Susan O’Regan is a mindfulness and personal development trainer and group facilitator in West Cork.
2017 was probably one of the busiest years of my life, with its fair share of ups and downs, and yet I feel that I managed a difficult year with relative ease. I put this down to the daily practices of Mindfulness and Self-Compassion that I have been integrating into my life over the last number of years. I can honestly attest to the lasting changes these practices can bring to our lives, not overnight, but over time.
The benefits of Mindfulness are well-documented at this stage and include many physical and psychological health benefits. A more recent surge of research into the benefits of self-compassion practices has emerged in the last decade or so and has been pioneered by the work of Dr Kristin Neff. Mindfulness and Self-Compassion practices have transformed my own life over the last number of years and I have witnessed this gradual shift in so many others. Not in a big, showy, way but in a genuine, authentic, down-to-earth way, enabling us to lead more balanced lives, establish new self-care routines and prioritise who and what is important in our lives, including ourselves.
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion have been described as the ‘two wings of a bird’, indicating the futility of practicing one without the other. Mindfulness can help to grow our self-awareness levels over time, which is not always an easy task, indeed, quite the opposite for many of us. It can be like shining a spotlight on our minds, our habits, our thought processes, behaviours and so on. We may not like everything we see when we take the time to look at ourselves so closely. Self-Compassion can help here when we find that we’re judging ourselves harshly or when we encounter our own inner critic.
What is Self-Compassion? It is simply treating ourselves with the same kindness, as we would treat a friend. It is not self-pity, or self-indulgence but the real beginnings of building a true and warm connection with ourselves. For me, Self-Compassion, like Mindfulness, is a practice and a process that has taught me how to accept and begin to really like myself. It’s about embracing our imperfections and not beating ourselves up when we make mistakes. Ironically, self-compassion practices tend to connect us more to others rather than isolating or separating ourselves from them, by realising that everyone has difficulties in life so ‘we’re all in the same boat’, so to speak.
It’s very tricky to write an article like this without running the risk of sounding self-righteous or too touchy feely. Some people will identify with the concepts I’m introducing here and some will not, indeed some people will dismiss what I’ve written completely or perhaps think ‘that’s easy for her to say’, and that’s ok. I am writing, not as an expert, but based on my experience of teaching and learning Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Mindfulness has taught me that nothing is permanent, that life is precious and full of joys as well as sorrows, that we need to lean towards our difficulties instead of sugar-coating them or by distracting ourselves with material things. The practice of mindfulness helps us to face into and accept our difficulties but not linger on them, as well as spending time focusing on the good in our lives.
Many people find it extremely difficult to direct warmth and kindness to themselves and get caught up in this oh-so-familiar treadmill of busyness; so much so, that it can seem perhaps selfish or self-indulgent to take time for ourselves. In fact, the number of people participating in my training courses who express feelings of guilt for taking the time out for themselves is astonishing. Self-compassion does not involve placing ourselves above or below others. It is an equalising process, simply recognising ourselves and our needs, not at the expense of others, but in the long run, of benefit to them.
I have noticed how people begin to shift uncomfortably when vocabulary like kindness or compassion is introduced into the conversation, either on a personal or professional level. Indeed, I have found that some people express disdain when these words are even mentioned and it really makes me wonder why these concepts and practices are not placed higher on our mental health and wellbeing agenda when so many of our citizens suffer from extreme stress and mental health difficulties?
Jon Kabat Zinn recommends practicing Mindfulness “as if your life depended on it”, and adds “because it does”. I would hazard the same for self-compassion. In my view, life in 2018 just needs to become simpler and kinder, at home, in our workplaces and in our communities. Mindfulness and Self-compassion are practices and tools for wellbeing that can be introduced when times are good and can serve to build resilience which helps us through the more difficult times.
Susan works with individuals, private companies, youth and community groups, schools, university students and Cork Education and Training Board. She runs a variety of courses and workshops, including an eight-week Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC), which has an explicit focus on self-compassion. For training requests or information on upcoming courses and retreats you can contact her on 087 2700572 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.