Self-compassion in the classroom: Three things you can do in five minutes

What is this self inside us, this silent Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us And urge us on to futile activity And in the end, judge us still more severely For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?

– T.S. Eliot, The Elder Statesman (1959)

By Dr. Jennifer Thannhauser, PhD, Wellness Centre

We have a tendency toward self-criticism as a way of motivating and stimulating personal growth. As a result, we sometimes doubt our potential; our personal goalposts for what counts as “good enough” can seem disappointingly out of reach. To answer this inner critic, we must learn to stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. Self-compassion offers a powerful antidote to the inner critic. Learn how you can use compassion to support your own personal development and equip students to take on the challenges of learning. There are few places in greater need of self-compassion than the academic realm.

According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion means “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failure, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience” (Neff, 2003, 224).

Self-kindness describes the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental of one’s mistakes and failures. It is also important to actively comfort ourselves instead of judging or taking a tough approach (e.g. suck it up; just get over it). Mindfulness means being present with our current experiences, accepting them without judgment. We allow our thoughts and feelings to come and go, as they will, without trying to suppress them or be swept away by them. And, where the inner critic gets stuck in zoom mode, serving to isolate and condemn us as “less than” or “not good enough,” self-compassion shifts us into panoramic mode, taking a broad perspective that recognizes our common humanity as fallible beings who are vulnerable and imperfect, prone to experiencing suffering along with joy and success.

Research supports the interconnection of self-compassion and motivation. People who practice self-compassion continue setting high standards for themselves; however, they are also more likely to use growth mindsets and revise or set new goals if they do not reach past goals. They are also more intrinsically motivated, taking responsibility for past mistakes while also acknowledging them with more emotional equanimity, and they tend to engage in healthier lifestyle behaviours (Neff, 2017). Students who practice high degrees of self-compassion are less likely to experience motivation anxiety or procrastination tendencies, which can impede academic success (Williams, Stark, & Foster, 2008).

Consider assessing your own self-compassion here.

So, how do you foster self-compassionate students in post-secondary education? Here are three strategies that any instructor can use for integrating self-compassion into the classroom, regardless of discipline.

1. Take a mindful moment

Mindfulness grounds us in the present and allows us to see our experiences from an observer’s perspective. Try setting a routine of starting each class with a brief mindfulness moment, such as the Three Minute Breathing Space.

2. Motivation: Love is more powerful than fear

Consider trying this exercise with your students at the end of class or before big exams or assignments. Invite students to take a few moments and think or write about the ways that they use self-criticism as a motivator. Have them notice the tone and language of the inner critic. Invite them to note how their body feels. Next, prompt your students to consider a friend, mentor or teacher who is important to them. What would this person say to them in their current struggle? What supportive message would they most want to hear? Invite your students to observe how the tone and language of the message is different. How does their body feel now?

3. Yin and yang of self-compassion

Do we spend too much time on social media or watching Netflix to avoid uncomfortable emotions or experiences? Sometimes when we go through difficult experiences, we need comfort or soothing (the “Yin”) from self-compassion. However, sometimes we also need the protective side (the “Yang”) of self-compassion that sets boundaries with self and others.

Consider having a conversation with your students about where they might need to show tough love by setting boundaries with themselves. Specifically, consider boundaries around all the various behaviours they engage in to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and experiences. Perhaps these are relationships with food, alcohol, social media, spending time with friends, their phone or internet usage. Provide students with various coloured sticky notes; have them write one to three compassionate actions they will take to motivate themselves, then post their notes on a board in the room (alternately, you might want to use an interactive app such as Mentimeter to poll your students). Compassionate actions might include setting boundaries (e.g. only watch 30 minutes of Netflix each weekday) or commitments to healthier behaviours (e.g. going for a walk instead of mindless scrolling through Twitter/Facebook). After class, circulate the responses to your students as a commitment to each other about how they will each practice the Yang of self-compassion.

Additional resources for enhancing self-compassion are available on Kristin Neff’s website.

Self-compassion is not the same as going easy on ourselves or engaging in self-pity for past mistakes. Rather, self-compassion is a way of nurturing, supporting and protecting ourselves so that we can continue to be our best selves.

References

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.

Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Neff, K. D., Hseih, Y., Dejitthirat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4, 263 – 287.

Williams, J. G., Stark, S. K., Foster, E. E. (2008). Start today or the very last day? The relationships among self-compassion, motivation, and procrastination. American Journal of Psychological Research, 4, 37-44.

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