"You need to be kinder to yourself, Jonny"
For Mental Health Awareness Week, Rethink Mental Illness ambassador Jonny Benjamin writes about how he has begun to understand the power of self-compassion and learned to live with his inner critic.
“You need to be kinder to yourself, Jonny.”
Those were the words of virtually every single mental health professional I saw in my 20s.
I knew they were right. I had always been extremely self-critical.
Yet since a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder led to being hospitalised just before my 21st birthday the self-critic within me simply worsened.
I felt incredibly invalid. I couldn’t even bear to press the button at a set of traffic lights in order to stop traffic and cross the road. Why should someone give way to me?
Fortunately, when I was approaching 30, I was given a book entitled Self Compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind.
The book, written by Professor Kristen Neff, is an exercise book which aims to quieten down the inner critic and increase self-kindness.
It was through completing the exercises in this book that I truly realised how brutally unkind I had been to myself.
The irony was of course that I didn’t treat anyone around me in such a callous way at all. In fact, I always tried my hardest to treat everyone else with much kindness and respect. All except myself I realised now at last.
Fast-forward three years and I wish that I could tell you that I’m a shining beacon of self-compassion.
But I have recently come to the realisation that the self-critic will forever be present in my life, and that this is ok. For although he may always be with me, he doesn’t have to rule over me.
Shortly after finishing Kristen Neff’s book I enrolled on a course I found called Compassion Focussed Therapy for Psychosis, run by Dr Charlie Heriot-Maitland and Eleanor Longden, whose TED talk about hearing voices I had long been inspired by.
Compassion Focussed Therapy, otherwise known as CFT, was developed by psychologist Paul Gilbert to help individuals with severe and enduring mental health problems, many of whom tend to have high levels of shame and self-criticism, according to the NHS.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears while attending the course. Being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder had resulted in many years of self-stigma. Yet through listening to Charlie and Eleanor I realised that I didn’t need to continue to torture myself for the illness I had or the symptoms I experienced.
It was overwhelmingly liberating.
Some months after the course I finally began my own journey with Compassion Focussed Therapy.
It was unlike any type of therapy I had had before. I often felt overwhelmed during other therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but there was something more accessible about CFT for me.
In my own journey to discover what helps me most, I’ve learned how different we are, and that one type of therapy won’t work for everyone. But CFT has certainly helped me.
A real breakthrough came soon after when my therapist told me:
“Jonny, it isn’t your fault. It’s simply the way that your brain works.”
I remember this moment palpably. Perhaps other people had tried to tell me this same thing before but at this particular moment the words sunk in beneath my skin.
Now, after much practice, I finally say those words to myself.
A year and a half ago I made a video on my YouTube channel about my journey with self-compassion which contains various tips I’ve been using along the way:
It is undoubtedly the video which I am most proud of making. I hope it may help you too if you are struggling with your own self-critic. If you’re curious, Kristen Neff’s book is a good place to start and is more easily accessible than therapy.
When we’re young we’re taught about the importance of being kind to others, but I think we could all feel the benefits if we started to show more kindness to ourselves.