Developing Compassionate Imagery
In this post I’d like to expand on one of the techniques I briefly wrote about in my anxiety post; compassionate imagery.
It’s generally accepted that to be kind and compassionate towards others is a positive thing – but what about being kind and compassionate towards ourselves? How many of us fully accept ourselves? Unfortunately it’s not something many of us seem to do naturally – in fact quite the opposite; many of us have a tendency to communicate with ourselves in a way that we would never tolerate from another person. When life gets difficult we often make ourselves feel worse by being highly self-critical… “what a stupid thing to do”, “that proves I’m a failure”, “why can’t I do anything right?” You know the kind of thoughts I mean. These thoughts may be quite obvious to you or they may flit through your mind, almost without you noticing.
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? Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to comfort and soothe ourselves? Interesting thought, isn’t it? There are many ways of doing this….here’s one such technique.
The first step is to establish a gentle, soothing breathing rhythm, with a hint of a smile on your face. Then you can start to develop a compassionate image. What is your idea of a compassionate face? It can be someone you know who loves and cares for you unconditionally, or a compassionate image you create entirely in your imagination. Are they male or female? What age would they be? Older, perhaps with life experience and understanding of what you’re going through? Or would they be younger than you? Think about the shape of their face; their skin tone; the colour and shape of their eyes; their hair – style and colour. What kind of facial features and expression do they have that best conveys warmth, kindness, compassion and non-judgment? Your compassionate image doesn’t have to be a physical person…some people prefer to think of their spiritual guide or guardian angel.
Here are some questions to help create your compassionate image
What qualities does your compassionate image need?
Some people need warmth and protection, others prefer strength and guidance, or perhaps understanding and empathy is what you need. Develop your compassionate image with the qualities that will help you the most.
Sometimes people find their compassionate image isn’t a person. I worked with a client recently whose compassionate image was his dog – of course dogs love their owners unconditionally and have their own facial expressions which convey feelings, so this works really well. As long as you get the sense of support, kindness, non-judgmental love and compassion, then whatever works for you is fine.
Really spend some time developing this image in your mind’s eye – notice how it makes you feel.
What would your compassionate image say to you that would be comforting and reassuring?
(For this part you really do need to have a person). Imagine your compassionate image talking to you in a soothing, gentle voice. What does this voice sound like? Imagine the pitch, tone and pace of their voice.
What would it be helpful for you to hear?
Perhaps you need to be reminded of how you’ve coped before; of what qualities and strengths you have that have helped in the past; of different skills you’ve used. Your compassionate image might remind you to keep things in perspective – to look at the bigger picture. Think of what you’d say to a friend or family member in distress. How would you comfort and reassure them? How have you been comforted and soothed by others? Imagine your compassionate image communicating with you in this manner – imagine them expressing understanding, perspective and offering gentle, compassionate advice. Ensure the tone is kept warm, compassionate and accepting throughout. Avoid using directive words like should, ought, must or need to. Be as kind, gentle and compassionate as possible while providing strength.
Is there anything you need to say to your compassionate image?
Express that and imagine them listening with a compassionate ear.
As you do this imagine kindness, compassion and self-acceptance flowing into your heart and warming, softening and soothing your chest area – you might like to imagine this as a colour or sound. Perhaps you’d like to place a hand on your heart as well as you do this.
You might like to experiment with different images each time – old/young, male/female, human/animal, etc. You may find different images work better at different times. Self-compassion is a really useful skill to develop to help you overcome anxiety and for building your self-esteem. Enjoy experimenting and finding what is most effective, soothing and comforting for you.