Self-Care and Compassion
Educators are often told to manage the stress of the job by leaving their work at school. We are encouraged to draw clear boundaries between students and ourselves and to not let students’ problematic emotions affect us. However, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to just leave my work at school. I think of my students in the evenings, on weekends, on holidays, and sometimes even in my dreams. In addition, educators do much of their planning, marking, and correcting at home.
We’re also advised to alleviate burnout by practicing a variety of self-care strategies, such as:
- Eating well
- Spending time with friends and family
- Getting a massage!
While self-care is essential, there are limitations to these strategies. The most significant barrier is that self-care tends to happen off the job and doesn’t help us in the moment when we’re in the classroom and super stressed. We can’t say to a student, “Whoa, you’re freaking me out. I think I’ll go get a massage!”
Self-care can also be a frustrating message to hear when you’re working hard to support your well-being, but the system is doing very little to assist you. Many of us find ourselves challenged by aspects of a system that we have little control over, so it can be very insulting to be told “just care for yourself” as if that’s how we will all be okay.
If we want to change a system to support us, we need to care for ourselves to make changes. You can’t have one without the other. When we strengthen our resilience, we strengthen the collective, and together we can create systemic change.
So instead of fighting the things we can’t change now, what if we gave ourselves permission to tend to our well-being and discover ways to be gentle and kind amongst the struggles?
Here’s where compassion (especially self-compassion) has a role. When we have compassion, we are moved by another’s suffering and experience the desire to alleviate and prevent that person’s distress. Although compassion is related to empathy, there is a difference between the two. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling, whereas compassion involves the willingness to relieve another person’s suffering. Compassion is empathy in action.
As an educator, perhaps you feel that you sometimes have too much
compassion for your students and that you are experiencing compassion fatigue. Perhaps you struggle when your students struggle because you can feel their pain. Ironically, although we often use the term compassion fatigue
when we are depleted and exhausted, what we need is more compassion—not less—to alleviate the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long. Doubts About Self-Compassion?
Here’s Why You Need It!
When I first heard about self-compassion, I had a lot of doubts about whether it would support my well-being. I felt like offering myself self-compassion was just another way to create excuses for my behavior. I thought it was a way to pity myself during a difficult situation. I couldn’t imagine how being compassionate to myself would help me be more motivated because I assumed I needed my critical voice to push me through in life (as it had for so many years). I didn’t understand that listening to my compassionate voice would actually give me more support and motivation than that critical voice.
I wasn’t alone in these beliefs. According to Kristin Neff, most people resist self-compassion because they’re afraid they will become self-indulgent. They believe criticizing themselves is the only way to keep themselves “in line.” There are many misgivings about self-compassion, and here are the most common examples of what self-compassion is not
- Self-compassion is not a sign of weakness. Self-compassion is a strength that offers us resilience in the face of difficulty. It takes more power to be courageous and kind in a difficult situation than it does to ignore our problems.
- Self-compassion is not selfish. Truly self-compassionate people take care of themselves while being attentive to the feelings and needs of those around them. On an airplane, it’s essential to put on your oxygen mask before assisting others. Similarly, the mental and physical health that comes from being kind to ourselves enables us to take better care of other people.
- Self-compassion is not self-pity. Self-compassion reminds us that everyone suffers (common humanity) and doesn’t exaggerate the extent of the suffering (mindfulness), so it is not a “woe-is-me” attitude. Compassionate people are more likely to engage in perspective taking rather than focusing on their distress. They’re also less likely to ruminate on how bad things are.
- Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Some people fear self-compassion because they believe it will give them permission to eat an entire bag of chips or container of ice cream. But that’s self-indulgence. In contrast, self-compassion provides us with the wisdom to know what is best for us at any given time. It enables us to engage in healthier behaviors, like exercising, eating well, limiting alcohol, and going to the doctor regularly. And instead of treating ourselves with indulgence, we may offer ourselves a treat with mindful awareness. Equally important: Self-compassion is not beating ourselves up for eating the treat.
- Self-compassion is not a form of making excuses. Self-compassion provides us with the safety we need to admit our mistakes rather than needing to blame someone else for them. That means compassionate people take greater responsibility for their actions and are more likely to apologize if they have offended someone.
- Self-compassion will not undermine motivation. Just like me, many people believe self-criticism is an effective motivator. However, the reality is that criticism undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. We know we learn better from kind, supportive, and caring teachers than from harshly critical ones. The same practice goes for ourselves. When we practice self-compassion, we can still have high personal standards. We just don’t beat ourselves up when we fail.
Therefore, although some people mistakenly believe they are letting themselves off the hook when they exhibit self-compassion, the opposite is true. Far from encouraging people to lower their standards, self-compassion enhances well-being, motivation, and resiliency.
One exercise that has been especially powerful for me is writing my own self-compassion letter
This exercise helped me see the power that self-compassion can have in supporting me during the most challenging times. I still refer back to my self-compassion letter to this day. Click here to download your copy of this exercise!
To learn more about how to implement these skills and get another free exercise from my book, I hope you'll read my next blog: Sustainable Well-Being and Resilience