Cultivating Compassion: Letter Writing

letter writing

The Dalai Lama once said, "love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive".

 

Being kind and supportive to our friends in times of need comes naturally. Words of encouragement to pick them back up flow effortlessly. But showing ourselves the same response when experiencing difficulty is not quite so easy.

 

I have a tendency to blame myself for when things go wrong, so learning to cultivate self compassion was essential for my wellbeing and general life happiness. I used to beat myself up over the smallest of things for days and weeks. I found it easy to make any bad situation my fault and really hard to let go of my perceived failings.

 

It was during one of my counselling trainings that I discovered the therapeutic power of writing and how it can be used to develop a strong sense of self love and compassion. At the time I was in a new relationship and pretty afraid of my feelings. I couldn't understand why this great guy wanted to be with me. What was so special about me? What could I offer? How could anyone possibly love the real me? After each date I would analyse what I did wrong, the embarrassing things I might have said, fully expecting the break up call.

 

I had the perfect opportunity to explore first hand the technique that I had recently learned in training as I recognised that if I wanted this relationship to work, I had to start loving and trusting myself. Whenever I felt that I wasn't good enough, be that in my studies, at work or in my relationship, I would write a letter to myself as if it were from my best friend. The first few times it was challenging, but once I got out of my head, I found myself expressing words of unconditional love and kindness that I have never acknowledged before.

 

Overtime, the exercise has become effortless and has translated into my everyday life. I find myself much less likely to judge, criticise or analyse everything that I do. When I mess up, words of encouragement and support come to me as if I were caring for a friend. I no longer doubt my inherent worth when I mess up, but recognise myself as a perfectly imperfect human.

 

Writing now forms an integral part of my therapy sessions, from using thought record forms, to journaling, mood diaries, brain dumps and letter writing. The benefits of of writing include, changing perspective, observing and changing our thought patterns, creating distance from worries and simply 'getting it out of our head'.

 

 

Exploring Self-Compassion Through Letter Writing

If you love to journal, write or are a naturally creative person, letter writing is an exercise in cultivating compassion that you will love. But even if you're not, or this sounds like a silly little exercise, I urge you to give it a go, just a few times and see what arises.

 

Below are the instructions for the Self Love Compassion Writing Exercise adapted from Kristen Neff.

 

 

Part One

First, think about the imperfections that make you feel inadequate – everyone has at least a few things they don’t like about themselves or makes them feel “not good enough.”

 

Consider these things that you feel insecure about. If there is one issue that is particularly salient for you in the moment, focus on this insecurity.

 

Take note of how you feel when you think about it. Notice the emotions that come up, and let yourself experience them. We are so often desperate to avoid feeling anything negative, but negative feelings are an inherent part of life. Additionally, negative feelings can often provoke positive outcomes, like self-compassion.

 

Simply feel the emotions that thinking about your insecurity dredges up, then write about them.

 

 

Part Two

Once you have written about these emotions, you can move on to the second part of this exercise: writing a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary / or real friend.

This practice will call upon your tendency to show compassion and understanding to your friends, and encourage you to apply it to yourself as well.

 

Imagine a friend that is unconditionally loving, kind, compassionate, and accepting. Next, imagine they have all of your strengths and all of your weaknesses, including the feelings of inadequacy you just wrote about.

 

Think about how this friend feels about you: they love you, accept you, and act kindly towards you. Even when you make a mistake or do something hurtful, this friend is quick to forgive and understanding.

 

Not only is this friend completely understanding and compassionate, but he or she knows all about your life. They know how you got to where you are, they know about all the millions of little choices that you made along the way, and they understand that several factors have contributed to the person you are today.

 

Write a letter from the perspective of this imaginary, unconditionally loving friend. Focus the letter on the inadequacies you wrote about in part one. Think about what this all-compassionate friend would say to you.

 

Would they tell you that you must be perfect, and any weakness is unacceptable? Or would this friend tell you that he or she understands why you feel that way, but that we are all human and that we are all imperfect?

 

Would they berate you for your feelings of insecurity or inadequacy? Or would they encourage you to accept yourself as you are, and remind you of your strengths?

 

Write this letter with the friend’s feelings for you in mind; make sure that their love, compassion, and kindness are at the forefront of their message to you.

 

 

Part Three

Once you finish the letter, put it down and walk away for a while. Give yourself some space from the letter.

 

When you come back, read it again – but read it with the intention to really let the words sink in. Don’t read it as a note that you wrote a few minutes or hours ago; read it as if it is really from this unconditionally loving friend.

 

Open yourself up to their compassion and let yourself experience it, soothing and comforting you. Allow their compassion to sink into you and become your own compassion for yourself.

 

You can bin or keep the letter to re-read over in future. These are simply guidelines, so feel free to adapt the process to best suit you. If you have any questions about how best to do this exercise, do get in touch 🙂

 

If you missed last weeks Cultivating Compassion post be sure to check it out.

 

Much love

self care

 

 

 

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