If you’re self-employed, you might be able to relate to what I was feeling about this time last month as I prepared to take five WHOLE days out of my business to attend a course on self-compassion. I was a bit nervous and also feeling a bit of preemptive guilt about not working, even though I knew what I was going to do was a time investment rather than time wasted.
I’d booked myself on a 5 Day Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) intensive course a few months earlier. This had come after a few earlier months of contemplating, prevaricating and generally pondering whether/when I would do the course. Although the MSC programme is also done over 8 weeks, I’d decided that I wanted to immerse myself in the whole experience, but as I got closer to the dates I started to worry a little about how ‘intensive’ it might feel.
I first heard about the Mindful Self-Compassion programme a year or so ago, not long after I’d completed my meditation teacher training. I kept running into people who had attended taster sessions or the full course. I logged it in the back of my mind as something that would probably be quite valuable.
I’d already done some reflection more broadly on negative self-talk as a result of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) sessions I had access to as part of my IBS treatment, as well as through business coaching I’d invested in. However there was something more I felt I might be missing based on the chats I’d had about about the MSC course, including some things that might still be holding me back a bit in my work. But if I’m completely honest, in the back of my mind I did wonder if I was being a bit self-indulgent and looking for issues that weren’t really there.
And so, on a very warm and muggy Tuesday morning, I headed into London and down to Waterloo, to embark on a very gentle and human exploration of self-compassion, and just why both the world and I need more of it.
What is Mindful Self-Compassion?
The whole concept of mindful self-compassion has a lot of research backing it, which appeals to me, but it is a little different to more general mindfulness. There are elements of mindfulness practice in it of course, but it also encompasses another couple of strands: self-kindness and common humanity. These two things, alongside mindfulness, form the three pillars of the programme.
Developed by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, both with PhD’s to their name, the programme is aimed at helping people explore different aspects of self-compassion to build emotional resilience and boost overall wellbeing. (As a side note, I’ll also happily admit to being a bit of a Kristin Neff fangirl as I love her really straightforward style of communication in her articles and her TEDx talk.)
The course combines formal practice, informal practice, practical everyday tools and self-reflection. As with broader mindfulness and meditation, it’s also about taking what you’ve learned in formal exercises into techniques that can be applied day to day. Having an existing understanding or experience of mindfulness isn’t a prerequisite. That said, one of the things I found really interesting was exploring some exercises and techniques I’ve tried in other contexts with a self-compassion mindset.
And if this all sounds like a very individualistic and ego-driven approach, it couldn’t further from that!
As I mentioned about, one of the pillars of the programme is a sense of common humanity. This is because taking the personal journey into self-compassion helps with a greater sense of connection with and compassion for the people and world around us. The fact that we all have feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and negativity, and that this is part of what it means to be human, can actually help us connect with each other.
What happened next?
The course I attended was run the very wonderful Kathryn and Liz of Kind Mind Academy in collaboration with the Museum of Happiness. We were a group of about 20, ably supported by various fans (the electrical kind, not people who were cheering us on!) and air conditioners on what was about to be one of the warmest weeks of the year so far. Having been relatively cool and collected about everything up until the day before, I actually came into the room feeling a bit nervous. And, after a journey on a packed tube, just a touch sweaty.
Was this going to uncover some deep insecurities I couldn’t deal with? Would I get on with the other people attending? Was it going to be completely emotionally exhausting?
My other concern, which may surprise people who have met me in person, is that while I can appear to be very calm and a bit of an extrovert, sometimes I get swamped by over-thinking and deep self-doubt! Plus I can get very physically tired when I’m around groups of people for long periods of time.
I was also feeling a bit guilty as I was running a workshop on the Saturday evening after the course ended in the afternoon. The joining instructions had clearly said to try and leave the weekend afterwards empty to give myself emotional space at the end of course (though the truth was that the workshop was helping fund my attendance on the course).
It was therefore a huge relief when Kathryn and Liz explained that we were going to ‘gentle’ our way through the next 5 days.
There was no pressure to do or take part in anything. If we wanted to be silent or sit out from any activity we could. If we wanted to get a breath of fresh air we could. If we wanted to share personal stories or emotions we could. Or not.
The whole approach of mindful self-compassion can really be summed up in the question we asked ourselves again and again over the course:
“What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?” ™
It some instances that could mean being involved and in others instances it might mean taking yourself away of a situation. It felt almost revolutionary to have the choice. Mindful self-compassion is not about being happy, jolly, joyful the whole time, but more to do with recognising the full gamut of human emotions and more consciously choosing how much or how little to let in at any point in time. And to do this with a real sense of kindness.
