Self-Compassion. An antidote to the harmful effects of self-criticism.

When we take up a meditation practice we discover all sort of things about our mind.

Some of which are pleasant and some unpleasant.

One of the unpleasant or potentially intriguing experiences people report, is the discovery of rather unkind voices in their head.

There’s the bossy voice, the not good enough voice, the do it better next time voice. All self critical or self judgmental voices.

When we have thoughts like “the way you handled that was terrible”, or worse, “you sounded like an idiot when…..” , our ancient reptilian brain perceives these self-critical, judgemental thoughts as a threat to its existence, and responds by activating the threat defence system. (Aka the stress response)


Once we’re down the path of self-criticism and the stress response has been activated, we may flee the situation by isolating our self, or we may freeze by ruminating over the situation, or we may fight. If we fight, it’s a fight with our self. When we self criticise, we are both the attacker and the attacked. No wonder perpetual self-criticising can lead to a state of chronic stress and anxiety.


The antidote to self-criticising and self-judgement is self-compassion. Self-compassion down regulates the stress response of the reptilian brain and activates the care response of the mammalian brain. When we practise self-compassion oxytocin and endorphins are released which help to mitigate the effects of the stress response and to encourage feelings of safety and security. Research shows that practising self-compassion helps us to widen our lens and see another perspective, rather than over identifying with our own distress.

3 steps to cultivating self-compassion

Self-compassion researcher Dr Kristin Neff has articulated 3 steps to cultivating self-compassion

1.     Mindfulness

First of all we need to be aware of what is happening. We need the presence of mind to pause and become aware of our thoughts and feelings, in such a way where we don’t suppress or deny our experience, but instead hold our thoughts and feelings in mindful, non judgemental awareness. 

2.     Common humanity

Secondly we need to remember that we’re not the only person having a difficult time.  It’s part of the human experience to be vulnerable, imperfect and face challenges.

Recognising our common humanity distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. Self pity involves thinking “poor me” or “why me?” . Self-compassion involves remembering you’re not alone and knowing that everyone suffers.


3.     Self-kindness

Self-compassion involves giving yourself the same care and understanding you would give to a good friend in distress. When we fail, feel rejected or frustrated self-compassion invites kindness toward our pain, rather than getting angry or beating ourselves up with more self criticism.

Self-compassion allows us to access our human-ness and is a soothing, nurturing balm in times of pain and distress.

To learn more about self-compassion and to train in mindfulness, join one of my next Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses starting in October.

Option One

Sunday afternoons

2 - 4.30pm

Qi Yoga Manly

starting Sunday 20th October

Option Two

Monday evenings

6.30 - 9pm

Zen Collective Brookvale

starting Monday 21st October

Awake at 3am? Here’s how to do it mindfully.

A common experience of insomnia or sleep disturbance is the “early morning awakening”.

If you often find yourself waking up at 2am or 3am, try these sequential steps to mindfully work with wakefulness and to naturally and effortlessly fall back asleep.


1.    Acceptance and Letting Go

Or put another way, the “so what” factor

If you’ve experienced ongoing sleep disturbance or insomnia, the mere act of waking up in the middle of the night can immediately trigger anxiety. Especially when your previous experience tells you, that you’re possibly going to be awake for hours now.

How you respond to the reality of being awake (when you want to be asleep) is crucial. It’s important to immediately adopt a genuine attitude of

“So what? I’m awake. No problem”

Rather than the anxious thinking that can accompany ongoing sleep disturbance such as

“Oh no I’m awake. How long am I going to be awake for? What if I can’t get back to sleep? If I don’t fall asleep by ……… (time), I’ll only get so many hours of sleep and then I’ll feel terrible tomorrow” etc etc.

This type of thinking only increases reactivity and the stress response in your body.

When you become aware that you’re awake in the very early hours of the morning, see if you can pay it no mind.

Have a “So what?“ attitude. Acknowledge and accept you’re awake, but also make peace with it.

