Self-Compassion: Putting on your own mask first

The International School Yangon is a community of compassionate global citizens: We aim to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.

In the face of a global pandemic, our teachers have personified our Mission and Vision through their commitment to our students and a willingness to professionally and personally rise to uncomfortable, unfamiliar or previously unknown challenges. As our teachers continue to meet these professional and personal challenges, I, along with several other teachers and administrators, have been participating in an online Mindful Schools: Mindfulness Fundamentals course. Two readings from this course continue to resonate with me as I wonder how teachers can continue to sustain themselves in these uncertain times. Both of these readings explore the concept of self-compassion.

Kristin Neff (2009) has defined self-compassion as having three main components. These three components as described by Neff are useful in applying the discussion of a 2015 study of the impact of self-compassion on the psychological health of Australian psychologists (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT, 2015) to the teaching profession. I believe that the discussion in this 2015 study is particularly relevant to teachers if one considers teaching to be a caring profession (which it is!).

1. Self-Kindness versus Self-Judgment

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental (Neff, p.212).’

Psychologists who are self-compassionate are more likely to think about their struggles, mistakes or failures more objectively. They are less likely to judge themselves harshly or catastrophize events. They are more able to see difficult experiences as a normal part of their professional (and personal) life and are able to adaptively respond (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT).

Teaching is every bit as complex as psychology. Preparing students for an uncertain and unknown future (in a very uncertain present) requires teachers to at times take leaps of faith in their practices without any real confidence that their skills and knowledge will see them and their students land safely. This sounds terrifying but it is a reality that all teachers face each day. However, a lack of confidence in one’s skills or knowledge is not fatal if one can substitute self-criticism with self-compassion. Teachers should always reflect on their practice but they must do so with an understanding that missteps are inevitable. If teachers are trying to do the right thing, it doesn’t matter if they are not doing it right all of the time.

2. A Sense of Common Humanity versus Isolation

Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. It connects one’s own flawed condition to shared human condition so that greater perspective is taken towards personal shortcomings and difficulties (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane propose that the ‘sense of common humanity engendered by the self-compassionate mindset (p.11)’ may work to reduce the reactivity of psychologists in dealing with difficult clients or situations. A sense of connectedness to other psychologists reduces a psychologist’s feeling of isolation in their role and also supports their understanding that mistakes are an inevitable part of practicing psychology.

Our school has identified the need for teachers to feel collectively capable and connected in meeting the needs of our students. This study of psychologists would suggest that teachers who understand that their shortcomings actually connect them to their colleagues are better placed to accept these shortcomings and ask for help in improving their practice to meet the needs of our students. I wonder if this sense of common humanity might be a more reliable indicator of positive student outcomes than a traditional focus on ‘best practice.’

3. Mindfulness versus Overidentification

Mindfulness…involves being aware of one’s present moment experience in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane believe that ‘psychologists who are more self-compassionate are less likely to base their personal or professional self-worth on positive therapeutic outcomes or favourable reactions from clients (p.11).’ Therefore, they are less likely to view professional challenges or difficulties in their work as inherent in that work as opposed to being an indicator of personal failure or incompetence.

Teaching, like psychology, is very difficult. Teachers need to be mindful of this as they reflect on their practice. All teachers have aspects of their practice that they know need to be worked on and it is their responsibility to work on them once they have been identified. But teachers must be careful to keep in mind that good practice does not always lead to good results. Athletes understand that a loss might not mean that you have played badly and teachers would do well to remember this analogy as they strive to meet the needs of their students.

Our teachers are good, compassionate people and the way they all stepped up to the challenge of online learning to meet the needs of their students is testament to this. This challenge underlined to me the fact that teaching is a complex task carried out in an uncertain present to prepare students for an uncertain future. I am not sure that the task itself can be simplified to the point where compassionate teachers can be shielded from occupational syndromes such as imposter syndrome, compassion fatigue, or burn out. If self-compassion is an antidote to these ills it would surely warrant a place in any teacher training or professional development program.

To use an oft-used analogy that seems more poignant than it would have two or three months ago, one might view teachers practicing self-compassion as them putting on their own masks first so that they can then help others. The ISY community is very proud of their teachers and is committed to helping them find ways to sustain themselves in meeting the needs of our students. And not just in times of crisis.

Finlay-Jones, Amy L., et al. “Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation and Stress among Australian Psychologists: Testing an Emotion Regulation Model of Self-Compassion Using Structural Equation Modeling.” Plos One, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133481.

Neff, Kristin D. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself.” Human Development, vol. 52, no. 4, 2009, pp. 211–214., doi:10.1159/000215071.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *