A self-compassion practice may sound a bit awkward and uncomfortable, yet research (Neff, et al.) clearly demonstrates that this intervention can support success in our personal, academic, and professional lives. Leading the way by role modeling self-compassion, in addition to teaching and supporting self-compassion practices to our students, can propel the transition to emotional wellness and resiliency in any academic or professional environment.
First, let’s explore what self-compassion is and delve into how this practice can be a catalyst for success. Simply stated, self-compassion is treating yourself as you would treat a friend. There are three components to a self-compassion practice which include:
- Common humanity
Let’s break this down—self-kindness is pretty simple from the outside looking in but it can be difficult when applying it to yourself. Self-kindness entails being nice to yourself and not beating yourself up when you stumble. The key is the inner voice; the self-talk. The inner voice needs to be conditioned to speak kindly rather than harshly when painful experiences happen.
Common humanity means that everyone stumbles. Being fallible and imperfect are human characteristics that connect us all. Sometimes when mistakes or mishaps occur, we feel completely alone. By understanding and appreciating that we all stumble, we further our human and social connectedness.
Mindfulness is quite the buzzword, but most would define it as living in the moment or being aware, however, this too has a catch. It not only means becoming aware of external and intrinsic variables, but also accepting those conditions without pushing them away or clinging to them. Being aware and okay with what is happening right here and right now. Accepting that just like weather patterns, emotions come and go; they have a beginning and an end. Self-compassion is not a pity party, and it is not self-esteem. A pity party is a hallmark of wallowing in one’s bad fortune. Self-compassion acknowledges that there is pain in this life, experiences it, and uses it as a learning and growth opportunity. Self-esteem is a fickle friend; it is there for you when you win or accomplish a goal, but if you stumble, the pride of self-esteem backfires and amplifies self-criticism for not accomplishing that goal.
Engaging in a regular self-compassion practice
Benefits of engaging in a self-compassion practice include:
- Increasing resilience
- Making it easier to bounce back from future painful experiences and trauma
- Lowering symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Limiting the stress response
- Decreasing reactivity to negative situations
- Supporting healthy relationships
- Increasing overall wellbeing
And isn’t this something we should all be striving for, not just our students?
Now that you are aware of what a self-compassion practice is, let’s talk about why we need it. According to American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment completed in spring of 2022, 51% of undergraduate students reported moderate psychological distress and almost 25% reported severe psychological distress. Seventy-five percent of college students indicated moderate to severe psychological distress—that is a telling statistic. Diving deeper into mental health and wellbeing measures, we find that 53% of students reported loneliness and close to 30% indicated positive suicidal behavior screening. Clearly, the data supports what we are seeing and reporting anecdotally in our classrooms: many students are stressed, lonely, and sad. Students can’t effectively learn when they are in emotional distress. According to the American Psychological Association (2022), faculty are poised to become the “front-line defense” to support student mental health and emotional wellbeing, but the counselor model of post-secondary education is not built to manage this type of overwhelming caseload. As faculty, we need better tools for supporting our students’ emotional needs in real time so we can more effectively teach them the course content to support their professional development.
Practicing self-compassion in your course
Finally, we need to talk about what this looks like in practice. In one of my courses, I include weekly self-compassion reflection journals to teach the concept of a self-compassion practice to my students, but also to require consistency in its practice. Each week students are required to complete a series of self-compassion exercises where they journal their practice and reflect on their feelings behind the practice. Journaling is a safe space where only the student and faculty interact with one another. It is imperative to first create a safe space and then provide focused, caring feedback in addition to any resources that may be needed for the student. It may evolve into, “Let’s meet in the hallway after class to speak in a private space,” but without negative emotional connotations that could create barriers to effective communication.
For the past two years, I have conducted research approved by my institution’s IRB to evaluate the effectiveness of this intervention, and the intervention has demonstrated statistical significance in increasing student’s self-compassion. But don’t take my word for it, here is feedback from my students (taken from their post-intervention survey).
“I think the self-compassion exercises were some of the most helpful mental wellness strategies I have tried. I’ve had depression since I was a teenager and anxiety since my first son was born prematurely with medical conditions. I participate in counseling and have tried several other strategies to improve my mental health over the years. None of the strategies I have tried have worked as well as self-compassion. It is not a quick fix, and I still have work to do, but I feel a definite change in my ability to manage daily stressors that contribute to my depression and anxiety.”
“This course and the exercises that went along with it have been very beneficial to me. I have learned more than I thought I would about myself and self-compassion and have seen a big difference in my life and how I handle my emotions and stress more.”
An easy-to-implement practice
But what if you do not have the time or capacity to include these self-compassion journaling exercises in your own classroom? Great question! There are easy to implement real world practices that support self-compassion and emotional wellness into classrooms at the micro-intervention level. Teach it by role modeling it. If you make a mistake in class, own it without being self-deprecating. You can say something like, “I wanted to demonstrate this new technology in class today, but I forgot to get access from our IT department so we will have to wait. We all make mistakes and this was mine. I am feeling a bit frustrated with myself right now because that was our lesson plan for the day, but I will connect with IT today after class so it is ready for us by next week. Thank you for your understanding my stumble.” Be a little vulnerable. Talk about your feelings and your own self-talk, and then talk about the process of how you got from being upset to being okay with what happened and then coming up with a plan to fix it. This may seem really simple and basic, but once you start doing this and pointing it out with intentionality, you will see just how powerful it is. Students think faculty are impervious to stress, frustration, sadness, errors, and difficult emotions. They see faculty as the content expert, always in control and as someone who has everything together. By showing them your imperfections and teaching them a routine self-compassion practice through role modeling, you can increase their resilience and emotional wellness. This way you can get back to the business of teaching your course content!
As a nurse educator, wellness coach, and author, Carrie Jarosinski loves to actively engage with students to facilitate a transformative educational experience. Working diligently to support academic success is a passion, both in the classroom and in the transitional student support to the professional role. Jarosinski’s years of experience as a nurse, educator, lifelong learner, and community health advocate have laid the foundation from which she can help others succeed.
American Psychological Association. (2022). Student mental health is in crisis. Campuses are rethinking their approach. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/10/mental-health-campus-care#:~:text=During%20the%202020%E2%80%932021%20school,306%2C%202022).
American College Health Association. (2022). Undergraduate reference group. Executive summary spring 2022. https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-III_SPRING_2022_UNDERGRAD_REFERENCE_GROUP_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY.pdf
Neff, K. (2022). Self-compassion publications. https://self-compassion.org/the-research/