Go with “I’m awake at the moment and that’s ok”


2.    Noticing sleepy sensations

Having immediately made peace with being awake, tune into the physical sensations of sleepiness. Notice how heavy your eyelids are. How heavy your body is. Notice the stillness of your body.


3.    Breathe

Gently shift your attention to your breath in your belly. Noticing how your belly gently expands as you breathe in and the belly softens as you breathe out.

Belly breathing is known to help engage your parasympathetic nervous system, aka your rest and digest nervous system.


4.    Thoughts and breathing

When thoughts come, notice they’re there, and return your awareness to the sleepy sensations of your body and the gentle movement of breath in your belly. If you notice the content of thinking is becoming more compelling, you might even say to yourself “not now, I’ll think about that during the day” and with a lightness, return attention the sensations of your body and breathing


5.    Cultivate gratitude

Practising gratitude right before sleep has been shown to enable people to fall asleep faster, have better quality sleep and sleep for longer. When you wake up in the middle of the night or if you’re having trouble falling asleep, remember a few things that you’re grateful for. Stay with the good feeling, allowing yourself to really soak it up. (


6.     After 25 minutes of wakefulness – get up

If you’ve done the above steps and you sense that more than 25 minutes have passed, it’s best to get out of bed. Even if you feel tired or even if it’s winter and your bed is cosy and warm.

The rationale for getting out of bed.

i)              If you’re going to fall asleep it’s going to happen in a 30 minute window.

ii)             Lying there for longer than 30 minutes is likely to trigger anxiety about not sleeping

iii)           When there has been a period of sleep disturbance it’s very important to work toward conditioning the brain to associate your bed as a place of sleep and nothing else. If you stay in bed awake, for long periods, this can reinforce the brains association with the bed as a place of wakefulness, which we don’t want.


7.     Quiet, gentle, soothing activity

When you get up, keep the lighting as low as possible. Bright lights will signal to your brain that it’s day time and wake you up further.

Adaptive early morning activities include journaling, reading, colouring in, writing a to-do list, (particularly if your thoughts were leaning towards everything you have to do the next day), stretching, walking meditation or sitting meditation. Avoid turning on any sort of screen.

It’s important once you’re up to continue with your “so what” attitude. Getting upset about not sleeping only makes it worse, don’t worry about it.


8.    Go back to bed

Only when you notice the undeniable sensations of sleepiness have returned.


The most important part in handling an unwanted early morning awakening, is our attitude. Trying to force ourselves back to sleep doesn’t work and only creates tension. Acknowledging and accepting being awake is what will allow sleep to happen again. Training in mindfulness helps you to become less reactive in general and therefore less reactive when you’re having trouble sleeping. Mindfulness training also works with attitude, so when you do wake up at 2am you’re more likely to adopt an “acknowledge, accept and let go” attitude. Rather than being hijacked by unhelpful thinking which exacerbates the anxiety of not sleeping, mindfulness can help you to calmly be with your wakefulness and let go of your desire to sleep. Interestingly the letting go is exactly what will allow you to fall asleep again.

Striving for a good nights sleep?

In the throes of insomnia, I tried everything I could to get a good night’s sleep.

In a desperate bid for sound sleep, I went mad on the problem solving, keeping a daily spreadsheet of every lifestyle factor and sleep hygiene rule I could think of, tracking what was helping and what was hindering a good nights sleep.

I soon learnt that my striving and stellar efforts, were actually the very obstacles preventing sleep.

The penny dropped the day I learnt about the body’s natural physiological drive for sleep. You see, there’s a neurotransmitter called adenosine, and in the brain adenosine’s job is to promote sleep and suppress nervous system arousal. From the moment you wake up, adenosine and the pressure to sleep is building in your brain. The longer you’ve been awake, the stronger the drive is to sleep.

A helpful analogy for the sleep drive is appetite. The longer it’s been since you’ve eaten, the hungrier you’ll be. Besides not eating, there isn’t anything you can do to “make” yourself hungry. Similarly, the only way to become sleepy, is to go a period without sleeping.

