Compassion for self … a discipline

Although the Middle East School Leadership Conference in Dubai is now over a week ago, and, after a sojourn at home in Edinburgh, I am now headed to Doha for a few days (to include attending the annual British Schools of the Middle East conference), I am still feeling buoyed up the experience of #MESLC in Dubai. What a super conference it was! So many connections and reconnections, and such great and thought provoking sessions! I came away with a sense of uplift and focus. It was a particular joy to join some dots and create connections between astonishing female educators in Manila and SE Asia too. Leisa Grace Wilson, supremo of MESLC, deserves to feel proud of what she and her team achieved. My topic was ‘self-compassion’, and I have found myself reflecting even more deeply on this topic since the conference.

Dr Kristin Neff, in her seminal book ‘Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself’, explains that research shows that there are 3 key elements to self-compassion. Compassion, remember, is a feeling that we have, and show to others, when they are having a hard time in some way; self-compassion is therefore a feeling that we show to ourselves, when we are struggling or suffering. Compassion differs from empathy in that it is not just the act of communing with another, and feeling alongside them; it has what might be described as a more activist element to it, as it motivates us to seek to alleviate the pain being experienced. A deeper understanding of self-compassion, therefore, helps us to understand what we can actually do to help diminish our pain or suffering, so that we can better thrive.

These three components of self-compassion, as identified by Dr Neff, are as follows: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. By ‘mindfulness’, she means adopting a curious and observant attitude to the state in which we find ourselves, feeling the pain or suffering, but, rather than simply dwelling in it, taking time to consider it, as a way to bring some proportionate thinking to it; by ‘self-kindness’, she means identifying what we actually need at that moment, in order to support us through the experience of the pain – this could well include forgiveness, which is of course a very active process too, because forgiveness requires that we acknowledge fault, resolve to address or remedy it, and then move forward. Each of these components requires discipline and determination – they do not happen simply because we would like them to; rather, they happen because we very consciously practise them, and thereby improve in how we manage to accomplish them.

It is the third of the components, however, that I find most empowering … while radically simple, it also challenges us to transcend in our understanding of our place in humanity. This element of self-compassion, ‘common humanity’, is the discipline of reminding us that every human being fails or struggles, and so therefore we are not alone. Cognitively, or in the abstract, this is relatively easy for most of us to realise, understand and accept, but the discipline comes from genuinely feeling it and deeply, deeply knowing it, at that very moment of pain, when our default position can often be to feel incredibly alone – ashamed, guilty, embarrassed, unable to show our face, wanting to hide away. Suppose we were able to reframe our thinking and feeling so that – at the very moment where we feel most alone, we are able to feel most connected with humanity, because this is what humans feel and experience? Just how empowering would that be, if we could?

Well, we can. It requires discipline and practice, of course – oodles and oodles of it, I am sure! – but Dr Neff’s work gives us a glimpse of what we can achieve in our self-compassion, when we start with the awareness of our human interconnectedness. When we are more self-compassionate, we are even better role-models for the educators, young people and parents with whom we work; we owe it to them, as well as to us, to do this. It was a privilege to stand up at #MESLC and share this; now, together, let’s start work on our self-compassion, and see where this might lead us all.

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