Monday, 14 June 2021

Overcoming shame with compassion during difficult times

What a crazy year 2020 was and 2021 continues to be. For some, the covid-19 lockdowns in Scotland presented opportunities to become an expert banana bread baker while becoming fluent in French on Duolingo and achieving mastery in oil painting. For most of us though, it was a year scattered with jobs losses, health scares, and the deaths of loved ones. 

For those who suffered tremendously during lockdown, viewing those who appeared to thrive on social media may have elicited feelings of frustration, anger, or maybe even shame. Perhaps this shame stemmed from feeling like something was wrong with your ability to cope with this stressful event as you compared yourself to your peers. 

It’s very easy to get entangled in a shame spiral and often very challenging to get back out again. Here are some tried and tested tips and tricks to overcome shame with compassion as we all try and cope with difficult situations.

We all have different ways of coping

Comparing ourselves to others often leads to despair when we only see the positive aspects of our peers and view ourselves negatively against them. When we do this, we may put ourselves down or blame ourselves for things that are not our responsibility. In reality, everybody copes with stress differently and the ways we cope with stress are not our fault. 

Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy said we all have ‘tricky brains’ that evolved to keep us alive. While experiencing a threatening situation (e.g. covid-19 pandemic, lockdown) some people may feel increased motivation to seek resources to survive (e.g. improve baking skills) while others may feel the need to retreat (e.g. stay in bed). Even though the coping styles are different, in both situations the person is trying to survive a stressful life event. 

By remembering that we all have different and very reasonable ways of coping, we can build compassion for ourselves and others in our joint effort to survive difficult situations.


Compassion through mindfulness and safe space imagery

When our threat detection system (red in the diagram above) is triggered, our bodies prepare to fight, flee, or freeze. I like to imagine this system as being controlled by a little security guard who presses an alarm button when a threat is detected. When this alarm button is ‘pressed’, our breathing becomes shallow, our chest becomes tight, and even our digestive system slows down! In order to calm the security guard down, we need to activate our soothing system that is affiliated with feelings of reassurance and safety. To do this, Paul Gilbert emphasised the importance of feeling compassion for ourselves that can be cultivated through deep breathing and mindfulness.

Here’s how:


Take a deep inhale in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and then exhale for six seconds.This is called circular breathing and incredibly effective in activating or soothing system (or calming down our inner ‘security guard’).


It is helpful to start by sitting comfortably in a chair with your feet flat against the floor.

  • You can start deepening your breath using the technique above (four in, four hold, six out). 
  • Start to bring your awareness to the space around you, noticing any sounds or smells that can help you to ground yourself in the present moment
  • Bring to mind a place that feels safe and welcoming, this place could be a cabin in a forest, a beachfront chalet or a mountain lodge. 
  • Bring your awareness to the details of this place, what do you see? Are there any smells? What are some sounds you may experience?
  • Now imagine that the place itself takes joy in you being there. Allow yourself to feel how this place takes pleasure in you being there. 
  • Explore the feelings arising when you imagine this place, and whenever you are ready you can open your eyes.

These techniques will help you to soothe yourself in times of stress. Always remember that we are in this together and having compassion for yourself is the best way to approach any challenges that come your way.

For more information about learning to love yourself, sign up to our webinar 'Overcoming Shame And Learning To Love Yourself' taking place on Friday 18 June 2021 at 12 noon BST. 

Cameron Cunningham works as Counsellor/Therapist at First Psychology Glasgow. She will be presenting the webinar 'Overcoming Shame And Learning To Love Yourself'

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