One aim in CFT is how we can learn to become more compassionate with ourselves. There are many ways of doing this, including a powerful self-compassion practice known as Compassionate Letter Writing.
Research has found that Compassionate Letter Writing is associated with a variety of benefits, including improved mood, reduction of shame and higher levels of self-compassion
There are a variety of ways to do compassionate letter writing as part of Compassion Focused Therapy, but below we’ve outlined a simple structure that you might find helpful to download and use
Compassionate Letter Writing - A Guide
In compassionate letter writing, we help people to learn how to write about their difficulties from their compassionate minds, the part of them that can bring a sensitivity to suffering (first psychology of compassion), and have the wisdom and motivation to find ways to cope with and alleviate these (second psychology of compassion). So this is a way of bringing together many of the compassionate skills – motivation, attention, thinking, emotion and behaviour. There are different ways we can write compassionate letters, but the general purpose of these letters is to:
- Expresses concern, non-judgement and genuine caring to you
- Demonstrate sensitivity to your pain and suffering
- Convey sympathy to your struggle
- Help you to be more tolerant of your distress and difficulties
- Help you to understand and have empathy for your struggles
- convey, a sense of genuine warmth, care and support
Compassionate Letter Writing - Helpful Tips
- When you’re doing compassionate letter writing, it’s useful to try to find a quiet, safe place where you will not be disturbed
- It is ok to go back and change your letter
- Experiment with how you write the letter, for example, using the first person (I) and third person (you). Many people find it harder using the first person, e.g. “I can see that this is not my fault, I have done the best I can” rather than the third person e.g. “This is not your fault, you have done the best you can”. But explore which you find easiest and use that to start with.
- Your letters don’t need to be perfect! They don’t need to have perfect spelling, or grammar. The purpose of this practice is about the intention to approach something that you’re struggling with, with various qualities of compassion – for example, care, empathy and support. And moreover, we haven’t ever written a perfect compassionate letter, and we’ve been writing them for years!
- As you write, keep a mindful eye on which ‘part’ of you is writing the letter – sometimes we can start the letter with a very compassionate voice, but quickly move in to using a cold, critical or demanding voice.
- One size does not fit all so play around with your compassionate letter writing – we have provided a structure to start your off on, but feel free to find your own style
It may be helpful to re-read your letters on a weekly or monthly basis. Some of the people we work with like to record theirs and listen to them – if you do audio record them, try to read the letter out loud with a warm, caring voice tone.
Compassionate Letter Writing - 10 Step Guide
There are lots of different ways to do compassionate letter writing, so the below guide is just one way of doing this. Don’t worry too much at this stage if you get stuck at one of the steps, it’s ok to move on to the next one (it can feel a little overwhelming to look at all ten steps, so if it’s easier, write the letter in a general non-guided way first, and then return to this at a later stage).
Step 1: Engage your compassionate mind
The first step of compassionate letter writing involves helping you to connect with a part of you that is going to write the letter – your compassionate self. Now, you can also choose to write these letters from the perspective of your ideal compassionate other, but for the purposes of this letter, we are going to focus upon doing this from your compassionate self.
To do this, first find a quiet place to sit, and, with an upright body posture, spend a few moments mindfully connecting with your soothing rhythm breathing. When you feel ready, spend a little time connecting with the qualities of your ideal compassionate self – caring-commitment, wisdom and strength. As you feel connect, open your eyes and begin to write the letter, guided by the below prompts. Check in with yourself at various stages to see if you are still connected with your compassionate self.
Step 2: Motivation – Why am I writing this letter?
Before you start writing anything, it is helpful to tune in to your motivation for writing. If we’re going to spend time with compassionate letter writing, why are we doing this? So, through your compassionate self, tune in to your compassionate intention and motivation – to be sensitive to your own and others’ suffering, and a desire to find ways to alleviate this suffering. Really focus your compassionate intention on trying your best to do this in the coming letter (spend 30 seconds or so just holding this in the front of your mind, before you move to step 3)
Step 3: Beginning the letter and identifying a difficulty
So to start the actual compassionate letter writing, we need to do two things: direct the letter to yourself, and identify a problem or difficulty that you are, or have previously, struggled with that you will focus the letter on. As this is a letter to yourself, so is the initial greeting. So, something like ‘Dear Chris’ or ‘Hello Jed’ might be one option, where you are using your name directly. Sometimes people prefer something slightly different, like: ‘Dear me’. See what feels ok.
Following this, we need to start the letter with identifying what the struggle is. If we use Joe as an example, his opening was as follows:
I know that life is been difficult at the moment, as you have been struggling with the impact of being made redundant, and you have been feeling very critical with yourself and hopeless about your future”.
