We know what it means to be kind and compassionate towards others, but practicing self-compassion can be something that many people struggle with. So, what is self-compassion? And, what impact does it have on our overall health and wellbeing?
As we edge closer to the end of another school year here in Australia, many teachers will be feeling fatigued and ready for their well-deserved holiday break. With several weeks still to go in Term 4, now is a good time to put in place some strategies to practice self-compassion. So, what does it mean to practice self-compassion? And, how do teachers begin to embed it into their busy lives?
Dr Judy Pickard is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong. Her primary research interests are in mindfulness and self-compassion, investigating their role in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships.
Pickard says that self-compassion is underpinned by three common facets: understanding that as humans we’re all flawed and make mistakes; having a genuine sense of kindness towards our own suffering; and having the mindfulness or present moment awareness that makes us cognisant of what’s actually happening.
‘As humans, we’re all flawed and all make mistakes. We need to understand that, rather than expecting someone to be perfect or expecting ourselves to be perfect,’ Pickard tells Wellbeing by Teacher. ‘Self compassion is something that we struggle with, because historically society has really encouraged a self-critical approach as a way of motivating us to achieve.’
Pickard says that people often believe that they can’t go easy on themselves or accept their flaws because it would mean that they wouldn’t achieve, or they aren’t pushing themselves enough.
‘But self-compassion isn’t that at all,’ she says. ‘Self-compassion is really about recognising those flaws and then doing for ourselves what we would do for someone else.
‘I often think about it in terms of if we saw someone lying in the gutter and we went and kicked them, we would never expect them to get up. But we do that to ourselves when we criticise ourselves and still expect ourselves to get up and to get over whatever it is we’re experiencing. Self-compassion is really about allowing ourselves to take a breath, allowing ourselves to recover and then grow again, so that we can get back up.’
How teachers can practice self-compassion
Pickard says it’s important that teachers recognise that they’ve been through another difficult year of remote learning, and could all be struggling in their own way. She says it’s important however to recognise that it’s not a personal thing.
‘When we feel like everyone else is doing better than us, that becomes hard and we tend to isolate ourselves and shame tends to keep us quiet and it means we withdraw and separate even more from others,’ she says. ‘Self-compassion is about moving forward towards other people and being willing to receive support.’
Pickard also acknowledges that most teachers have really high expectations of themselves, but can start to manage these expectations by making some really simple changes.
‘There are all of these sorts of “shoulds” and expectations. So ‘I should be able to do this better”, or “I should be on top of this” – and that’s a really critical word as it demands that we’re able to know the answer or we’re able do better than what we’re doing.
‘Even just changing our language to say, “I could be doing this today” or “I could be doing this better”, helps us to accept that sometimes we just don’t get it right and that’s okay, and then we can actually be kind to ourselves about it and help ourselves to get up and move forward.
The role of empathy in self-compassion
Empathy is a key component of self-compassion, and empathy is all about recognising and understanding the pain or discomfort that someone is experiencing, Pickard says.
‘Usually we talk about being able to emphathise with someone else and recognise their pain or discomfort because we can identify with it in some way. When we talk about self-compassion, it’s about recognising our own pain,’ she says.
‘Often we tend to be quite defensive and we might try and deny what it is we’re struggling with or not want other people to see it. But empathy is actually about recognising that.’
Once you’ve recognised the pain or discomfort, the next step is working towards alleviating the suffering, Pickard says.
‘If it were for someone else, we would do something to try and alleviate that pain for them. It might be to give them a hug or we might offer to help them make dinner or say some kind words to them. Self-compassion is the same.’
Pickard says it may be giving yourself time to do something you enjoy, or saying a kind word to yourself, or perhaps even allowing yourself to reach out to someone else for support.
‘If we feel shame and are critical of ourselves, we tend to hide away and isolate. To alleviate the suffering, we need to join in with others and have a sense of belonging. Whether that’s in the staffroom for a teacher, or at home with their friends or their family – if we can acknowledge that we’re not doing okay and allow ourselves to not do okay or allow ourselves to not have all the answers, then we can start to ask questions and reach out for help.’
Self-compassion and its impact on wellbeing
Pickard says there has been quite a lot of research done on the impact of self-compassion on our health and overall sense of wellbeing (Holden et al., 2021; Lee et al., 2021; Kim et al., 2021).
‘What we do know is when we start to criticise ourselves, we go into the flight or fight response – that’s our stress response when we think we’re in danger,’ she says.
‘When we go into the fight or flight response, it has a short-term positive effect in that it might get us moving. But the negative is when we do it more often, what it does is it releases hormones that aren’t good for us to have on board all the time like cortisol, and so that will affect our overall health and wellbeing in terms of long-term detrimental effects.’
By practicing self-compassion, we can deactivate that system and actually develop more nurturing hormones that are going to be better for our wellbeing.
‘That essentially helps our wellbeing but also as I mentioned before, when we’re more self-compassionate, we’re more likely to move towards people. And what we do know is that healthy relationships help our sense of wellbeing but also our capacity for being able to take care of ourselves,’ Pickard adds.
Holden, C. L., Rollins, P., & Gonzalez, M. (2021). Does how you treat yourself affect your health? The relationship between health-promoting behaviors and self-compassion among a community sample. Journal of health psychology, 26(12), 2330-2341.
Kim, J. J., Oldham, M., Fernando, A. T., & Kirby, J. N. (2021). Compassion Mediates Poor Sleep Quality and Mental Health Outcomes. Mindfulness, 12(5), 1252-1261.
Lee, E. E., Govind, T., Ramsey, M., Wu, T. C., Daly, R., Liu, J., & Jeste, D. V. (2021). Compassion toward others and self-compassion predict mental and physical well-being: a 5-year longitudinal study of 1090 community-dwelling adults across the lifespan. Translational Psychiatry, 11(1), 1-9.
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