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How to practise self-compassion

In advance of an upcoming virtual masterclass on self-compassion and self-care – in partnership with RCPI – Co-Founder of the Rise Wellness Programme Mr Barry Lee reflects on how compassion for one’s self can benefit healthcare workers.

We will start by acknowledging that the phrase “self-compassion” can sometimes be off-putting for
some people. Do you notice any of the following reactions as you read the phrase?
It is weak.
It is self-indulgent.

It will undermine my motivation to get things done.

In fact, none of the above are true. Self-compassion is actually the key to resilience, strength in the face of
failure and the ability to learn from mistakes. There is a significant body of evidence showing that practising
self-compassion is strongly correlated with increased emotional resilience and wellbeing, in addition to reduced stress and anxiety.
A common trait shared by many of us is a tendency towards being very harsh and critical of ourselves. Without wishing to generalise, this may be especially true of doctors and others who work in caring professions. Research indicates that four out of five doctors find it easier to take care of their patients than themselves. This is not a good thing. In order to care for others without burning out, we must learn to care for ourselves. So perhaps some of us could really benefit from this practice?

The components of self-compassion and how to practise it

Compassion arises ‘when kindness meets suffering’. In case you are put off by the word ‘suffering’, it is important to note that we all suffer at times: We might feel stressed or anxious; we might experience conflict with another person; we might feel overwhelmed or we might encounter physical pain. Caring for patients who are sick and who often expect so much is in and of itself challenging. Factor in a devastating global pandemic and the HSE cyberattack, which stretched our healthcare services to breaking point, and it is clear that the last year has been really hard.

It is not enough to simply acknowledge that there is suffering. For compassion to arise there must also be
the sincere wish (at some level) to alleviate that suffering – kindness meets suffering. It is a very human quality we all share. We usually experience compassion in the heart. It is an open, warm, spacious feeling.
There are three ingredients to self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity and kindness). A
simple practice, which integrates each component, is the three step self-compassion break goes as follows.

Step 1 Mindfulness – ‘This is a moment of suffering’

First we must actually connect with the difficult experience without over-identifying with it or drowning in it. This is counter intuitive and it takes some courage. Normally when a difficult experience arises, our first instinct is to recoil and contract. Mindfulness means being aware of our present moment experience ‘as it is’. It gives us perspective. We can witness the physical sensations that go along with this difficult experience coming and going (the tension, the resistance, the contraction). We acknowledge the difficult experience, but do not have to over-identify with it and get lost in a spin cycle of thought. Mindfulness creates a little distance and gives us space to breathe.

Step 2 Common humanity – ‘Suffering is part of life

Next we acknowledge that this difficult experience is part of an authentic human life. We are not alone in this. Even on my very worst day, I know that millions of others feel the same. Recognising this truth takes the magnifying glass off me and my experience. Again, acknowledging the common humanity of suffering gives us perspective. This is just part of life. It is normal to feel anxious, angry, overwhelmed, frustrated, embarrassed or sad at times. We all make mistakes and we all fall short. I’m not alone and I do not have to beat myself up.

Step 3 Kindness – ‘In the midst of all this, without having to fix everything, can I be kind to myself?

For the final step we offer ourselves some kindness. It is probably easy to do this for a good friend but perhaps
not so easy to do this for yourself.

Research indicates that

four out of five doctors find

it easier to take care of their

patients than themselves

Think for a moment about what you might say to a good friend who is going through this same difficult experience. Imagine that they are struggling right now.What is your facial expression as you sit with them? What is the tone of your voice? Are you rolling your eyes and telling them that it is all their fault? Are you getting up to leave the room? Are you telling them all about the worst-case scenario? Are you going to kick them while they are down? If you are not having a really bad day yourself, probably not. Without having to fix everything, in your better moments you might be able to offer your good friend some kindness and support Now, without it feeling phony, can you offer some of this same kindness for yourself?

What words do you need to hear? (ie, ‘This will pass’; ‘It will be okay’; ‘I’m doing the best I can’; ‘I’m not alone’; ‘This is hard, but I know I can be with this experience and I know I can learn from it’).What would actually help right now? Maybe you can simply return your attention to the connection between your feet and the floor. There may be a sense of support there. Can you release some tension in the body or perhaps allow the breath to slow and deepen? Even one deep breath? So that is the practice. It is very simple, but it is not always easy.

If it resonates with you and you would like to learn more, you can join Mr Barry Lee and Mr John Slattery for a self-compassion workshop in partnership with the RCPI on Thursday 9 September from 16.00 to 18.00(Self-compassion – Create your self-care strategy). This special online event will help you create practical strategies to fuel sustainable self-care in your professional and personal lives.• Mr Lee and Mr Slattery are Directors of Rise Wellness, a mindfulness and wellness programme empowering attendees to rise to the new challenges of life and work. Open to individuals and to organisations, Rise focuses on enhancing vibrancy, resilience and healthier team cultures.• If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness and self-compassion, you can also check out the Mindfulness Teachers Association of Ireland for some free resources and a list of qualified mindfulness and self-compassion teachers.• The RCPI Physician Wellbeing Programme aims to help doctors enhance their wellbeing and professional conduct throughout their working lives. It will do this by promoting better training practices and providing support for doctors who need it.

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