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  • Writer's pictureMegan Filoramo

Self-compassion as a strategy, not a feeling

What is the voice in your head telling you? You know, the one just talks talks talks, judging all the parts of your life whether you are looking for self-reflection or not. The one that offers you all sorts of feedback, despite the fact that you haven’t asked for it.

Is the voice in your head super supportive or a mean girl?

We know that we don’t generally respond to negative reinforcement and yet that seems to be the default for self-talk.

I should have done better.

I looked stupid.

I never follow through.

They aren’t going to like me.

I shouldn’t be so stressed.

I am right back where I started. I got nowhere.

I don’t think I can.

I should look different.

I am a failure at…

I should know more.

I should have…

I shouldn’t have…

I always…

I never…

Sure, sometimes we can chastise ourselves into action but it’s not a recipe for sustainable change. 

The experts tell us that the answer is to love ourselves instead.

And yet, self-LOVE doesn’t feel like something we can just decide to have.  It feels unlikely that a quick decision will undo years of programming and negative self-talk. Self-love doesn’t ACTUALLY make you fit into your jeans.

Which is why self-compassion, as a strategy, is a great place to start.

Did you know that compassion is a skill and not just an emotion? It’s true.

This is really good news because we can learn a skill, practice a skill, and become an expert at a skill.

If you got through nursing school and have survived ANY years of work, you know this to be true. We can learn just about anything (and we are already good at compassion).

I was today years old when I learned of the work of Kristin Neff, psychologist and researcher in the field of self compassion. Her framework clearly outlines three pillars of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. It beautifully describes what I have learned through years of messy trying, with failures and successes along the way. It explains what I have pieced together in a much more cohesive way that I ever could. It has put words to my experience.

Because of this, it is important to share with you. 

You may ask what all of this has to do with work, and work satisfaction, and thriving at work.

Everything. It has everything to do with it.

If we have an undertone of lack of self-support, our day is that much harder. If we beat ourselves up for things that happen at work, or second guess ourselves, our day is that much harder. If we are irritable with our coworkers and then feel guilty, our day is that much harder.

And this doesn’t even touch on how much harder everything is outside of work when we feel like work has sucked us dry, if it has used all our resources. 

So back to the good news.

Compassion is a skill.

Self-compassion is a skill.

There are 3 steps to this skill that really aren’t that hard, they just take practice.

Step 1: Gain awareness (It’s always the first step, right?).

Pause when you feel a strong emotion. Let it be the warning light that something is going on. Stop and actually give it your attention. Let it distract you from whatever you are doing.

The key here is to try and do this not with judgement but from more of an observational approach. This is why Dr. Neff labels it mindfulness. Can you step back and observe yourself with curiosity? Can you label what emotion you are having and what prompted it? Can you acknowledge whatever pain you are experiencing and just sit with it for a minute before trying to shove it down, or escape it, or lash out?

Once you are actually paying attention to what you are feeling (and maybe observing what the mean girl is saying), move on to step 2.

Step 2: Acknowledge that you aren’t alone. (common humanity)

This step is about realizing that we all have a shared human experience of imperfection. Everyone has made mistakes, everyone has been on the receiving end of other people’s anger or aggravation. Everyone wants to belong. Everyone has weaknesses. We belong, just like all the other imperfect humans. We are not ever alone in these negative experiences. We aren’t broken; we are normal, and flawed, and perfect- just like everyone else.

Step 3: Self-kindness. 

See the pain, understand the normalcy of it, and then be kind. How do you treat a patient who has been trying to make a change and has lost some ground? How do you treat a patient who is surrounded by a dysfunctional and unhelpful family? How do you treat a patient who is so depressed that they have trouble taking care of their basic needs?

This is the blueprint. 

Take those approaches, the ones you already use with your patients, and try that kindness with yourself.

Understand WHY you responded the way you did.

Understand WHY that would be painful. 

And then give yourself a little grace. Gently encourage yourself to keep going. Offer yourself little ideas to move the needle forward on your goals. Allow yourself some time to practice what you know you need for self care. Kindly redirect yourself when you seem to have gotten off track. 

Use compassionate words. 

Instead of “I should have” try “I totally understand why I acted the way I did. I can solve for this and try again.”

Maybe it sounds cheesy, but it’s a hell of a lot nicer.

Self- love may seem far away, but self-compassion is just a few steps. 


P.S. Self-compassion and deconstructing self-care was the topic of our discussion last night in my monthly Community Coaching for Nurses event. If you missed it, we will be meeting next on Thursday, June 6th. I hope you will come. You can register here.

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