As educators, we have likely (or hopefully!) been encouraged to focus on self-care in the midst of this crazy time. Some of us have wondered (or scoffed), “And when would I do this?” Perhaps we have identified ways to rest and refresh ourselves after school or over the weekend. But what can we do at the start of our day, in between classes, or when we’re in the middle of a meeting or teaching a class?
As a special educator and teacher of courses in Mindful Self-Compassion for teens, I would like to share the steps of the “self-compassion break,” a 10-20 second practice developed by Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. Even devoting a few seconds to one or two of these steps can help to provide the pause you need for a gentle reset.
Let’s say I am late in wrapping up a Zoom call; I am frustrated by the students’ lack of engagement or their tendency to talk over one another. I am supposed to start another call soon.
Thankfully, I still have a few moments to care for myself, even if I am checking on my child in the neighboring room or waiting for my next slideshow to load:
I take a slow, deep breath
as I offer myself a supportive gesture (e.g., placing a hand on my heart or my shoulder)
and say, “I am irritated and disappointed”
then, “I know I am not alone in feeling this way; many of my colleagues are dealing with this”
and, “May I know I am doing my best” or “I wish to be calm”
as I take another deep breath
Does any of this actually help?
Our breath is the remote control of our brains. Just as our breathing becomes quick and shallow in moments of stress, we can calm our nervous systems and quiet our minds with slow, intentional breathing.
In this season of social distancing, we enjoy fewer of the hugs, handshakes and pats on the back that soothe us and connect us to others. However, we are able to offer ourselves supportive gestures to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and release oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that lowers blood pressure and heart rate. If you feel silly putting a hand on your heart (especially if you take a self-compassion break in public!), you can interlace your fingers, hold opposite forearms, place your hands on your legs, or try one of these.
Name it to Tame it
When faced with stress or difficulty, the first step toward addressing it is to acknowledge it. If we’re not fully aware of how we are feeling, we may receive clues from familiar sensations in our bodies. If I wake up in the morning and notice my heart rate accelerate, I recognize that I am likely feeling anxious. I can “name it to tame it” by saying, “This is anxiety” or “I feel worried.” My anxiety does not disappear, but labeling the emotion brings my prefrontal cortex online. By engaging this thinking, reasoning part of my brain, I am interrupting my physiological response. The logical area of my brain can communicate with the emotional center, the amygdala, and I am less likely to be flooded by emotions.
Although we may all be “in the same storm” (and, in some cases, the same boat), present circumstances have led to increased isolation and disconnection. Articulating that we are not alone in our struggles reminds us that everyone suffers or experiences difficulty in some way. This is not to diminish our feelings, but to validate them. Common humanity, mindfulness and self-kindness, are the three components of Mindful Self-Compassion.
Ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now?” or “What would I say to a friend in the same situation?” See if you can say these words to yourself, using the same tone you would use with someone you care about. If this is awkward, think of the words as coming from a person you trust. For those of us who are accustomed to listening to an inner critical voice, know that we can also practice speaking to ourselves with compassion. In the example above, I mentioned “May I…” or “I wish…” as ways to initiate kindness. Sometimes these intentions or wishes feel more authentic than affirmations. We are less likely to argue with ourselves if we say, “May I know I am enough” instead of “I am enough.” You can also drop all the fluff and just say “acceptance,” “peace” or whatever you need in that moment.
Perhaps a self-compassion break, even a tiny one, is not practical in the middle of class. Are you saying you are NOT capable of teaching the students in front of you, along with those in another classroom, AND those at home, ALL while wearing a mask, pondering kind words and giving yourself a hug? In that, too, you are not alone! When (or if) you have a few seconds in between calls or when your pod is not staring at you expectantly, check in with yourself. Perhaps you only have time to take a deep breath or to say, “You got this.” In those moments you are making a choice to care for yourself, which can go a long way. And if your check-in reveals that you are experiencing comfortable or pleasant emotions, allow yourself to savor them!
Know, too, that self-compassion is composed of yin and yang, two complementary aspects of caring for ourselves. The “yin” is what traditionally comes to mind when thinking of self-compassion; it is the softer side of “being with” ourselves (i.e., soothing, validating and comforting ourselves). The “yang,” also known as fierce self-compassion, takes action to alleviate pain or effect change (i.e., protecting, providing and motivating ourselves). When asking, “What do I need to hear?” our response could be more “yang” than “yin” (e.g, “May I be strong” or “I wish to take a stand”). When considering, “What do I need right now?” we may identify the desire to set boundaries or move forward with courage.
Friends, as we continue to chart our course through pandemic teaching, the holidays, winter and whatever awaits in 2021… May we be safe. May we be healthy. May we accept ourselves as we are. And may we be kind to ourselves and others.
Heather Montague has been an educator for the past 20 years. She is currently an Upper School Learning Specialist at the Key School in Annapolis, MD. She also co-teaches Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens, an 8-session course that connects students across the globe as they learn practical strategies for addressing the challenges of adolescence with resilience, gratitude and kindness. Her next two courses for high school students start in January.