When I learnt about adenosine, the sleep drive, and how similar it was to appetite, I realised I did absolutely nothing to control my hunger and had no concerns or worries about my appetite and whether I ate or didn’t eat.

Yet there I was being a mega control freak around sleeping!

I’d been in a pattern of poor sleep for so long, that I’d forgotten my body and brain knew how to sleep and I didn’t need to “do” anything for it to happen.

With that insight, I ditched the spreadsheet and began forming a new, healthy relationship with sleep supported by cultivating mindful attitudes.

The first mindful attitude was non-striving. Sleep is a natural process that unfolds in its own way, I didn’t have to “try” to sleep. The second attitude was trust. I was able trust again in body and brains natural ability to sleep. The third attitude was self-compassion. On occasions of night time wakefulness, I found it helpful and soothing to draw upon Dr Kristin Neffs Self–Compassion practice, by saying to myself “Yes being awake and unable to sleep is a moment of suffering, everyone has moments of suffering. May my body and mind rest gently.”

By implementing a number of strategies I learnt from Mindfulness Based Therapy for Insomnia, I generally sleep very well these days. It’s important to note there are other factors, such as caffeine, that will disrupt the body’s natural sleep drive no matter your mindset or attitude.

In my upcoming 6-week course on Mindfulness for Better Sleep, just two of the things we’ll talk about is how to optimise the body’s natural sleep drive and how the cultivation of these mindful attitudes allow for an easy, good nights sleep.

3 ways mindfulness helps you sleep better

1. Mindfulness helps alleviate stress and hyper arousal

Poor sleep is often due to stress and nervous system arousal. The nervous system becomes hyper aroused through stress. When your nervous system is in a hyper aroused state, you can feel irritable, have trouble concentrating, your muscles get tight, you can be jumpy and easily startled, and there is often a sense of being vigilant.

Mindfulness teaches you how to be less reactive in stressful situations, which reduces the physiological and psychological symptoms of stress. By training in mindfulness you also become more attuned to the sensations of the body, so that you can recognise the physical symptoms of nervous system arousal early on and intervene well before bedtime.

2. Mindfulness teaches you how to get out of the trance of over-thinking

People often report that their mind just doesn’t stop on a night of poor sleep, the thoughts seem to have a consistency to them where there is no space for sleep to slip in.

You may have noticed when there is something difficult happening in your life, there is a tendency to think about it over and over? As if thinking about the difficulty just one more time is going to provide a magical solution? What actually happens though, is the excessive thinking keeps you in a loop of stressful reactivity. Where stressful thoughts perpetuate unpleasant emotions and physical tension in the body.

Mindfulness teaches ways of interrupting excessive thinking and teaches ways of changing the relationship we have with thinking. Changing thoughts is challenging, but changing the way we relate to thinking and thoughts is very workable with mindfulness training.

3. Mindfulness offers skilful ways of managing sleeplessness

It’s quite natural to have a night of little sleep every now and again. It happens to everyone for one reason or another. Mindfulness offers a number of adaptive ways we can manage night time wakefulness that doesn’t create more anxiety and more stress.

For example if awake during the night, rather than thinking unhelpful thoughts such as

“If I don’t get so many hours of sleep, I’m going to feel terrible tomorrow. How will I ever function?”

you can do a mindfulness practice.By doing a mindfulness practice, it allows you to redirect attention away from the unhelpful, anxiety producing thoughts and to turn toward the sensations of the body and the breath which are much more soothing and restful for the mind.

The other way mindfulness can help you manage sleeplessness is with your attitude and relationship to sleep. While we may not be able to quickly change our night-time alertness, we can cultivate attitudes that bring some peace to the situation. Attitudes such as letting go, acceptance, patience and self-compassion. Strangely enough, the more we can accept our dead of the night wakefulness, the more likely it is for sleep to unfold.

To train in mindfulness and to improve your sleep, check out the 6 wk Mindfulness for Better Sleep course.

Starting on Wednesday 29th May 2019 7- 9pm.