With the world still in relative chaos almost a year and a half after the COVID epidemic first emerged, the pressures on individuals and businesses continue to mount. In times like this, it becomes increasingly evident that we could all benefit from showing ourselves a little self-compassion.
Compassion involves being sensitive to the experiences of those who are suffering, along with having a deep desire to alleviate that suffering. Self-compassion is directing that same compassion inward. Lead expert on self- compassion, Dr Kristin Neff, states that self-compassion consists of three main elements:
- a sense of common humanity, and
As a society, we place great emphasis on the importance of being kind to others; however, many of us are quite stoic in our attitudes toward our own suffering. Self-kindness involves showing ourselves understanding and support when faced with our shortcomings, rather than being overly critical.
This sympathy is reflected in our inner dialogues – speaking words of kindness and unconditional acceptance over ourselves. To our students, it can be explained as speaking to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was suffering, in pain, had made a mistake, how would you speak to them? Those same words of understanding and warmth should also be reflected inward.
Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. Recognising that we are all flawed individuals is an important part of acknowledging our common humanity. Understanding that we all struggle helps us to feel more connected to others and less isolated when we are suffering.
Self-compassion also helps us to put our own suffering into perspective – for example, understanding that although our difficulties might initially feel like the end of the world, it’s likely there are others in more challenging situations. In short – it helps to recognise that, although times are tough, things could be worse. We can help our students to gain greater perspective by encouraging them to engage in a ‘Feeling in 5’ activity, to consider how much this event will matter in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months and 5 years.
Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment without judgement. It involves acknowledging and labelling our own thoughts rather than reacting to them. It also helps us to realise that our negative emotions and thoughts are simply that – they are not facts.
Acting mindfully can also help us to be aware of unhelpful thoughts and painful emotions without blowing them out of proportion by ruminating on them. This is because mindfulness can help us to avoid both over-identification with, and complete avoidance of, these difficult thoughts and emotions. Using ‘Releasing Statements’ can be a helpful tool to guide your students toward self-forgiveness and non-judgement, e.g. “It’s okay that I feel sad right now.” Engaging in regular mindfulness practices such as a ‘Body Scan’ may also be of benefit.
So…Where Do I Start?
Understanding our responses to the concept of self-compassion can help us to make progress on this sometimes-difficult journey. If we are overly critical of ourselves, our brains can get stuck in a self-critical cycle, where any problem we face activates our flight-or-flight mode, meaning angry, anxious or depressive responses will follow. Our early life experiences can also impact our openness to the idea of self-compassion, as some of us have never been taught how to be kind to ourselves. Others may not initially understand the concept of self-compassion, confusing this as a form of self-pity.
But…How Does it Benefit?
Gilbert and Irons (2005) suggest that the primary way self-compassion enhances our wellbeing is by reducing feelings of threat and isolation, thereby deactivating our fight-or-flight response. This is coupled with increased feelings of safety and interconnectedness which helps to activate of our sympathetic nervous system, fostering greater emotional balance.
Research has found that greater self-compassion is associated with:
- reduced anxiety,
- lower stress levels, and
- decreased rumination.
Self-compassionate individuals are usually more openminded and flexible, as they can gain greater perspective on situations. They are also able to cope more effectively with challenging situations. Self-compassion enhances levels of motivation while also helping people to avoid unhelpful perfectionistic tendencies.
With all the evidence and research at hand, it’s clear to see that as we go through life, it’s important to cut ourselves some slack, to release the expectation of perfection and to acknowledge that our thoughts and emotions don’t always reflect reality.
To our fellow educators, we encourage you to take a moment to pour yourself a well-earned cup of coffee and discover more about your levels of self-compassion using the short quiz below. Rate yourself from 1-5 regarding the following statements. 1 = almost never, 2 = sometimes 3 = around half the time, 4 = fairly often and 5 = almost always.
- I judge myself regarding my own difficulties and imperfections.
- When times are tough, I’m likely to be really hard on myself.
- I’m impatient with aspects of my personality that I dislike.
- I tend to be self-critical when I notice something I don’t like about myself.
- I have a habit of blowing things out of proportion when something bad happens.
- When I’m struggling, I assume everyone else is doing really well.
Did you score many 3s, 4s or 5s? If so, you might consider investigating the benefits of engaging in some self-compassion exercises.
Practising self-compassion can be challenging, or even painful, at first. However, by learning to show ourselves kindness and care, we are investing in our own wellbeing and acknowledging that we are all humans worthy of love.
Self-Compassion Strategy - Supportive Touch
A simple way you can show yourself kindness and care during difficult times is by comforting yourself through supportive touch. Touch activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to calm down and feel safe.
Research indicates that physical touch releases oxytocin (a feel-good chemical in our brains), while providing a sense of security, soothing troubled emotions and calming cardiovascular stress.
To experience the benefits of this exercise, you might like to try engaging in this practice during moments of difficulty throughout each day for a period of at least a week
- When you realise you’re feeling stressed, take 2 or 3 slow, deep breaths.
- Gently place your hand over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand. You could even place both hands on your chest, noticing the difference between using one or two hands.
- Feel the sensation of your hand on your chest. If you wish, you could gently rub small circles on your chest using your palm or fingertips.
- Take note of the natural rise and fall of your chest as you inhale and exhale slowly and deeply.
- Stay in this moment as long as you want.
You might feel uncomfortable putting your hand over your heart, so feel free to explore what you find soothing. Other possibilities could include:
- gently stroking the length of your arms,
- crossing your arms and giving yourself a gentle squeeze,
- placing one hand on your diaphragm,
- resting one hand on your diaphragm and the other over your heart,
- cupping one hand inside the other and resting them in your lap.
‘Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself’ by Kristin Neff
This book blends empirical research, personal stories, and a little humour, to help readers understand that compassion isn’t only something that we should apply to others. Her book explores an alternative to self-esteem that many believe is a better and more effective path to happiness: self-compassion. A great read if you would like to learn how to let go of self-criticism and finally learn to be kind to yourself.
Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens
This is an empirically supported 8-week program by Karen Bluth that is designed to cultivate the skill of self-compassion in teens.
Being Well Podcast: Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff
This podcast, hosted by psychologist and author Rick Hanson, discusses the nature of self-compassion and explores why it’s seen as an essential skill for personal growth.
These self-compassion meditations are by Tara Brach, who is an American psychologist, author and advocate of Buddhist meditation.
‘Listening with My Heart’ by Gabi Garcia
This picture book is designed to help our younger learners explore themes of kindness, empathy and self-compassion.
Aimee Bloom is the Product Manager at the Institute of Positive Education. She is responsible for crafting the Institute's Positive Education Enhanced Curriculum (PEEC) from ELC – 12. An experienced teacher and writer since 2005, Aimee has taught in both primary and secondary contexts, and has written content for a variety of government and non-government agencies. She is passionate about supporting teachers and ensuring the wellbeing of children, both in our schools and around the globe.