“Self-compassion includes self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.” – Kristin Neff, Co-Founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
I’m half way through a ten-week online course in Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and so I thought I’d take stock of my experience so far and what it means for me as a coach. But first of all, what is mindful self-compassion exactly? Compassion may be defined as sensitivity to the pain or suffering of another, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering (Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010). Whereas self-compassion is simply compassion directed toward oneself – an inner compassion. And then there’s the mindful aspect. It is only by bringing awareness to our suffering through mindfulness that we can take action to be compassionate in the first instance. I’m super happy with our course instructor, a Canadian lady by the name of Christine, who exudes kindness in her voice and has a penchant for ending our sessions with a carefully chosen poem. She has created a safe space for us to share our experiences without feeling judged. This is also really important to me in my coaching practice as it encourages people to open up and simply be themselves. That’s the basis of a healthy relationship based on trust and it allows us to connect with our deeper feelings and then to feel freer to express them. But if the time isn’t right to do so, then that’s perfectly okay too.
My fellow mindful self-compassion seekers are mostly based in the U.S. – four of us are from Europe and one lady in New Zealand. I particularly enjoy the online breakout sessions as that’s when we get to work on set tasks in smaller groups. One of the things that struck me in the last session is that I’m not the only one who’s looking to develop more self-compassion. We all have our struggles, our doubt and our fears. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone and I sometimes let my coaching clients know this when the need is there. We are all connected by our common humanity after all. Last week we reviewed our progress so far since it’s the half-way point. Self-compassion typically has three stages – striving, disillusionment and radical acceptance. I thought I was actually doing pretty okay until I had to grade my progress. I couldn’t think of an example for the third category and so I got a bit agitated. What was I not doing properly? Suddenly I broke into a smile. I need to radical accept that I haven’t achieved radical acceptance in my practice, I thought to myself. The irony of it all brought a certain lightness to my thinking and I felt the agitation melting away. I had given up striving in that moment and accepted my disillusionment. Progress indeed.
There is still a misconception that self-compassion can be a sign of weakness – that a person is letting themselves off the hook, being selfish or even lapsing into self-pity. Nothing could be further from the truth. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review made the case that leaders need to practice self-compassion in order to move from self-doubt and paralysis to clarity and action. A wealth of peer-reviewed research shows that self-compassion strengthens emotional intelligence, resilience, a growth mindset, integrity and compassion towards others. In short, self-compassion belongs not only in the home but also at the workplace and even in the boardroom. A study published in the International Journal of Nursing Practice of 135 nurses in several New York hospitals showed a positive correlation between self-compassion and emotional intelligence (EQ). They concluded that without the ability for self-compassion, nurses might be ill-prepared to show compassion to those for whom they care. Furthermore, the authors recommended identifying nurses with low self-compassion so that intervention training could be offered to them.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a number of years and so it has been a natural fit to build self-compassion into my morning meditation. More specifically, I decided upon four phrases that demonstrate loving-kindness towards myself. These typically start with the words, “May I”. For example, “May I be free from fear” or “May I accept myself the way I am”. I repeat the phrases I have chosen over and over – focusing not just on the words but on my tone of voice, my tempo and emphasising certain words – all the time with the aim of cultivating loving-kindness (you can choose to whisper them or just hear them as a voice in your head). It’s a kind of mental workout for the brain that has the potential to anchor self-compassion into our way of thinking about ourselves.
Another practice that has already borne fruit for me makes use of specific hand gestures. Self-compassion has a physiological response in the body that can be measured. We can trigger the mammalian care-giving system through warmth, soothing touch and soft-vocalisations. This in turn releases oxytocin, a hormone that plays an important role in social bonding, reproduction and child-birth. Furthermore, levels of cortisol, a hormone typically released when we are stressed, is reduced. Cortisol is governed by the reptilian part of our brain, the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response. For example, we can choose to place both hands over our heart or cradle our face in both hands – a personal favourite of mine. You get to choose from any of a dozen or so gestures that works best for you. Often feelings such as being safe, calm or loved surface by making these connections with our physical selves.
Coaching is all about the process of working towards a desired change whether it be in organisations, in our personal lives or in our careers. Another study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people were more motivated to improve themselves when demonstrating self-compassion by taking an accepting approach to personal failure. The authors concluded that although resolving to make changes can be scary due to the inevitable roadblocks and setbacks along the way, there is less to fear when we take a self-compassionate approach. Subjects were more likely to make amends for, and avoid repeating, a recent moral transgression, and more motivated to take action to address a personal weakness. What implications does this have for coaching? Quite simply, we are more likely to find the courage and motivation to improve ourselves when we put the skills of mindful self-compassion into practice.
Over the course of the coming weeks, I’ll be reflecting more on my experiences in the course and sharing with you how I intend to incorporate what I’ve learned into my coaching practice. If you or someone you know thinks that they could benefit from greater self-compassion in life, then you are of course welcome to contact me through the form on my website and we can have a preliminary chat with no strings attached. Take good care of yourself.