an inbuilt survival necessity. Worry and anxieties may in fact be helpful, if we can be curious about thoughts, it might be that even the most painful thoughts can have something useful to say. Dr. Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap) has outlined some ideas for questions to ask ourselves when Anxiety shows up in order to pay attention with openness and curiosity.

“Is/are this/these thought/s …
• alerting me to something important, I need to address?
• reminding me of something that requires preparation, planning, or action?
• reminding me of important values and goals?
• reminding me to be compassionate to myself or others?
• reminding me about my behavior or attitude?
• alerting me to potential threats and risks I need to prepare for?
• guiding me towards the life I want?
• reminding me how I want to treat myself or others?
• reminding me what I want to stand for (or stand against) in the world?
• alerting me to things I need to do differently?

If there is something useful in the thought/s showing up, let’s take that on board, and let it hold into values-guided action. But if there’s nothing useful, let’s simply acknowledge these thoughts are here, and allow them to come and stay and go in their own good time, while we give our energy and attention to what’s important.”

Often in struggling against, trying to distract from, alleviate the pain or distress humans find themselves engaging in behavior that takes them further from the values and the things that are important to them. This may make itself know through alcohol or other addictions, compulsive behaviours, suicidal ideations, self harm or many other ways of coping. Rather that attempting to avoid, minimize or distract from painful thoughts – ACT attempts to help people hold an anchor, if needed and at other times to live alongside and make room for the distressing feelings and allow the thoughts to come and go; knowing that like the weather it will come and it will go – and it will change without us needing to struggle against it.

ACT is a practical and experiential therapy, the above ideas about unhooking from painful, distressing or anxious thoughts are just part of the model that is utilized by many therapists today and has been identified as one of the gold standard talking therapy treatments for Anxiety and Depression in clinical research.

Dr Russ Harris

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
SACAC Counselling