What is compassion and what has it got to do with the way I feel?

by Martin

in A Depression Blog, Depression Self Help

What is compassion’s relevance to depression?

Before we look at the answer, ask yourself this:

Have you ever considered the possibility that you should be nice to yourself?

If you suffer from depression, the chances are that you haven’t. In fact not being nice to yourself may be one of the reasons you became depressed in the first place. And continuing to beat yourself up may be one of the reasons you continue to be depressed.

These ideas are probably not new to you and they weren’t new to me. But until this week, when I read them in Overcoming Depression: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques by Professor Paul Gilbert, I’d never really give much credence to them.

I think I’d just placed them in my mental filing system in the folder marked ‘Bullshit for the Brainwashed ‘ alongside such other philosophical high points as ‘smile and the world smiles with you’ and ‘life is what you make it’.


The problem is, that I’ve always associated the idea of being nice to yourself with the idea of loving yourself, which not only sounds to me like a recipe for self-regarding arrogance, but is a notion that gave rise to the sickening ultra-slush of the awful George Benson (and later Whitney Houston) song ‘the Greatest Love of All’.

I’m sure it says something about the inflexibility of my thinking that I could dismiss a whole world view because it was the subject of song that I didn’t like, but fortunately Professor Gilbert’s work has now forced me to think again.

Fundamentally, his book is a self-help book focusing on the use of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to overcome depression. But, unlike so many others of its kind, this is a self help book with (shock!) substance.

Professor Gilbert thankfully avoids the simplistic approach so prevalent in the ‘defeat depression’ genre and actually provides us with some solid scientific evidence, not to mention very readable analysis, to explain both the causes of depression and how it can be overcome.

I haven’t even finished reading the book yet, but the idea that prompted this post and which distinguishes Gilbert’s approach to CBT is that if we approach depression from a compassionate viewpoint and, in particular, if we treat ourselves with compassion, then we give ourselves a better chance of healing our troubled minds. This is what he says (emphases added):

“We are learning how we can develop [compassion] as a major antidote to depression. There is increasing evidence that training ourselves in compassion and kindness, with regular practice, can actually change our brains.

This is exciting because humans have evolved to be very responsive to kindness.

If we think about times when we’re distressed, it is easy to recognize that the kindness of others helps to soothe us and pull us through. We have also discovered that individuals who are kind and supportive to themselves are also more resilient to to life’s difficulties than those who are critical and self-condemning.

Our brain does not respond very well to self-criticism“.

Read that last sentence again depressives – and weep!


Our brain does not respond very well to self criticism? Well, that explains a few things because it’s honestly no exaggeration to say that I have spent my whole life, day in and day out, devoutly practicing the art of self-criticism.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a single thing without believing that I could have done it better and I haven’t been slow in berating myself about it either. One way or another, I’ve managed to view any successes that I have had as failures, whilst at the same time upsetting those around me who are mystified when I reject their praise and insist on focusing on what went wrong or what I should have done better.

So if our brains don’t react well to self criticism, I’m surprised I retain any sanity at all.

The good news, though, is that I think Professor Gilbert is onto something.


Now, I can honestly say that I have never once thought that I should be kind to myself. The very idea would have made my skin crawl. But, in the interests of science and for the benefit of you, dear readers, when I read the passage from ‘Overcoming depression’ quoted above, I thought perhaps I should give it a try. And I am very happy to say, that I think it might work.

Of course it’s early days, but by simply telling myself a few times this week that not everything is my fault, that maybe I’m not the world’s worst dad and perhaps it is okay to hate my tedious job, I think I’ve managed to feel more calm and less defeated than I have in a while.

So, I’m going to keep at it and I’ll report back in due course. 

Now it’s off to iTunes to download the Greatest Love of All :)


US Readers

Professor Paul Gilbert – Overcoming Depression: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques

UK Readers

Professor Paul Gilbert – Overcoming Depression: A guide to recovery with a complete self-help programme

It’s the same book, it just has a different title in each country.

Also worth exploring:


Greater Good – the Science of a Meaningful Life

Song of the post

No, it’s not ‘the greatest love of all’. Instead I have chosen some Glasgow r’n’b from the warm soulful voice of under-rated Scot, Frankie Miller. His “Be Good to Yourself”, from the Full House album, is the best soundtrack to this post that I can think of:

US Readers

Frankie Miller – Full House

UK Readers
The Best Of Frankie Miller

About the Author

Father, husband, writer and website publisher, discontented in his day-job, he writes here about depression - his own and in general. You can follow Too Depressed on Twitter. Please share the content on this site with all your friends, followers and contacts using the buttons above.

Contact the author

Last revised on March 9, 2014

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