Step 4: Validation and Empathy for the struggle
An important part of compassionate letter writing is to try and validate and understand our feelings and struggles in life. So after outlining what the current struggle or difficulty is, it can be useful to turn our compassionate minds to understanding why we are feeling the way we are (in comparison to how many of us often response to our distress – by invalidating and feeling confused about why we are feeling the way we are). Whilst connected with his compassionate self, Joe wrote the following:
“It’s understandable that you’re feeling like you are, as it’s hard for anyone to lose their job, especially after working there for so many years. You worked really hard in this role, and committed so much of your life for the company. It’s also understandable that you feel like this given your experiences in life – being raised to believe that you are only a good and worthy person if you work hard in life. It is also understandable that you feel anxious about the future and whether the mortgage will get paid. You love your family more than anything in the world, and the last thing you ever wanted was to cause them any difficulties”
Step 5: Understanding of your attempts to manage your threat system – not your fault
As we’ve explored in this course, when our threat systems are triggered, we engage in a variety of safety or protective behaviours that help to manage whatever the threat is. It can be helpful during compassionate letter writing to outline your own attempts to manage your difficulties, and to connect with the fact that this is ‘not your fault’, nor any unintended consequences that have emerged from these attempts. This is what Joe wrote:
“I know that you’ve been trying to manage your painful feelings of shame and anxiety but avoiding thinking about the situation, and drinking more frequently to block out the feelings. It’s not your fault that you’ve been trying to manage things this way, you were never taught any other ways of dealing with your feelings, and you were just trying to find some way of helping yourself.”
Step 6: Taking responsibility
Whilst it’s not our fault that we get caught up in various safety strategies, it is our responsibility to develop the skills to manage these difficulties as best as you can. Here, it’s often important to tap in to the qualities of strength and wisdom – for the desire to approach things in a different way.
“Whilst it’s not your fault for avoiding talking about what happened, or for drinking more, it is important that you start to take responsibility for this; engage in your compassionate self, connecting with your sense of caring-commitment, wisdom, strength, and now think about what you would like to do. Start with this – a commitment to bring a different way of dealing with this difficult situation.”
Step 7: Exploring how to help – compassionate thoughts and action
So now that we’ve started to commit to change and take responsibility, it is important to think about how we can bring our compassionate minds to influence how we are thinking and behaving in this situation. The key point about this part of compassionate letter writing is to try and bring balance to your thinking, and engage in behaviours that are likely to help you face the difficulty, and bring some positive changes. So in this part of the letter if can be helpful to see if we can look at all of this from a different perspective – a compassionate perspective.
“It is understandable I feel this way. The boss at work told me that she was very sorry and was upset when she had to break the news to the team. Other people in the team may feel the same as me, so it might help to speak to them about it. I had a good review recently, so I can see that this is not a reflection on my skills. This is not my fault, but can start trying to deal with this in a helpful way, for myself and for others.”
Step 8: Working with blocks, difficulties and setbacks
Whilst it would be wonderful if our attempts to bring change could be straight forward and successful, we all have the intuitive wisdom that this – unfortunately – is not always the case. So it can be helpful here in your compassionate letter writing to consider what difficulties or setbacks you might experience in your attempts to support yourself and bring change to this situation.
“It might be helpful to keep an eye out for any times that you might start thinking about drinking more again! But the main thing for us to keep in mind is the risk for you to want to bury your head in the sand if you start feeling more anxious and ashamed again. Try and keep a ‘mindful eye’ on this, noticing your thoughts and feelings, as this will give you an early warning if this might be coming.”
Step 9: Compassionate commitment to bringing change
In terms of compassionate letter writing, the final step is to convey a sense of your commitment to the process of change, or the process of supporting you.
“Please remember that I’ll be there for you to help with all of this; hold in mind your intention and commitment – to take steps to deal with this difficult situation in a different way, to focus on being the version of you that you want to be, the version that your family will be proud of. Let’s start with small steps. How about tomorrow you speak to Annie about things and then we can take it from there? Remember you’re not on your own with this.”
Step 10: Compassionate reading
When you have finished writing your letter, there is one final step! To read the letter back to yourself. Now, you can do this out loud, or by reading it to yourself. Either way, the key is to read it from a particular part of you (your compassionate self or compassionate other) and to do this with a warm, caring voice tone. It can also be important to take your time with this, so not reading the letter as quickly as possible, but rather, taking your time, reading at measured pace so as to allow your mind to hear and feel the words, feelings and intention behind the letter.
Summary: so, you’ve had a chance to read through the 10 steps of compassionate letter writing. Don’t feel you have to work through everyone if they don’t feel relevant, but take some time to have a go at writing to yourself about something you’ve been struggling with recently.