In a world of ‘shoulds’, it felt good to drop this and to genuinely tap into what I needed at each point in time. It was incredibly freeing.
I even put this into action during the half-day ‘silent retreat’ on the Thursday afternoon and remained lying on my yoga mat at the end of the first meditation rather than exploring some outside sensory exercises. Normally I feel, particularly as someone who’s profession is in the meditation and mindfulness world, that I should explore and take part in everything. But actually, on that afternoon, I didn’t. What my body and mind needed was rest and silence – so that’s what I gave it.
What I took away from 5 days of self-compassion
I had gone into the 5 days assuming (hoping?) it would give me the opportunity to free up brain space to think about the second half of the year for my business. I recognised very quickly during one of the early exercises that this was part of my ‘striving’ mindset rather something I genuinely needed from the programme. I therefore tried as much as I could, and with kindness, to let the striving go a little.
We explored meditations (some familiar, some new), physical and mental soothing techniques, written reflections, group discussions and compassionate listening. There were also times that were just about listening and learning the concepts of mindful self-compassion. Very importantly, we also laughed a lot.
By the end I’d actually thought very little about business; what kept coming up for me again and again was more to do with connection with other people in my life. It made me realise I want and need to deepen some of the connections I have with people around me. I also recognised a sense of sadness at the distance from family in Australia, even though after 20 years of living abroad I thought this wasn’t really an issue for me.
As it turned out, I didn’t have any gut wrenching emotional discoveries, but there were times I felt deeply sad, at others peaceful, and then happy. Sometimes the feelings were related to specific experiences or people, but not always. It also made me realise that I’m not always comfortable with experiencing difficult emotions and I’m often using my mindfulness tools to escape rather than truly recognise these emotions.
Soften, soothe, allow
This leads me on to one of the most practical tools I took away from the course. This was the concept of ‘soften, soothe, allow’, which is about recognising and managing emotions through the way they physically feel in the body.
This is particularly helpful for me as one of my big energy trip-ups is worrying a bit too much about my event logistics. For example, I get unreasonably worried about getting to places on time or finding parking spaces if I need one, and I start imagining all sorts of disasters, including not being able to get into venues I’m using (which has actually happened before!). This might sound like a very small thing, but I know that it’s a bit of a personal energy thief.
I feel this worry as a tightness in my chest and get a panicky taste and tingle at the back of my tongue. I know these feelings well, particularly as I’ve become more aware of my mind body connection, but what I had been doing was to try and use, for example, breathing techniques to get rid of the feelings.
First of all, through the MSC reflections I recognised that part of the reason I experience these emotions is that I really care about delivering sessions well and want to give people a good experience when they arrive. I therefore like to be wherever I need to be in plenty of time to set things up properly and so that I can feel calm and welcoming going into events.
But more importantly, rather than running away from them, I let myself name and feel the feelings. By gently placing my hand on my chest and letting it rest there, I was able to reduce the sensation of the tightness, just a little. The feelings were still there, but I wasn’t trying to chase them away and the presence of my hand was very calming.
I even got to practice this in real life on the final morning of course.
I had to drive into London on the last day due to my later workshop (which I was now feeling kinder to myself for running) and had a difficult time leaving the house as my little dog Taz didn’t want me to leave him behind. He realised I was going out in the car, and was squealing and bouncing up and down with excitement expecting to come. I felt terribly guilty as I could hear him calling out as I left. But rather than pretending it wasn’t happening, I let myself feel a bit of guilt and a bit of the stress about getting out the door, put my hand on my chest for a few moments to recognise it was a bit tough, and then drove off.
This might sound like a very insignificant moment, but I know how much these little stresses can add up over a day, and drain or distract me. Allowing myself to feel and recognise that these emotions were difficult felt like a big step forward for me, and something I can start to apply in more challenging situations.
There were of course many other things that I took away from the five days, but in the spirit of self-compassion some of this is quite personal and I’d therefore prefer to keep it to myself.
Coming away from the course, I have a very different perspective on my emotions and how I can allow myself to feel them, or not. I’ve been practising recognising and feeling the feelings, and have also incorporated some of the specific self-compassion meditations into my daily practice.
And while I haven’t mentioned this much, it was really rather special to share the experience with other people and to have some small glimpses into their journeys.
In a world that sometimes feels geared towards ‘outrage’ expressed in a finite number of Twitter characters, societal division and doom mongering headline-grabbing news bulletins, it was a relief to experience the gentle kindness of connection and conversation with a diverse range of human beings in real life. Now if that isn’t the ultimate act of self-compassion, I don’t know what is!
What to find out more?
Check out Kristen Neff’s website at self-compassion.org